As the Chinese Communist Party convened in Beijing for its recent 18th Congress, items began mysteriously vanishing from local stores and practices formerly taken for granted suddenly became illegal.
Observers felt they understood the ban on potential weapons like kitchen knives, but they scratched their heads at the disappearance of seemingly innocuous things like balloons and ping pong balls, and wondered what rabbit hole they had fallen into when taxi companies were ordered to seal passenger windows shut.
The Agency, hard-pressed to determine whether Chinese leaders were beginning to lose it, and recalling my forensic brilliance in interpreting what was not in Osama Bin Laden’s compound (The Things He Didn’t Carry; Nov, 2011) and not happening in North Korea (Is Kim Jong Ill or Just Resting in Peace? Jan, 2012), asked for my help. With my country calling, I could not say no, and, within hours, I was off to Beijing to investigate.
Here are some salient examples of what I found, or rather what I did not find, and why:
Balloons: Gone. I learned officials feared that balloons could be painted with inflammatory slogans and released to float over the city. But they overreacted. Nothing can be seen in Beijing’s pollution-blackened skies.
Ping Pong Balls: Absent, but not, as speculated, because they, too, could be daubed with slogans and released to bounce chaotically through the streets. The reason was that Beijing was hosting a gigantic ping pong tournament, and every ball was needed. The timing of the tournament, however, was clearly designed to distract the ping pong-mad Chinese from politics.
Yoyos: At first incomprehensible, until I learned that the yoyo had become a symbol of China’s political situation — all motion, no movement.
Combs: The Chinese have learned that, with just a scrap of paper, a comb makes a great kazoo. The authorities did not want roving kazoo mobs, filling the streets with noise reminiscent of South African vuvuzelas at the World Cup Finals.
Retractable Ballpoint Pens: Puzzling at first — regular ball-point pens (not banned) would seem to be more likely weapons. The real reason? Chinese students use the mass-clicking of ballpoints to signify their contempt for boring teachers, and authorities worried the public might see a protest opportunity.
Caged Songbirds: Not, as first thought, banned as too obviously symbolic of the Chinese people. Rather, all birds were confiscated and installed in the Great Hall of the People to keep delegates awake during endless accounts of wheat harvests and coal production. The experiment was a disaster. Delegates still yawned and dozed, and the birds created an uncontrollable din while oblivious speakers droned on and on.
The Hungry Caterpillar: The Caterpillar in this classic children’s book (translated into Chinese as: Stop Crawling and Become a Highly Successful Butterfly) has come to represent former rising political star, now disgraced, Bo Xilai, whom the Party would prefer to forget.
Unbagged Tea: Soggy, loose tea leaves could be interpreted, and interpretations could be misguided. And, when officials realized tea leaves could easily be removed from a used bag, they ordered rip-proof tea bags, supplied by the same company that once gave us airplane peanuts.
Mickey Mouse Watches: Not because they represent America, but because, as Chinese youngsters have discovered, if you stare at the watch long enough, Mickey appears to be flipping a two-fisted bird.
Mao Jackets: Though Mao’s portrait still dominates Tiananmen Square, current leaders would prefer to let him rest. But the ban was unnecessary. No self-respecting Chinese would be caught dead in such retro trash.
Take-Out Pizzas: A family-sized pizza, hurled with a powerful spin, shedding pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, sausage and onions as it whirls, could cause enormous collateral damage. Eat-in pizzas were still allowed, but guards checked all doggie bags on exit.
Conclusion: The authorities took no chances. They worried about popular disaffection, particularly over high-level corruption, but, with their once-powerful apparatus of neighborhood spies and informers gone, they had little direct information and felt they had to respond firmly to every rumor. When a woman in Chaoyang district of Beijing hung out her wash, the sequence of the garments seemed to read, Down With the Money-Grubbing, Garbage-Scarfing, Freedom-Stifling Pigs! and she was immediately arrested. She was released only when she agreed to rearrange the clothes to read, Three Cheers for the Well-Beloved and Democratically Elected Members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee!