ONE OF THE entertaining aspects of dictatorships -- unless, of course, you have to live under one -- is their extreme level of paranoia.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has soared to new heights of free-floating paranoia in advance of the party's weeklong annual congress, scheduled to begin Thursday in Beijing. In fairness, party leaders have much to be paranoid about.
The congress will choose the nation's leadership for the next 10 years -- no sense burdening the average Chinese with the necessity of making that decision. We'll end the suspense right here: It will be Vice Premier Li Keqiang, a former provincial governor who, based on sketchy descriptions emanating from the selection process, seems to be a go-along, get-along kind of guy.
The ascension has been somewhat marred because a party up-and-comer, Bo Xilai, was expelled from the party and the parliament and his wife given a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman. In unrelated corruption charges, the minister of railways was also expelled.
The preliminary congress festivities were somewhat dampened by a New York Times report that the family of Prime Minster Wen Jiabao has somehow managed to accumulate a fortune estimated at $2.7 billion during his years in office. Chinese authorities have labored mightily to keep that story from circulating in China, blocking any likely reference to it on the Internet.
Party officials have ordered the removal of taxi doors' interior handles and ordered cab drivers to keep their windows closed lest passengers try to pitch subversive material -- like details of Wen's relatives' wealth -- out the window in areas where delegates may be gathered.
Authorities have been told to look out for subversive messages printed on balloons and pingpong balls, and the Associated Press is reporting that stores have been ordered to pull knives and pencil sharpeners from their shelves for the congress' duration.
Toy stores and hobby shops have been ordered not to sell balloons or remote-control model airplanes. Flying model planes over the city is forbidden, and pigeon owners have been ordered to keep their birds cooped up.
As usual, police are rounding up the usual suspects: activists, political dissidents and peasants who have come to the capital to press their objections over confiscated land.
The Beijing marathon, scheduled to run at the same time as the congress, has been postponed. As a security precaution, the authorities have refused to tell the runners when it will be rescheduled.
The Chinese Communist Party has successfully held 18 party congresses. You don't build that kind of record by letting pigeons and toy airplanes fly around the city willy-nilly.