By Joel Brinkley

Want to know what it's like to be a Chinese leader today? They spend their days arrayed before a dyke, desperately sticking fingers in leaks that keep springing.

Their people's grievances are manifold. And rather than trying to address them, the leaders' priority is to stop the complaining and punish anyone who is too loud about it. As they like to put it, their goal is to "maintain a harmonious society." But that's not quieting the people. So the leaks, ever more of them, keep springing.

By the government's own estimation, the Chinese staged 180,000 major protests and demonstrations last year. The government calls them "mass incidents." These are angry rallies to denounce pollution, corruption, land thefts, poisonous food.... The list is quite long.

That's almost 500 incidents each and every day. Imagine what this nation would be like if Americans staged nearly 500 major demonstrations daily. The government would face forced resignations, indictments, impeachments. But the Chinese leaders just stroll along, preparing to install a new dictator in the fall for another five-year term. As for those pesky citizens and their myriad complaints, the leaders continue trying to plug the leaks.

One major leak is called Weibo. It's the Chinese equivalent of Twitter and has at least 300 million users. Weibo got its start because Twitter is banned in China, along with Facebook and YouTube.

With censorship of traditional media almost universal, Weibo became the only place where Chinese could hold frank discussions among themselves -- often complaining about government inattention or misbehavior. It was on Weibo that people learned the truth about the high-speed train wreck last summer -- including the fact that engineers immediately buried several train cars, to cover up any evidence of malfeasance.

Government officials continually lambast Weibo for allowing people to "spread rumors," as they put it. For them, "rumors" include factual accounting of things they don't want people to know.

So, last month they stuck another finger into the dyke. The ministry handling Internet censorship ordered Weibo to require its users to log into the service with their actual names and/or ID numbers. Well, two weeks later, reports from China say that, in fact, little has changed. Known agitators are less willing to use Weibo now, while Chinese bloggers are saying most everyone else seems to be going along as before.

But then last weekend, the government cracked down on Weibo and other social networking sites, partially shutting them down - alleging that they were carrying "many rumors" of a supposed coup that never materialized. It's too early to know what the leaders may do next. They face a predicament. Once something like Weibo grows to be immensely popular, they are reluctant to simply close it down entirely, afraid of a massive negative reaction.

"The increasing paranoia of the party and its frequent use of 'naked power' is a sign of desperation rather than confidence," wrote two Chinese academics, Yu Liu and Dingding Chen, in the Washington Quarterly this winter. "The intensification of censorship and repression can alienate the society further, which will in turn add more pressure on the state to reform."

Statistics help confirm that. The more the government tries to stifle dissent, the angrier people get. The government counted 8,700 mass incidents in 1993 and 90,000 in 2009, then double that last year.

Here's how China is dealing with those protests: It's spending billions to put up cameras on city streets so security officers can monitor people gathering for demonstrations. One city alone, Chongqing in southwestern China, is installing 500,000 of them. Guangdong Province says it's putting up 1 million.

The state euphemistically calls this its "safe cities" program. And wouldn't you know it, Uniview Technologies, the company doing the work, says all of it is intended to maintain "a harmonious society."

In furtherance of that in recent months, the government warned journalists they were forbidden to publish "unverified information" -- in other words, facts officials don't like. It banned most foreign films and is jailing more and more people it classifies as dissidents. The New York Times interviewed one Chinese American, Ge Xun, an active Twitter user who returned to Beijing only to be arrested and beaten. The authorities demanded that he turn over his Twitter password, but he refused -- one hole not plugged.

"The sense of fragility in China right now is almost palpable," said Thomas Fingar, former chairman of the National Intelligence Council. He's now a distinguished fellow at Stanford University. "There's the sense that it has been defying gravity for a long time."


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China's Social 'Harmony' More Fragile Than It Appears | Global Viewpoint