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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. As China prepares for a once-in-a-decade transition of power, we're spending this week looking at the limits of its political system. Analysts say the past decade has been a time when China spends more on internal security than on its military. NPR's Beijing correspondent Louisa Lim describes three scenes of what they call stability maintenance in modern China.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Scene one, a retired film professor, Cui Weiping, bustles around her house. A small, softly spoken woman in her 50s, she doesn't look like a threat to Chinese stability. But for the past nine years, her moves have been monitored by state security. It began in 2003, when she wrote a letter on the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. From then on, her phone's been tapped, her car followed, her life subject to directives from state security agents.

CUI WEIPING: (Through Translator) Sometimes they tell me not to go to certain places, not to meet certain friends, not to go to one particular bookstore, et cetera, et cetera. There are restrictions on my movements.

LIM: This is how stability maintenance works: monitoring those considered a treat, limiting their freedom to act. The tentacles of China's state reach deep into Cui's life. Her husband's been urged to put pressure on her, fellow teachers spied on her. Eventually, she was pushed to retire, a pattern common among dissidents employed by state-run institutions. Cui Weiping has decided stability maintenance is making China less stable, not more so.

WEIPING: (Through Translator) I think money spent on stability maintenance is a big burden to society, including the government. Once interest groups coalesce around that funding, they need to feed themselves via the stability maintenance machine. Then more instability is needed, right?

LIM: Cut to scene two: a group of elderly petitioners is being berated. They're retired special forces soldiers trying to lodge a complaint in Beijing about their poor treatment in their hometown. But they were intercepted by hometown officials on arrival in the capital and are being illegally detained in a secret location. They're told their coming to Beijing has led to instability.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Tearfully, the elderly men argue their case. This is footage from a documentary called "An Interceptor From My Hometown." In it, a deputy mayor, whose jobs is stopping petitioners, lays bare the whole system. He's brutally honest about how corrupt it is, with bribes flowing freely, sometimes to petitioners to stop them making trouble, sometimes to wipe out complaints they've already lodged. At the filmmaker's request, we've disguised the official's voice to protect his identity since this film has not been openly shown in China.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE INTERCEPTOR FROM MY HOMETOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) We are buying stability with money. We have to pay one particular petitioner. We have to beg related departments to cancel records. We have to bribe them and the police. They profit from their power, and so gain more power to sell of.

LIM: In the film, this official enjoys the downtime on his mission. He reveals how even the train conductors profit from the security apparatus. They spotted the petitioners and for a reward, tipped off officials so they could detain them on arrival in Beijing. They sold them, he says, for $60 a head. This deputy mayor is honest about his own role.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE INTERCEPTOR FROM MY HOMETOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Through Translator) Being an official is like being a prostitute. They're selling their bodies, we're selling our smiles, and we're selling more than them. We're selling our dignity.

LIM: As he enjoys a foot massage, he describes visiting Zhongnanhai, the Beijing compound where the country's leaders live. He was impressed by its solemn, silent atmosphere. For the film's director, Zhang Zanbo, this sums up China's current situation.

ZHANG ZANBO: (Through Translator) It's absolutely a metaphor for the era of stability maintenance. The silence he talked about in the leadership compound is actually achieved by sacrificing the voices of those outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

LIM: Cut to scene three: These are the kind of voices the leadership doesn't want to hear, the angry voices of young migrant workers clashing with riot police. Rows of well-armed security forces show the power of the state. After all, China spends more on stability maintenance than on its military. This was the scene in June, when three nights of violence ripped through Shaxi town in Guangdong province. Two days after this scene, when I visit Shaxi, the migrant workers tell their side of the story.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: It started with a playground fight between two kids, says one migrant worker who asked for his name to be withheld for fear of the consequences. One of the children, a migrant kid, was brutally beaten by private security forces. Then, the situation was mishandled.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: The police beat anyone who was there with steel pipes and batons, he says. The relatives of those who got beaten thought it was unfair, so more and more people went there, and it just escalated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: As he talks, a car pulls up. Inside is a man with a bandaged head. Mr. Zhen has 10 stitches in his head.

ZHEN: (Through Translator) We didn't break any laws. We were just spectators. I was seeing my friend home when I was hit. He was hit in the head too and has eight stitches. In the hospital, there were at least 100 injured people, but they were all chucked out.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: All the televisions are tuned to local news stations, but these migrants are outraged by the broadcasts. Attempts to tell their story online have been censored. This man, who asked that his name not be used, is apoplectic with rage at the television.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Through Translator) It's absolutely untrue. In the past, we never questioned the government's story. But this time, we saw everything ourselves. Why did they take down our photos? You can imagine why. Nothing has changed. They're just using violence to enforce stability.

LIM: Stability maintenance means whole regions of the country are sealed off, with Tibet effectively becoming a militarized zone.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: At this Tibetan temple, monks begged me to leave, so scared were they of the consequences. Maintaining stability by force is increasingly unsustainable. And corruption means many make money from stability maintenance: the officials, the policemen, even train conductors. And so the paradox: the more stability is maintained, the less stable the country becomes. It's the behavior of a government afraid of its own people, a government that sees bigger threats from within than without. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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