SENIOR Communist Party officials from around the country were ordered in a national video hook-up to defuse protests and prevent riots or other "mass incidents" from disturbing the Beijing Olympic Games as one of the worst riots of this year was under way in south-west China.
Beijing's stability campaign exhorts officials to handle complaints properly and promptly as a matter of the highest priority to defuse unrest, but provincial and local leaders are expected to interpret this call as using whatever means are necessary.
A Sichuan party leader on an official website said Beijing's directive meant ensuring that "zero [protesters or petitioners] go to Beijing, zero go to provincial capitals, there are zero group petitions and zero mass incidents".
The Pingchang county party secretary, Li Ying, said all petitioners would be dealt with according to strict law and discipline, but those "deliberately making trouble and breaking social order" would be punished.
"We are entering a state of war," another provincial government website said.
Pictures of the most recent riot, involving up to 10,000 people torching government and police offices and cars in Wengan county in Guizhou province, were reported by local media and on the internet. Locals said police attempts to cover up the rape and murder of a teenage girl by a party official's son had caused the unrest.
Farmers and other disgruntled citizens upset over corruption, land grabs and pollution traditionally resort to the centuries-old practice of petitioning the emperor, which these days means travelling to Beijing to try to get leaders such as the President, Hu Jintao, and the Premier, Wen Jiabao, to intervene in local or provincial disputes. But local officials frequently prevent petitioners travelling, or forcibly remove them from Beijing, if they are causing too much trouble.
China's rapid economic growth has widened the gulf between rich and poor and nationally petitions have leapt from 4.8 million in 1995 to 12.7 million in 2005.
"It has become a tough war which we cannot afford to lose as the Beijing Olympics get close," said the Deqing county government website in Zhejiang province. "We must deal properly in lettering and petition work, maintain social stability, and ensure a safe and successful Olympics."
In a move expected to be copied by other provincial governments, Anhui and Hebei provinces have announced tough new security checks from July 20 until the end of September on all travellers to cities hosting Olympic events.
Almost all local authorities have computerised blacklists of troublemakers.
¦ Chinese officials will hold a second round of meetings early next month with envoys of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, state media reported.