Guangdong party chief Wang Yang has been hailed as a model modern leader for defusing tensions sparked by a land dispute in Wukan village peacefully last year by pursuing open dialogue.
A member of the Communist Party Politburo, Wang is a strong contender for promotion to the supreme Politburo Standing Committee during the leadership reshuffle expected this autumn thanks to his close ties to party general secretary Hu Jintao and his image as a hard-nosed reformist and liberal administrator.
And he's not about to let any hiccups, such as further social unrest, jeopardise his promotion prospects.
The South China Morning Post has learned that an order issued in recent months threatened that heads would roll if Guangdong witnessed a second Wukan or similar 'unpredicted' mass incident before the 18th party congress. Local government officials and public security officers were told they would be held responsible if they failed to do their utmost to nip protests in the bud.
While it cannot be confirmed that the order came from Wang himself, many find it highly believable.
'This is a critical year for Wang Yang as he is hoping to get into the Politburo Standing Committee, so we've been seeing more measures to maintain social stability over the past few months,' said Ye Du, a Guangzhou-based media analyst. 'This includes tighter control of the local media and more petitioners being arrested.'
This is evident in a series of recent controversial moves at Nanfang Media Group after a leadership reshuffle last month. Yang Jian's appointment as the group's new party chief has sparked concerns over a tighter grip on its media outlets. Yang was the former deputy chief of the party's propaganda department in Guangdong and a former bureau chief for Xinhua but he is now leading a group which owns two of the mainland's most respected and outspoken newspapers: the Southern Weekend and The Southern Metropolis News.
Then Yu Chen, the 39-year-old editor of the in-depth investigative news desk at The Southern Metropolis News was suspended and confirmed his resignation this month after he posted online comments deemed critical of the government. As it turned out, Yu inadvertently used the official account of the newspaper's microblog to respond via his cell phone to a post questioning whether the military should serve the Communist Party or the country as a whole. His response was immediately deleted but the original message gained wide circulation. The International Federation of Journalists condemned the newspaper and urged it to reinstate Yu.
According to a source familiar with the group, management desperately tried to steer clear of negative publicity because they were worried 'it would hurt Wang Yang's career prospects'.
The group's reporters have also been put on tighter leash when it comes to meeting foreigners, including diplomats and journalists. And even relatively less sensitive news stories have been hit by gag orders, such as the one about a 40-year-old woman who leaped to her death early last month while protesting against the forced demolition of her home in Yangji village to make way for an urban renewal project.
'Normally something like this would not warrant a gag order or we would at least be allowed to run a story from Xinhua, but this time there was not a single word allowed to be written on the subject,' said a journalist with the group.
The tightened control is even more visible in the treatment of petitioners. Four months ago, Wanggang villagers, in Guangzhou's Baiyun district, were celebrating the suspension of their corrupt local village chiefs but they may have cracked open the bubbly too soon, recently learning that six leaders of their protests had been arrested for an 'illegal gathering'.
When villagers protested at Guangzhou's city government headquarters in January, vice-mayor Xie Xiaodan quickly came down to meet them and promised to launch a thorough investigation of their complaints. The rare conciliatory gesture was seen as a continuation of Wang's 'Wukan approach' to address public grievances over land disputes speedily and peacefully. But the wives and daughters of those arrested are now being harassed by local authorities to make sure they remain silent and do not create further trouble.
In another case, six internet users who petitioned on the streets of Guangzhou's Tianhe district in April were locked away after urging Hu to take the lead in disclosing his personal assets. They were released recently but either warned to stay away from the media or sent back to their hometowns and barred from entering Guangzhou without official approval.
And in March, five other petitioners were arrested in Guangzhou when they tried to hand in letters complaining of torture and corruption linked to land deals to the US consulate. Four have been released but the whereabouts of the remaining petitioner, Cui Minyi, remains unknown to her family and friends.
There is a Chinese saying: the trees long for peace but the wind will never cease. No matter how hard the authorities try to maintain social stability, the people will not stop seeking justice until the government can finally deliver it.
To justify his image as an enlightened, liberal leader, Wang should waste no time in putting a stop to all random arrests by local governments and ensure the continued vitality of the outspoken newspapers. The freedom they enjoy is a reflection of just how open and liberal Guangdong really is.