By Sui-Lee Wee and Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - Potentially sinister threats to China's ruling Communist Party sit unnoticed in cages perched on a rooftop above a small alleyway in southwestern Beijing. Not dissidents. Pigeons.
A week before the party's all-important congress opens, China's stability-obsessed rulers are taking no chances and have combed through a list all possible threats, avian or otherwise.
It isn't just the usual suspects like activists who have ruffled the party's feathers.
Their list includes handles for rear windows in taxis -- to stop subversive leaflets being scattered on the streets -- balloons and remote control model planes.
The goal is to ensure an image of harmony as President Hu Jintao prepares to transfer power as party leader to anointed successor Vice President Xi Jinping at the congress, which starts on Thursday.
Li Zhonghe, 65, a retired construction worker, told Reuters he would have to keep his 40 to 50 pigeons in their coops when the congress starts.
"There are currently some extra restrictions, so we are not supposed to let the pigeons out to fly," Li said, adding he did not know the reason why. "It's this way every time there is a congress. I'm accustomed to it by now."
Unlikely as it seems, pigeons, often raised as a hobby in China, have been used as a tool of subversion before. In the late 1990s, dissidents released pigeons carrying slogans written on ribbons tied to the birds' feet in southern China.
The Beijing Carrier Pigeon Association said in an online notice two annual autumn races, originally scheduled during the congress, would be postponed until December. It did not say why.
Beijing police did not respond to a faxed Reuters inquiry.
Stability is the watchword this month, as it is before every important meeting, and some of the preparations for the congress resemble past precautions.
But Hu Jia, a dissident who was made to leave Beijing ahead of the congress, said the measures taken this time were the most excessive he had seen.
"Don't you think this is absurd?" Hu told Reuters by telephone from his father's hometown in central Anhui province. "They've reached a new level of psychosis."
"DEATH", MODEL PLANES BANNED
Taxi drivers were instructed recently by their companies to remove handles from rear windows. A driver surnamed Xu said a text message from his company also advised him to keep the windows closed when his taxi passes by Tiananmen Square.
"We were asked not to take petitioners to government buildings, but we should take them straight to the police office instead," said another driver, surnamed Han, adding he was told to avoid taking passengers with bags for safety reasons.
The five-yearly Congress is a magnet for thousands of petitioners from provinces across the nation who see the meeting as a rare chance for them to seek redress for their grievances.
More than 1.4 million people have fanned out across Beijing to boost security, the Beijing News newspaper reported.
Residents have complained of snail-paced Internet speeds as censors comb though sites to remove subversive content. Beijing police have also banned residents from flying remote control model aircraft. Windows of buses heading toward "political centers" must be closed to prevent the "throwing of leaflets and other issues", according to the influential Caixin magazine.
Authorities have also banned the words "death", "die" or "down" from songs on television. Music composer Gao Xiaosong wrote on his microblog the words were deemed "unlucky".
At least 130 people have been detained or placed under restrictions since September, according to U.K.-based rights group Amnesty International, a tactic often used ahead of important political events.
Beijing-based rights activist Liu Shasha said she was forced back to her hometown in the central Henan province on October 22.
"At first they were very nice but then as soon as I got in a car with them they put a black hood over my head," she said by telephone. "When I tried lifting it up to breathe better they kept forcing it back down, until they eventually tied my hands behind my back. I'm really angry."
Another dissident forced to leave Beijing is Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer who was told to leave in August.
"They said I can come back once the congress is over, so I suppose at the end of the month," she said by telephone from her home town of Lhasa, the tightly controlled Tibetan capital.
So overwhelming are the security measures that Chinese Internet users have gone on microblogs to pour out their feelings about the smothering security. One compared it to "1984", the George Orwell novel that described life under a government that put its people under pervasive surveillance.
"In the face of these absurdities, we are powerless," a microblogger wrote. "It's a reminder that no matter how ridiculous and comical, this is an era that we can't laugh in."
(Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao, Ben Blanchard, Hui Li and Huang Yan; Editing by Paul Tait)