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31-07-05, 17:59
Chinese Government Warns Citizens About Threats to Social Stability
By JIM YARDLEY

BEIJING, July 31 - In a sign that top leaders are growing increasingly worried about unrest in the countryside, the Chinese government has warned citizens that they must obey the law and that any threats to social stability will not be tolerated.

The warning came in a front-page commentary published last Thursday in People's Daily, the chief mouthpiece of the Communist Party. The prominence given to the editorial suggests that leaders wanted to send an unmistakable message.

"Protecting stability comes before all else," the editorial cautioned. "Any behavior that wrecks stability and challenges the law will directly damage the people's fundamental interests."

The editorial was also notable in what was omitted, namely any reference to President Hu Jintao's signature catchphrase of a "harmonious society." Mr. Hu has sought to cast himself as a populist who is sensitive to the plight of the rural poor, and implicit in the "harmonious society" phrase is that idea that the lopsided excesses and widespread corruption of China's rapid development must be corrected.

But the editorial took the stance that widening inequality is an inevitable phase of development. "This is a golden period of development," the commentary stated. "And it is also a period when conflict is becoming pronounced. The incessant deepening of reform must inevitably involve the adjustment of interests.

"It is unavoidable that different people and different groups enjoy the fruits of reform and development to differing degrees."

No group of people is enjoying fewer of those fruits than peasants, who comprise roughly two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people. Many disgruntled farmers have turned to protests: In recent weeks, 2,000 farmers in Inner Mongolia protested to block local officials from seizing their land, a common point of contention in the countryside.

Other recent riots have seen villagers protesting industrial dumping that poisons streams and farmland. In Zhejiang Province, tens of thousands of villagers fought off an estimated 3,000 police officers so that they could continue protesting against local chemical plants.

Joseph Fewsmith, a professor of international relations and political science at Boston University, said the populist sheen taken by Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is not reflected in recent policy changes. In February, the government changed the system by which peasants can file grievances with the government - called petitions and appeals - to make it much more difficult.

Before the changes, record numbers of peasants had been flowing to Beijing to petition for help, just as farmers in the countryside were increasingly emboldened to protest over land seizures, pollution and other issues.

"I think the top leaders decided that they don't like that anymore," Mr. Fewsmith said.

An apparent exception to the tougher line is Chen Xiwen, the top adviser to Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on rural issues. In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, Mr. Chen deplored the violence attached to some of the protests but applauded the willingness of farmers to stand up for their rights as a sign that their "democratic awareness is improving."

Still, Liu Junning, a liberal political scientist in Beijing, said rural unrest has made top leaders "a little bit worried" and has shown their true attitude toward the rural poor.

"It was kind of lip service from the very beginning," Mr. Liu said. "Nothing substantial has really been done to show they are really concerned with the common people. What we have seen is just the opposite."