Beijing is enjoying an unusually long run of clear blue skies thanks to widespread industrial closures ahead of the most important international event hosted by President Xi Jinping.
The “New Silk Road” summit has attracted 29 national leaders from four continents and also prompted a nationwide security clampdown, as authorities try to ensure that it proceeds without a hitch. More than 80 other countries, including North and South Korea, are dispatching lower-ranking representatives to the event.
On Thursday morning, a number of subway stations near the defence ministry were closed abruptly, but reopened later in the day. The ministry has been the site of occasional protests by thousands of demobilised soldiers over the past year, and any recurrence would be embarrassing for the Chinese government.
Formally known as the Belt and Road Initiative, referring to overland and maritime routes across the Eurasian landmass, the two-day conference opens on Sunday. The initiative is considered to be Mr Xi’s signature foreign policy, which Chinese officials argue is focused on mutual economic development rather than enhancing Beijing’s geopolitical power.
“The Belt and Road is not the Marshall Plan,” says Tsinghua University professor Hu Angang, referring to the US post-second world war programme to rebuild western Europe. “We are not going to do whatever we want. We are searching for common interest and co-operating with other countries on development strategies.”
Regions as far away as Xinjiang, in China’s far north-west, have cited the summit when ordering stricter control of petitioners who often flock to the capital seeking help from central government officials. Residents in Tianjin, a large port city east of the capital, have been informed by local officials that they will not be allowed to fly kites or drones.
Major road closures, including the expressway linking Beijing’s airport to the city centre, began on Friday and are expected to trigger four days of traffic chaos.
Hotels have cancelled everything from chamber of commerce events to children’s art classes to accommodate VIPs including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his Turkish counterpart.
Many of the activities will be centred around Yanqi lake, a resort area where many people maintain weekend homes. “The whole area is locked down,” said an employee at the Kempinski Hotel in Yanqi who asked not to be identified. “Some hotels have been closed since mid-April.”
Over recent weeks, village officials in the area have gone door-to-door checking IDs and warning Beijing-based expatriates that they will not be allowed to use their weekend homes over the next few days.
The Chinese government had hoped to assemble a weightier guest list to Mr Xi’s premier international forum, which is occurring just months before he formally begins a second five-year term in office. But many heads of state and government, especially from G7 and OECD nations, were reluctant to participate in what they thought might be little more than a propaganda coup for China’s ruling Communist party.
Only seven EU heads of state or government, most from smaller eastern European countries, accepted Mr Xi’s invitation, while Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta will be the only top-level African VIP.
Chinese officials had hoped that UK prime minister Theresa May would attend and also hold a bilateral meeting with Mr Xi, but their invitation was trumped by her decision to call a snap parliamentary election. The UK will instead be represented by Philip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer, while the Trump administration is sending Matt Pottinger, Asia director on the National Security Council.
Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat, said China had not yet been able to take advantage of the potential vacuum in international affairs created by Donald Trump’s isolationist rhetoric. “It’s very clear that what the EU is concerned about is its neighbourhood,” he said, referring to Russian aggression in the Ukraine and the Syrian refugee crisis. “In none of these situations is China a factor.”
In private, some Chinese officials say that the Belt and Road Initiative is a potential “trap” — entangling them in everything from unproductive investments to regional disputes.
One of the largest projects associated with Mr Xi’s New Silk Road, a $55bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has angered India, which says it runs through some territory claimed by New Delhi. “If Beijing is going to be so sensitive about its own sovereign claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere, perhaps they should be more sensitive to others’ claims as well,” said one Asian diplomat.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu