A police officer films the crowd this weekend after an Internet call for… (David Gray, Reuters )
Reporting from Beijing — With a wary eye on popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Chinese leaders are calling for new ways to defuse social unrest in what appears to be an ominous harbinger of tighter controls on the Internet and elsewhere.
Splashed across the front page of Monday's People's Daily newspaper were highlights of a speech given by President Hu Jintao at a Saturday meeting that included all nine members of the Politburo's standing committee and senior cadres from around the country.
Hu, in the speech at the Central Party School in Beijing, called on the nation to "enhance and complete management of information on the Internet" and to "establish a system of public opinion guidance on the Internet," according to excerpts. The speech also called for danwei, the work units to which Chinese traditionally belong, to enhance their roles in "social management"; for a database that would keep track of the movements of migrant populations; and to make clear the "social responsibilities" of private companies.
Zhou Yongkang, the country's top law enforcement official, also called for officials to "strive to defuse conflicts and disputes while they are still embryonic."
Some analysts considered Hu's speech a call to heighten social and media control.
"They are sending out strong signals that we need to be vigilant at this time. We need to tighten the ship," said David Bandurski, a Hong Kong-based China analyst who translated portions of the speech for the China Media Project.
The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya have shaken some Communist Party leaders in showing how quickly autocrats can lose control in the face of overwhelming populist anger, analysts said.
"The party is very, very nervous, way beyond their normal level of anxiety," said Li Datong, a retired editor with the party-run China Youth Daily. "The propagandists always used to point to the Islamic countries to argue that the model of Western democracy doesn't work everywhere in the world, but now this has showed up their lies."
The Ministry of Public Security has reported that China experiences an estimated 90,000 "mass incidents" each year, often spontaneous protests against local officials over forced evictions, unpaid wages, factory closings, pollution or traffic accidents.
It was unclear when last weekend's meeting was organized or whether the agenda had been dictated by recent world events. Zhang Liangui, a senior faculty member at the Central Party School, said such meetings for senior cadres were annual occurrences, but foreign analysts called the two-day session with its high-powered list of attendees an extraordinary event.
"This is not the kind of meeting they hold if everything is going well," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based expert in Chinese politics.
In a preemptive move against expressions of sympathy for the Middle East protesters, Chinese authorities have detained or placed under house arrest dozens of activists and restricted Internet searches. Over the weekend, an overwhelming security presence limited demonstrations in Beijing and other cities.