“Fortress Beijing” is ready. More than 1mn alleged criminals have been arrested; travellers on the Chinese capital’s trains are being forced to prove their water bottles do not carry dangerous substances by taking sips; and airports across China are redoubling surveillance of ethnic minorities.
With just days until the Chinese Communist party’s most important political meeting in a decade, President Xi Jinping’s security lieutenants are intensifying a months-long crackdown.
Stricter security precautions are common in the capital around big political events, but the significance of this year’s congress, at which Xi is expected to secure an unprecedented third term as party leader and head of its military commission, has inspired additional zeal.
Under the Ministry of Public Security’s “100-day operation”, which started in June, more than 1.4mn people have been arrested across the country.
Qiu Baoli, head of the ministry’s public security administration bureau, said the special operation had laid a “solid foundation” for safeguarding the quinquennial party congress, scheduled to open on Sunday.
The crackdown, he added, had been enforced with an “iron fist” but had boosted the “people’s sense of happiness and security”.
Security efforts have been tightened in parts of the country that Beijing considers higher risk because of large ethnic minority populations.
At the main airport in Baotou, a city in Inner Mongolia, security staff have been on high alert and received additional training to search for prohibited items on travellers.
The central government views the northern region as a threat since mass protests broke out among ethnic Mongol communities two years ago over China’s repressive policies toward the non-Han minorities.
In Beijing, the security net around sensitive sites is especially tight, including the Great Hall of the People, on the western edge of Tiananmen Square, where the congress will be held, and the Jingxi Hotel, where many of the thousands of delegates will stay.
Subway travellers have been asked to drink any liquids they carry in bottles in front of a security guard. “You know the congress is coming so the checks will be stricter,” a guard said at a Beijing metro station this week. “Please be co-operative.”
Logistics networks are under strain after postal companies were ordered to run additional inspections and disinfect deliveries in the capital, as well as other areas, from the start of the month until the congress closes. Businesses have been told to expect additional spot checks by public security officials.
Taobao, the ecommerce platform owned by Jack Ma’s Alibaba, has warned that “all express logistics in and out of Beijing are significantly affected”.
Staff working at large state-owned enterprises in Beijing have been told to cancel travel plans in and out of the city in October.
The stringent security measures, coupled with the relentless enforcement of mass Covid-19 testing and snap lockdowns under Xi’s zero-Covid policy, have deepened frustrations among Chinese citizens.
“Travelling outside Beijing is like gambling these days,” said a lawyer who asked not to be named.
After leaving the capital during last week’s national holiday, the lawyer was one of the thousands whose personal health apps suggested they were at risk of spreading Covid-19.
The lawyer was only able to return after submitting paperwork to health officials proving Beijing residency and that their local Communist party neighbourhood committee was willing to accept them.
Migrant workers, who are not officially residents of Beijing, have fewer avenues to bypass the security checks.
“My nanny left Beijing to visit her family during the holiday. Now she cannot return,” said the mother of a one-year-old boy.
Some experts had hoped that the party congress would mark a turning point in Xi’s zero-Covid strategy.
However, the People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper, on Tuesday issued a reminder that the policy was the best option for protecting the health of the country’s 1.4bn people, underlining Beijing’s prioritisation of controlling Covid outbreaks over the economy.
Additional reporting by Edward White in Seoul and Maiqi Ding and Xinning Liu in Beijing