By Chris Buckley
BEIJING | Mon Feb 21, 2011 7:37am EST
(Reuters) – China must find new ways to defuse unrest, the domestic security chief said, underscoring Beijing’s anxiety about control after police quashed calls for gatherings inspired by uprisings in the Middle East.
A Foreign Ministry official separately blamed the political violence sweeping the Middle East on too-slow growth and stunted efforts at reform.
Zhou Yongkang, the ruling Communist Party’s top law-and-order official, told cadres they had to “adapt to new trends and imperatives in economic and social development”, official newspapers reported on Monday.
“Strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic,” he told an official meeting on Sunday, the China Police Daily and other papers reported.
Over the weekend, Chinese police and censors showed the Communist Party has little to fear from protesters hoping to emulate the unrest that has unseated Egypt‘s long-time president, Hosni Mubarak, and now threatens Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi.
Police dispersed dozens of people who gathered in central Beijing and Shanghai on Sunday after calls spread on overseas Chinese websites urging “Jasmine Revolution” gatherings. The police and foreign reporters outnumbered aspiring participants and curious passers-by caught up in the crowd.
There were no signs of protests in Beijing on Monday.
“I don’t think this was ever a serious plan. It was more like a performance or a stunt,” said Cui Weiping, a Beijing-based scholar who said she was not allowed outside by authorities on Sunday. “In fact I’d never even had any involvement. They seem to have just confined anyone they could think of.”
“JASMINE” STILL UNSEARCHABLE
The senior Foreign Ministry policy planning official said the Middle Eastern turmoil arose from the failure of countries to grow and adapt quickly enough.
“Three feet of ice doesn’t freeze over in one day, as we say. This has deep social, economic and historical background,” said the official, speaking to a small group of reporters on condition that his name was not cited.
“I think these countries may have not been able to keep up with the times in their social and economic system,” he said. “Some countries have had relatively slow economic development. Their rate of economic growth hasn’t been fast enough.”
That is hardly a worry for China, whose economy expanded by 10.3 percent last year. But a flurry of speeches and statements since last week show leaders are nonetheless worried about longer-term challenges to their rule.
China’s fast economic growth has undercut discontent that could challenge the government. It has also enabled sharply higher funding for domestic security forces, which bristle with surveillance equipment and intimidating hardware.
Yet despite harsh restrictions on independent political activity, China has many local riots, protests and strikes, often sparked by anger over corruption, land disputes and job losses.
The central government fears those tensions could accumulate. Provincial and ministerial level officials have been meeting in Beijing to discuss how to cope with these worries through stronger “social management”, and President Hu Jintao himself told them that they should be worried.
“The problems remain of development that is unbalanced, ill-coordinated and unsustainable,” Hu said in a speech on Saturday. He urged the officials to “strengthen governance to nip social conflicts in the bud”.
The Chinese words for “jasmine” and “jasmine revolution” remained blocked Monday on the searches of China’s Twitter-like website Sina.com, and on Tianya.cn, a popular chatroom.
Chinese state media have been largely silent on the planned protests, although state news agency Xinhua published two short articles that described how police dispersed the small crowds that had gathered in Beijing and Shanghai.
The Communist Party’s zeal in smothering dissent to maintain stability at all costs has created a domestic security system so expensive that it is sapping funds needed elsewhere to maintain the country’s economic health.
Critics say the Communist Party’s reluctance to embrace political reforms will ultimately doom its efforts to create a more “harmonious society”, particularly if it can’t control officials who are the target of discontent.
“The Chinese government is extremely powerful vis-a-vis society,” said Pei Minxin, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “But this is a government that is very weak at disciplining or policing its own agents.”
(Additional reporting by Huang Yan and Sui-Lee Wee, Editing by Nick Macfie)