No pigeons, planes, pingpong balls as China meeting nears

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BEIJING (AP) — Don’t roll down the taxi windows. Don’t buy a remote-controlled plane without a police chief’s permission. And don’t release your pigeons.

Beijing is tightening security as its all-important Communist Party congress approaches, and some of the measures seem downright bizarre. Kitchen knives and pencil sharpeners reportedly have been pulled from store shelves, and there’s even a rumor that authorities are on the lookout for seditious messages on pingpong balls.

The congress, which begins Nov. 8, will name new leaders to run the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy for the next decade. Most of the security measures have been phased in in time for Thursday’s opening of a meeting of the Central Committee, the roughly 370-member body that is finalizing preparations for the congress.

China always tightens security for high-profile events, like much of the rest of the world. London, for instance, restricted air traffic during the Olympics.

But many of Beijing’s rules seem extraordinary, perhaps in an effort to smooth a once-a-decade transition that already has been bumpy.

Bo Xilai, once a candidate for the all-powerful Politburo’s Standing Committee, suffered a spectacular fall from grace in which his wife was convicted of murder. One of President Hu Jintao’s closest aides was demoted, apparently after his son was killed alongside two partially dressed women in an accident in his Ferrari. Meanwhile, protests over pollution, land seizures and local corruption continue across the country.

Human rights groups report that activists and petitioners are being rounded up ahead of the congress, but the broader security measures may best illustrate how China is trying to leave absolutely no room for disruptions.

The government has blocked searches for the phrase “18th Party Congress” on websites including China‘s popular Twitter-like Sina Weibo. Internet posters manage to get around that by using characters that sound like “party congress.” One substitute: “Sparta.”

Taxi drivers have been told to remove window handles, to avoid sensitive parts of the city, and not to open their windows or doors if they pass “important venues.” Some taxi drivers, but not all, have been told to ask passengers to sign a “traveling agreement” if they want to go near Tiananmen Square.

A man who answered the phone at Wan Quan Si taxi company in the south of the capital said the rule applies to all taxi companies in Beijing. He declined to give his name.

Beijing investment company worker Li Tianshu said she didn’t believe colleagues’ claims that door handles had been removed until she got into a taxi herself the other day.

“There were no handles for three of the four windows,” she said. “The driver told me that their company asked them to do it to prevent passengers spreading leaflets. The driver complained that if they don’t take the handles away or the passengers throw leaflets out of the taxis, they will be fired.”

Citizens have taken to Weibo to post photos of doors with handles crudely ripped off. Liu Shi, a client manager in a mass communication company, wrote that the taxi driver had told him that power to electronic window buttons also would be cut.

A memo circulating on Weibo warned taxi drivers to be on guard against passengers who may want to cast balloons with slogans or throw “pingpong balls with reactionary words.” It was unclear who issued the memo, and its authenticity could not be confirmed.

A man who wouldn’t give his name at the Tong Hai taxi company in central Beijing said it had received orders “from higher authorities” to reinforce security measures and a memo, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

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