Pigeons are a staple of Chinese urban life — not as pests but as pets, trained to fly in flocks above buildings and among kites. But pigeons can also be trained to distribute political pamphlets, which is precisely why the imaginative officials who run the country have ordered all of them in Beijing confined to their coops, ahead of the politically-sensitive Party Congress this week, where China’s next president will be installed.
The pigeon ban isn’t the only sign of the Party’s nervousness as it approaches its most politically-fraught presidential transition in memory. Internet access has mysteriously slowed, kitchen knives have been removed from store shelves, the words “death,” “die” and “down” have been banned from songs on TV, international news channels like CNN and the BBC have disappeared from satellite broadcasts, and, writes The New York Times, my favorite bookstore has had to replace its history books with things like “Stephen King thrillers, child-rearing guides and Victoria Beckham’s ‘That Extra Half an Inch.’”
Pigeons aren’t the only airborne objects deemed dangerous. Sales of model airplanes have also been prohibited. Taxi drivers have been ordered to remove locks and window cranks from doors, in the event, apparently, that a protester decides to take a cab past the government compounds in the center of Beijing, near Tiananmen Square. And this, reports Bloomberg Businessweek: “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.”
The concern over flying things isn’t completely absurd. In the late ‘90s, according to Reuters, dissidents released pigeons carrying slogans written on ribbons tied to the birds’ feet in southern China. Less relevant but still interesting: during World War II, pigeons were trained by the Americans to target missiles at Hitler.
On the bright side, Beijingers will not have to deal with incessant TV ads, voter fraud, long lines at polling stations, or any of the other nerve-wracking things that Americans will have to cope with during their own presidential transition. But on the not so bright side, Chinese citizens are being reminded, once again, what happens when you voice independent political beliefs, especially in the midst of a power transition. Many dissidents have been compelled to shut up or leave Beijing, while over in Yunnan Province, one man, an Internet cafe owner, was sentenced to eight years in prison for “subverting” the state by trying to set up a “China Republican Party," an entity that only existed on paper and for a single day.
Meting out punishments and rules like these is a sure-fire way to quash dissent shenanigans, at least for a week. In an era of growing dissent and social media, it’s also a fantastic way to demonstrate just how fragile and paranoid your grasp on power actually is. As scholars at a recent government conference summed it up, China is “unstable at the grass roots, dejected at the middle strata and out of control at the top.”