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Analysis - China price for stability raises alarm

BEIJING (Reuters) - The Chinese government’s bid to maintain stability at all costs is creating a domestic security system so expensive that experts and officials say it is sapping funds needed elsewhere to sustain the country’s economic health.

The ruling Communist Party’s smothering of public support for Nobel Peace Prize winner and jailed dissident, Liu Xiaobo, is the latest example of the lengths, and costs, the authorities are willing to go to keep a lid on even minor events that might seem to threaten its hold on power.

China’s total spending on domestic security reached 514 billion yuan (48.3 billion pounds) in 2009, a whisker below the military budget of 532 billion yuan, a group of social researchers from the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing estimated in a report published earlier this year.

“Threats to social stability are constantly being side-stepped and postponed, but that is making social breakdown increasingly grave,” it said. “The current model of stability has reached the point where it cannot continue.”

Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, an international watchdog group called the resources devoted to stability “absolutely humungous.”

“There’s a vicious circle that more security leads to more security,” he said by telephone.

China swaddles all its big meetings, events and sensitive dates with police and guards to scare off trouble-makers, extinguish protests and project power.

The massive security for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has become a general template, and is on show for preparations for a Party leaders’ meeting in Beijing from Friday.

HOW MUCH LONGER?

The show of strength works for now. But many question how much longer it can be effective.

President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will use the Party meeting to hone a five-year economic development plan intended to cement their vows to build a “harmonious society” free of serious division and discontent.

And for the moment, China’s formula of one-party rule and economic growth can ward off serious challenges from below, the public still happy enough with its economic and social gains.

It is later, especially if growth and revenues flag, that worries some Chinese experts and officials.

Firm control of discontent has been a defining policy of China’s government, especially since the pro-democracy protests of 1989 that ended in a bloody crackdown and Party patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s demand that “stability comes before all else.”

Stuck to by successive leaders, that slogan has created an expensive illusion of solid order for which the country may one day pay heavily, the experts and officials said.

“This unyielding stability has already reached the point where it cannot be sustained, because it exacts a huge cost,” Yu Jianrong, a prominent expert on social unrest at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in a recent lecture in Beijing.

“What may happen in China in the future is that there are more outbreaks of local turmoil,” he said.

RAPID GROWTH

Rapid economic growth over the past two decades has rekindled official worries that social flux and inequality could unsettle Party control.

President Hu chaired a meeting in late September that studied the social strains facing the country, state media reported at the time. He warned officials to be ready for a rough patch.

That means more spending on social welfare, healthcare and rural services in its next five-year plan starting from 2011, the official Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.

Yet the government’s single-minded demand for officials to snuff out symptoms of unrest is skewing resources and attention away from social needs and into playing cop to monitor and detain potential protesters, say officials and experts.

A study of 10 provinces and local governments showed outlays on domestic security rose faster than for schools, hospitals, and welfare, and often ate up a bigger share of budgets, the Social Sciences Weekly, a Shanghai paper, reported in May.

The focus on averting unrest is skewing officials’ priorities, as well as budgets. Points systems are often used to weigh officials’ promotion prospects based on the number of protests in their areas.

Some local governments demand grassroots officials deposit millions of yuan in “guarantees” every year, and money is taken from the fund if there are protests under their watch, a Chinese magazine, People’s Tribune, reported last month.

“Many local government departments don’t put themselves in the shoes of people in hardship and try to solve the fundamental problems at their root,” Feng Qingyu, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Administration, which trains rising government officials, wrote in a study published in April.

Rather, they worry about “how to increase and maintain security camera systems, how to increase uniformed police and plain clothes security staff,” wrote Feng.

($1=6.7 Yuan)

Editing by Jonathan Thatcher

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