It’s been happening at least once, and generally more like two or three times, per day this week: I’ll be working away on my computer when things suddenly slow down. Gmail stops responding. Apple Mail goes offline. Google searches take minutes instead of seconds, and end in a message that “the server could not be found.”
When this happens, I don’t fight it. I know that the Internet will return to normal sooner or later, and I have plenty of work to do offline. It also doesn’t bother me because I know why my connection has suddenly dropped: the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress is taking place in Beijing.
There’s little drama in the transfer of power that will occur during the Party Congress; everyone here knows that Xi Jinping will take over the post of Party Secretary from Hu Jintao. The other members of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee haven’t been named yet, but political analysts have plenty of guesses about who they’ll be. While the American election had at least a little uncertainty to it—I didn’t really think Romney would win, but I wasn’t entirely sure he would lose until the last week or so of the race—the Party Congress is scripted, stilted, and boring.
But the powers that be are terrified that something might happen to make them go off-script, resulting in some wacky security measures in the country’s capital. To avoid protest and the potential for drama during the Party Congress, Beijingers have been forbidden to fly pigeons (since they might be used to drop anti-government leaflets on people below); cabs have had their rear windows disabled (again, to eliminate the possibility of tossing propaganda from the vehicle); and stores can’t sell kitchen knives. (And, on a much more serious note, leading dissidents and activists have been sent out of the capital or placed under house arrest until the meetings are over.)
In Shanghai, though, the temperamental Internet is one of the few signs that there’s a Party (Congress) going on. I haven’t tried to release a pigeon, but I don’t think anyone would stop me (or even notice). Taxis still have four operating windows. There is a lot of 18th Party Congress propaganda on the streets and in subway stations, but it’s just window-dressing. Down here, as far as I can tell, it’s business as usual.
That’s also how it seems most Chinese feel about the leadership transition itself: as long as the Chinese Communist Party is in control, it doesn’t much matter which bureaucrat is in power at the top. There’s very little sense that anything will change in China with the installation of the new leadership, though that doesn’t stop the Party from making a big deal over the transfer of power. All that fuss, however, is very localized: this is really a Beijing story, not a China story.
I find that curious, since there have been plenty of major protests outside the capital throughout the last century or so (in fact, there have been some important ones in Shanghai). Not that I’m complaining—Internet interruptions are bad enough. But it’s striking to think that by only implementing heightened security in Beijing, the Chinese government is more or less admitting that no one outside the capital really cares about what’s happening inside the Great Hall of the People.