By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) – The Chinese capital Beijing is under lockdown on the eve of a massive military parade to mark six decades of Communist Party rule, with gun-toting police manning street corners to ensure nothing spoils the event.
The show of force has grounded kites and pigeons, lined roads with volunteer grandmother security guards, prompted warnings to stock up on food and left harried citizens pondering who the festivities are really for.
A series of stabbings and an explosion at a restaurant serving food from the restless far western region of Xinjiang — blamed on a faulty gas bottle — have jangled residents’ nerves, despite the pervasive police presence.
Officials have been coy about what threats they fear but say they are not over-reacting, pointing to recent protests in the remote regions of Tibet and Xinjiang as a reminder that the country is vulnerable to security threats.
On Wednesday evening, Premier Wen Jiabao told an anniversary reception that “national stability, ethnic unity and social stability” were essential to ensuring China’s development.
“We must unwaveringly protect social stability,” Wen told the officials and leaders gathered in the echoing Great Hall of the People, the parliament building next to Tiananmen Square.
The anniversary parade will feature military hardware and other trophies of China’s growing strength and confidence.
But the many steps accompanying the celebrations underscore the Party’s fear of unrest that could challenge its authority.
Beijingers seem to have borne the inconveniences of random identity checks and transport chaos brought on by rehearsals for the parade with long-suffering forbearance, although muttered complaints do break through the cheery propaganda.
“I really don’t know why this is here,” said 20-year-old student Yu Qingyu, as she photographed a black armoured personnel carrier in the fashionable Wangfujing shopping district. “It seems so silly. Who do they think is going to attack?”
Those living near Tiananmen Square, the focal point for the festivities, have been told by police to stock up on food in case they are not allowed to leave their houses.
The controls extend upwards too. Beijing’s international airport will shut for three hours mid-Thursday morning, while the airforce stages a fly-by.
The government is so worried about an airborne threat that kite flying has been banned, and pigeon fanciers told to lock their birds in the coop.
There has been the expected crackdown on dissidents too, with some of the country’s best known rights activists either under surveillance or jailed months ago.
“The Chinese government wants to celebrate the country’s success while ensuring that no dissenting view or complaint is heard,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International Asia Pacific’s deputy director.
“As a result, what the Chinese government is highlighting is its own fear of giving the Chinese people a real voice to talk about the reality of their lives, good and bad.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Dean Yates)