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China is about to get new leaders for the first time in a decade, and it comes at a crucial moment for the world's most populous nation. Economic growth, which surged for decades, has slowed. Demands for political reform have increased and the Communist Party has been hit by scandal. In a series of stories this week, NPR is examining the multiple challenges facing China. In this story, Louisa Lim looks at China's pervasive efforts to maintain order.

In China, government critics call it "the era of stability maintenance." It's their label for the government's policy over the past decade of prizing internal stability above all else, no matter the cost.

Beijing this year is spending $111 billion on its domestic security budget, which covers the police, state security, militia, courts and jails. This is now higher than its publicly disclosed military expenditure.

Three scenes illustrate how the state security apparatus targets individuals, as well as groups of people, and how the system feeds off itself.

SCENE ONE: Retired film professor Cui Weiping is a small, tidy woman in her 50s with a radiant smile and an easy laugh. It's difficult to imagine anyone who looks less threatening.

But for the past nine years, state security has monitored her movements, ever since she co-wrote a letter expressing her support for a group of mothers whose children were killed on June 4, 1989, the day the government cracked down on protesters in and around Tiananmen Square.

Her phone has been tapped, her car followed, her life subject to directives from state security agents.

"Sometimes they tell me not to go to certain places, not to meet certain friends, not to go to one particular bookstore," she says. "There are restrictions on my movements."

This is how the system works: monitoring those individuals considered a threat to stability, limiting their freedom to act.

The tentacles of China's state reach deep into Cui's life: Her husband has been urged to put pressure on her; fellow teachers from her university spied on her, sometimes even following her by car. Eventually she was pushed to retire, a pattern common among dissidents employed by state-run institutions.

Cui is philosophical.

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

SCENE TWO: A group of tearful elderly petitioners is being berated angrily by a younger official. They are retired special forces soldiers, who have suffered health problems after working on what they describe as a secret nuclear project in the 1970s.

The petitioners had been hoping to lodge a complaint in Beijing about the poor treatment they received in their hometown. But they were intercepted by local officials on arrival at the train station in Beijing and are detained in their hometown's representative office in the Chinese capital, which is an unmarked apartment in a secret location.

"Your coming to Beijing has led to instability," the local official tells them in a harsh tone. "As veterans, you should share the country's difficulties, not make trouble for your motherland."

One of the veterans, choking back tears, gets on his knees in front of a young official, but to no avail. This is footage from a documentary called An Interceptor from My Hometown, which follows a deputy mayor, whose job is stopping petitioners. In the process, he lays bare the whole system.

"We are buying stability with money," says the deputy mayor, who is given the pseudonym of He Xiaozhou in the film.

He is brutally honest about how corrupt the system has become. He describes how his rural town spends roughly $25,000 per year on one particular petitioner, sometimes resorting to paying him not to cause trouble.

He also admits that he pays bribes to erase complaints that petitioners have already lodged, which could block the chances of promotion for himself and his superiors.

"We have to beg related departments to cancel records," he admits. "We have to bribe them and the police. They profit from their power, and so gain more power to sell off."

Even the train conductors profit from the security apparatus, by spotting the petitioners and tipping off officials so they can be detained on arrival in Beijing.

"They sold them to the Beijing liaison office," he says, "for $64 a head."

In the film, as the deputy mayor wines and dines and describes gambling sessions with other officials, the petitioners are detained illegally in a secret liaison office.

"They can make and remake the laws at will," one petitioner complains as he reflects on the extent to which maintaining stability is the overriding imperative, trumping even China's Constitution.

This deputy mayor is honest about his own role.

"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," he says.

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.

"It's absolutely a metaphor for the era of stability maintenance," he says. "The silence he talked about in the leadership compound is actually achieved by sacrificing the voices of those outside."

SCENE THREE: The voices the leadership doesn't want to hear are the angry screams of young men as they clash with rows of well-armed riot police.

This was the scene in June, when three nights of violence ripped through Shaxi town in southern China's Guangdong province. Yet such scenes are replicated across the country. One Chinese professor, Sun Liping, estimates there were 180,000 "mass incidents" in 2010.

The reasons for such mass protests are varied: Land requisitions, environmental protests, ethnic grievances and employment disputes are just some of them.

But two days after the Shaxi riots, many of the migrants from Sichuan, who were blamed for rioting, accuse the government of mishandling a minor dispute, causing discontent to explode.

"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.

The migrant workers say one of their children was involved in the fight and was brutally beaten by private security forces, to whom policing had been outsourced.

"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."

As he talks, a car pulls up. Inside the vehicle is a man swathed in bandages.

"We didn't break any laws," says the man, who gives his name as Mr. Zhen. He has 10 stitches in his head. "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."

The story is all over the local TV news stations, and these migrants are outraged when they hear the way the episode is portrayed by the broadcasts — from the number of nights the violence went on to claims that it was under control at a time migrants say rioting continued. The migrants have tried to post accounts of police brutality and photos showing their version of events online, but these have been blocked.

One man, who asked that his name not be used, is apoplectic with rage at what he hears on television.

"It's absolutely untrue," he says. "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. They're just using violence to enforce stability."

Stability maintenance means whole swaths of the country are sealed off, with Tibetan areas effectively becoming a militarized zone as growing numbers of Tibetans immolate themselves in protest against Chinese rule. At one Tibetan temple, monks begged me to leave because they were so scared of the consequences.

In the far-western autonomous region of Xinjiang as well, policing has been stepped up following riots in 2009. But as the discontent balloons, maintaining stability by force is increasingly difficult.

Corruption throughout the machinery of stability maintenance means increasing numbers of people benefit from instability, or the growing "empire of unaccountability" as Kerry Brown from the University of Sydney describes it.

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