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In the shadow of a looming 19th Communist Party congress, Chinese life grinds to a halt, Nathan VanderKlippe writes

A cockfighting arena in Turpan, China which has been barred from holding fights for months ahead of China’s Communist Party Congress on Oct. 18.

More than 2,000 kilometres west of Beijing, in an oasis surrounded by dune-filled desert, the high drama of the political calendar arrived early this year.

It was only last year that Turpan, a city in China's frontier Xinjiang region, put forward a bold plan to make itself a national destination for cockfighting tourism.

But this spring, the biggest cockfighting arena here went suddenly quiet. The dirt ring at its heart is now populated by a cluster of cages filled with cocks that Askhar, whose father-in-law owns the arena, feeds local grapes and bits of beef. The concrete bleachers that surround it have not seen a crowd in months.

"We are not allowed. People can't enter," Askhar says. "The government has forbidden cockfighting for now." It won't be until some time later in October, he said, that the fights can resume.

The temporary ban has nothing to do with animal-rights considerations. It is, instead, among the more far-reaching restrictions imposed on a country whose political masters are leaving nothing to chance as they prepare for a congress of the Communist Party held every five years to select the next iteration of its elite leadership.

Askhar feeds grapes to chickens in the cockfighting arena owned by his father-in-law in Turpan.

Authorities are clamping down on large gatherings across China, nervous of any assembly of people that could be used to spread dissent or undermine social stability, particularly in frontier regions with a history of unrest.

And even if cockfighting is allowed to return, the recent restrictions of other civil liberties may prove permanent, observers caution.

Beginning Oct. 18, the party congress will bring together the country's most powerful political figures to anoint the rosters of the next Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee.

Major political events in China frequently come accompanied by clampdowns. Residents are booted from homes near the site of major international summits. Activists are placed on forced "vacations" around dates the party considers sensitive, such as the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. The security perimeter that surrounds Beijing grows stricter around the time of the annual meetings of China's rubber-stamp legislature.

None of those, however, compare to the measures China is taking ahead of the party congress, as authorities compete to please both local leaders vying for higher office and central party officials unwilling to countenance social or political perturbations ahead of meetings in which sitting President Xi Jinping is expected to further expand his influence.

Factories near Beijing have been shut down for months in advance of the upcoming congress of the Communist Party.

Factories around Beijing have been closed for a month in advance to clear the air of smog. Authorities pulled Youth, a new Sino-Vietnamese war-themed film just days before its Sept. 29 opening, with observers saying its release might have provoked sensitivities related to China's treatment of veterans.

A cascade of strengthened digital-content rules, meanwhile, have made it tougher to evade Internet censors while imposing new liabilities on people who launch social-media chat groups. Access to WhatsApp, an encrypted chat service owned by Facebook, has been frequently interrupted in recent weeks.

In the past, such measures might have been temporary, part of an official cycle of tightening and relaxing.

Under Mr. Xi, however, they may endure, as his administration oversees "a steady move toward greater and greater control, with just occasional slips back in a loosening direction," said Jeff Wasserstrom, a specialist in modern Chinese history at University of California, Irvine.

"Each time special steps are taken to rein in civil society activity, sweep the Internet clean of material the government doesn't like and so on, things get more controlled than they were the last time around, and we are seeing this with the 19th Party Congress."

The degree of control the party is exerting also offers a window into the dislocations Mr. Xi has introduced.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for a news conference in Xiamen, China, on Sept. 5, 2017.

"It shows the extent to which the party is nervous," said John Burns, an expert on Chinese politics who is an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong.

Mr. Xi has made an anti-corruption campaign a hallmark of his leadership, busting old conventions that immunized his predecessors from close inspection of their financial gains. In the past five years, state media have said, 1.2 million people have been disciplined by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country's chief graft-busting organization.

Among them are powerful figures who constitute a potential threat ahead of an event intended to solidify Mr. Xi's political position.

The Chinese President has "made enemies. Think of all the people that have been arrested, all the networks that have been disrupted. He is a disruptor," Prof. Burns said.

Chinese authorities have been particularly vigilant about large gatherings that might provide a stage for complaints or unrest to spread. Previously planned academic meetings on political subjects have been cancelled. The same logic, observers believe, likely applies to the Turpan cockfighting ban: Authorities are limiting opportunities for people to come together in large numbers.

A list of rules posted at the cockfighting arena already forbids "any openly expressed opinions and activities that endanger the community order, social stability and national unity."

But Xinjiang has also seen some of the strictest measures ahead of the party congress. The region's largely Muslim Uyghur population has been blamed for terrorist attacks and religious radicalization in recent years. China has responded with "strike hard" campaigns to eradicate extremism and has this year placed thousands of people in coercive political re-education centres.

In recent weeks, those measures have taken on new urgency. In most of China, the first week in October is "Golden Week," a holiday to celebrate the country's National Day and Mid-Autumn Festival. But Golden Week was abruptly called off in Xinjiang this year, with civil servants ordered back to work and students directed back to class.

Local authorities have also introduced new measures of control, including a five-family system where households are made responsible for one another's conduct, Radio Free Asia reported.

The crackdown has come under the leadership of Chen Quanguo, the Xinjiang party secretary widely expected to be in line for a Politburo seat during the party congress.

"By emphasizing iron-fisted stability through draconian measures and promoting unwavering loyalty to President Xi Jinping, political leaders in the region might be trying to ingratiate themselves with Xi," said William Nee, China researcher for Amnesty International.

But, he added, harsh tactics in Xinjiang "seem to be much more permanent in nature," suggesting they will endure past October.

"The 19th Party Congress provides a great excuse to introduce even more coercive measures," Mr. Nee said.