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China growing more wary amid rash of violent protests

BEIJING -- Facing a steady rhythm of violent protests, the Chinese government is showing increased concern about stability, using caution in putting down riots around the country but warning people that violence will not be tolerated.

The fallout from a series of demonstrations has been magnified recently because of loosened restrictions on news reporting and increased use of cellphones and the Internet, even by villagers in remote areas, according to government-connected researchers and peasants involved in the protests. Although Communist Party censors try to stifle reporting on the unrest, they said, word of the incidents is transmitted at a speed previously unknown in China.

As they are more widely publicized, the violent protests have become a major issue for President Hu Jintao's government. Chinese sources said senior officials early on realized that such violence could undermine the country's economic growth -- and perhaps the party's monopoly on power -- if it continues to grow and spread. As a result, calls for stability and social harmony have become the watchwords in speeches by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Reflecting the leaders' concern, the People's Daily, the main party newspaper, declared in a front-page editorial July 28 that any attempt to use protests to correct social injustices that arise as China moves toward a market economy would be ''punished in accordance with the law." The editorial also was broadcast on state television and relayed by the official Xinhua News Agency, underlying the importance attached to the warning.

''Resolving any such problems must be done in line with law and maintenance of stability," the editorial said. ''The solution of any problems must rely on the party, the government, the law, the policies, and the system."

Public Security Minister Zhou Yongkang said last month that the number of ''mass incidents" was rising fast across China, according to a report in a government-funded newspaper confirmed by an official who heard Zhou speak at a closed meeting. In 2004, Zhou said, 3.76 million of China's 1.3 billion people took part in 74,000 such protests, which he said represented a dramatic increase.

Perhaps more worrisome, Zhou continued, is a ''noticeable" trend toward organized unrest, rather than the spontaneous outbursts that traditionally have led to clashes between citizens and police. But the minister added that most protests erupt over specific economic issues rather than political demands, suggesting they are not directed at bringing down the one-party system that has been in place in China since 1949.

Rural protesters have recently cited farmland seizures by local governments working with developers or pollution of fields and irrigation sources by locally licensed factories or mines as the reasons for their uprisings. Other protests have erupted over clashes between factory managers and the millions of young people who leave their villages to work in assembly plants in big city suburbs.

Provincial, municipal, and county governments have often proved unable to handle these complaints because local officials, eager for growth with businessmen, regard the aggrieved people as obstacles to success.

Kang Xiaoguang, a Tsinghua University professor and a political specialist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, noted that the protesters' lack of national coordination or political goals is an indication the government can probably bring the riots under control.

Hu and Wen, he said, regard the unrest as a major but inevitable problem, the fruit of economic disparities caused by overhauls during the past 25 years. As a result, Kang added, they want to rein in the divisive capitalism that has replaced socialism in many respects and have made sure to demonstrate concern for the underdogs in China's hybrid system.

As far as is known, even the most violent protesters have been armed only with farming tools in the unrest in the past several years. Similarly, police responding to riots have generally been equipped only with clubs, staffs, and tear gas. There have been no reports of firearms being used.

Seeking to get ahead of the protests, Zhou has urged Chinese security officials to study what causes riots and to try to resolve problems before they get to the stage of violence. Beijing already has set up such a committee, officials reported, as part of its effort to prepare for the 2008 Olympics.

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