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A tale of two Chinas: unstoppable economy, paranoid of dissent

There are days when the men who rule China appear to be among the most capable governors on the planet, smoothly managing their country's seemingly unstoppable economic rise. Other days, the Communist Party of China seems paranoid and brittle, seemingly terrified that a flicker of dissent could set the whole system afire.

Both Chinas were on display Sunday, just a few kilometres apart in the centre of Beijing. In the confident and impressive China, Premier Wen Jiabao said the country would lower its economic targets in order to focus on more "sustainable" growth. The world's second-largest economy will target 7 per cent annual expansion over the next five years, following a long stretch of higher, sometimes double-digit, growth.

Mr. Wen said the country needed to make policy changes - such as raising salaries in low-paying industries and changing the tax system - to reduce the country's yawning gap between rich and poor. "In some places I have seen, urban construction is very fast, but as you walk along, you see shabby rural streets and housing, and some farmers are still hard pressed to pay schools the 100-yuan heating fees for their kids," Mr. Wen said during a carefully screened online question-and-answer session hosted by the website of the official Xinhua newswire.

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"Therefore, I tell local officials, wouldn't it be better if we construct fewer high buildings and spend the funds for expanding the urban scale on raising living standards?"

It's the China many Western leaders and businesses are familiar with. A government of solid managers recognizing the challenges they face and moving to deal with them.

But a few blocks away the other China - the unreformed police state - was in full view for anyone who happened to spend their Sunday on the popular Wangfujing pedestrian mall near Tiananmen Square.

Spooked by calls for a "jasmine revolution" in China, hundreds of police (and more than 100 police vehicles) were deployed around the expected protest site, checking passports, detaining foreign journalists and locking hundreds of bewildered shoppers inside a McDonald's restaurant and a nearby mall for half an hour around the time the demonstration was scheduled to begin.

Foreign reporters who made it through the dragnet were chased in circles by orange-jacketed men with brooms, who seemed more intent on whacking people on the ankles than sweeping any dust. Soon there was no dust - and few pedestrians - left on Wangfujing after a row of water trucks drove up and down Beijing's busiest shopping street giving it a lengthy and unnecessary mid-Sunday afternoon spray.

Human rights groups say police have also questioned or detained more than 100 people, since the first calls for a "jasmine revolution" began circulating online last weekend. Five individual are said to be facing subversion or national security charges.

The display of force made any sort of public protest impossible Sunday, and called into question the future of the movement hoping to spark a popular uprising against the Communist Party akin to those sweeping the Middle East. While a crowd of several hundred people gathered at a designated protest site in Shanghai amid a similarly heavy police presence, there were no reports of demonstrations in 25 other cities targeted by the unnamed "jasmine" organizers.

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It's unclear who is behind the calls for a Middle East-style uprising, which began circulating online last weekend. While the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere were organized in large part via social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, the failure of the efforts in China thus far have highlighted the challenges of circulating an online call to action in a country with the world's most sophisticated system of Internet controls.

Twitter and Facebook are both banned in China, and, the site which posted the original appeal for protests, said it would no longer carry "jasmine" messages because of threats and attacks against the site and its staff.

There's also a lack of appetite for public protest in China against a government that has presided over two decades of strong economic growth. If there is an issue that could mobilize Chinese into the streets, it might be inflation, which rose 4.9 per cent last month while food prices were up by more than 10 per cent.

Rocketing food prices are seen as a primary trigger for the current unrest in the Middle East. "Rapid inflation affects people's livelihoods and may affect social stability," Mr. Wen said during his online chat. "I know the impact that prices can cause a country and am deeply aware of its extreme importance."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

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