BEIJING (AP) — The year ahead will challenge Chinese security officials increasingly nervous about social stability, the nation's top police officer said Tuesday, amid concerns about gang violence, separatism and dissident plans to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Leaders are particularly anxious about how the cooling economy, and the accompanying loss of jobs, will affect social order.
"The present situation of maintaining national security and social stability is grave," Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu warned leading officers in Beijing, official state media reported Tuesday.
Meng called for specific measures to head off disruptions during Oct. 1 celebrations to mark 60 years of communist rule.
The anniversary is one of at least three sensitive dates that opponents of the authoritarian regime could seize on as symbolically rich opportunities to stage demonstrations or issue calls for political reform.
"I worry a social crisis is highly possible in 2009," Yang Fengchun, a political scientist at Peking University's School of Government.
Joblessness will compound simmering dissatisfaction among the poor over corruption, abysmal public services, and the yawning gap between rich and poor, Yang said. The children of migrants, unused to rural life, could be a particular source of instability if left without schools or jobs, he said.
The flight of foreign investment, deflation, falling pay, and bankruptcies, already have led to the loss of 10 million jobs, the official magazine Outlook Weekly reported this month, citing government statistics.
It said November saw a near doubling of numbers of migrants working in Beijing involved in pay disputes.
Many Chinese have been willing to accept single-party rule and curbs to their civil liberties as long as the leadership delivers steady economic growth; there are fears that a downturn could spark widespread unrest.
Growing joblessness has been linked to a spike in gang crimes, prompting the Ministry of Public Security to announce last month the creation of a division focused on organized prostitution, gambling, drug production and trafficking.
China's court system reported 337 gang crimes were prosecuted in 2007, marking a 161 percent increase from the previous year.
The government is also cracking down harshly on pro-democracy activists.
Last month, police detained prominent Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo after he co-authored a charter calling for stronger civil rights and an end to Communist Party political dominance. Other people who signed "Charter 08" have been summoned or followed by police.
Some 300 lawyers, writers, scholars and artists signed and circulated the plea for a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, election of public officials, freedom of religion and expression, and an end to the party's hold over the military, courts and government.
Liu, 53, is a former university professor who spent 20 months in jail for joining the 1989 student-led protests in Tiananmen Square.
Every year, he and other dissidents issue statements or try to visit Tiananmen Square to honor those killed in the June 3-4 military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing. Most are often put under house arrest ahead of time to prevent such activities.
No official accounting has ever been given of the incident, in which hundreds died, leaving it an open wound for many intellectuals and natives of the capital who took part.
Anniversary activities are expected to be on a larger scale this year to mark 20 years since the demonstrations were violently quashed.
Other touchy milestones in 2009 include the 50th anniversary of a failed March uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet that led to the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in India and the imposition of harsh communist rule.
That month is also the anniversary of deadly rioting in Tibet's capital Lhasa on March 14 last year that sparked the biggest anti-government protests among Tibetans in decades — and a major military crackdown.
Authorities also remain on alert for renewed violence among Turkic Muslim extremists in the far northwestern region of Xinjiang. According to the official Procuratorial Daily newspaper, 1,295 people were arrested and 1,154 indicted last year for state security crimes in Xinjiang, up sharply from the nationwide total of 742 arrests and 619 indictments in 2007.
Those increased figures came amid a series of bloody attacks and police raids on alleged terrorist networks targeting the Beijing Olympics in August.
Other observers are more sanguine, pointing to continued, if slower economic growth, and a political system that showed its robustness in staging the Olympics and weathering a series of crises.
China already records about 80,000 protests and demonstrations per year with no major impact on stability, said Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociology professor at Beijing's Renmin University.
"The year 2009 won't be as bad as some expect. There should be no major social incidents happening this year," Zhou said.
While economic growth may fall below 8 percent this year from 11.9 percent in 2007, a 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package will ensure most university graduates will eventually find work, Zhou said.
Migrants, meanwhile, remain poorly organized and pose little threat to the state, he said.
"China is marching forward and its ability to deal with the issue is also growing," Zhou said.