China and the case of the missing ping pong balls

China and the case of the missing ping pong balls

Starting Nov. 8, Beijing will convene the 18th Party Congress — a mass meeting of Communist Party leaders where President Hu Jintao will begin to officially yield power to leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping. After a year marred by the very public disgrace of former Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, it’s in the party’s interest to portray the succession as a calm and smooth process.

But the raft of official and unofficial regulations imposed on Beijing in the days leading up to the Congress doesn’t exactly communicate a steady hand on the tiller. The New York Times reports:

In recent days, kitchen knives have been removed from store shelves, Internet access has mysteriously slowed to the speed of molasses, and international news channels like CNN and the BBC have disappeared from television sets in upscale health clubs.

At the Bookworm, a popular English-language bookstore, the section previously devoted to Chinese politics and history has been stuffed with Stephen King thrillers, child-rearing guides and Victoria Beckham’s "That Extra Half an Inch."

"We’re just reorganizing," one employee said with a helpless shrug. "They’ll be back after the party congress."

Even the accoutrements of China’s national sport have been suspect. A message purportedly from Beijing’s Traffic Management Bureau ordered taxi drivers to disable their windows during the Congress. "’Seal the door’ by activating child safety locks on the doors. ‘Seal the windows’ by removing window cranks," the traffic bureau advised taxi drivers. "During the 18th Party Congress period, taxicab drivers are to be on guard for passengers carrying any type of ball. Look for passengers who intend to spread messages by carrying balloons that bear slogans or ping-pong balls bearing reactionary messages," Bloomberg Businessweek wrote.

New regulations even require pigeon owners to keep their pigeons in their coop. In the 1971 Woody Allen movie Bananas, a rebel leader seizes power of the nation of San Marcos. He decrees that "all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old;" despite there being no threats to San Marcos from underwear. To be fair to Chinese leaders, pigeons have been used as tools of subversion before. "In the late 1990s, dissidents released pigeons carrying slogans written on ribbons tied to the birds’ feet in southern China," Reuters reported.