Beijing's triumph on the human rights front at Geneva last week may have further convinced the administration of President Jiang Zemin that its hard-ball tactics towards dissent are paying off. The decision by several Western countries to look the other way could prolong the harsh winter Chinese dissidents are going through. Most of the big-name democracy activists are either behind bars or under surveillance. It would be wrong, however, to assume that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will be able to snuff out the voices of opposition. Seasoned observers have pointed out that a Chinese-style civil society - defined broadly as the world beyond the CCP's control - is growing at a heady pace. And this realm of colour and diversity is on collision course with a leadership that seems bent on preserving Mao Zedong's 'one-voice chamber'. Given its l'etat, c'est moi mind-set, the CCP has since 1949 frowned on - and tried to prevent - the formation of non-party-related organisations. In the wake of Deng Xiaoping's open-door policy, however, a host of social and business associations have sprung up. About 2,000 such national outfits are registered with the Ministry of Civil Administration. In spite of this quasi-official affiliation, most of these units - consumer-advocacy associations, academic and professional bodies, as well as guilds and chambers of commerce - by and large - do their own things. They boast about 100 million individual members. This zeal to form 'people's associations' has not been dented by the party's decision last year to put a moratorium on the formation of several categories of national-level organisations, including academic and research units. Then there are the proliferating underground organisations such as wild-cat trade unions and clansmen's associations as well as the triads and cults. These, together with the house churches, are a time bomb that has not been defused by the deployment of more police and paramilitary units. Another pillar of China's civil society are the more than five million owners and staff of non-state-owned enterprises, which account for 30 per cent of total national assets. In addition, 18 million urban and rural citizens are classified as gumin, or regular players in the stock market. Also significant has been the thickening of the ranks of 'Western-style' professionals. The semi-official Hong Kong China News Agency pointed out lawyers would be China's first corps of self-employed professionals. More and more of the country's estimated 80,000 attorneys are running their own practices. The next to follow will be doctors and accountants. While the majority of the people's organisations and private businesses have little interest in upsetting the CCP's monopoly on power, they are seen by orthodox Marxists as a threat to party supremacy. An increasing percentage of the population is no longer beholden to the CCP for their livelihood or station in society. The party's impending irrelevance is evident from opinion surveys on the career choices of urbanites. A recent poll showed jobs in the party and government had become less popular than private entrepreneurs, stock-brokers, doctors and lawyers. The domain of 'non-party-run China' has been augmented immeasurably by the Internet, deemed the CCP's latest nightmare. Daily, more than 100,000 surfers in Internet cafes, offices and homes crisscross national - and ideological - boundaries. Starting in early 1996, the ideologues and censors tried to police the net by requiring all enthusiasts to register with public security bureaus and to use government-run providers. About 100 objectionable web sites were banned. To little avail. Given the proliferation of sites, there is no way the Chinese-style net-nannies can screen out the poisonous weeds. Chinese sources said dissidents and their associates had no difficulty downloading 'subversive' material from net addresses in the United States and other countries. In the past year, the administration has felt the heat of the civil society at one political crisis after another. Take, for example, the people-based campaign to protect the Diaoyu Islands last summer - and the unpopular decision by Beijing to contain anti-Japanese sentiment for fear it would unleash another series of student demonstrations. The authorities were surprised by the number of defend-the-Diaoyus organisations that were sprouting in cities such as Beijing, Nanjing, Shenyang and Shenzhen. These included secret associations of World War II veterans and retired soldiers that had eluded the antennae of state-security agents. Dissident voices are gaining extra mileage from Internet versions of the dazibao, or big-character posters. Last summer, protect-Diaoyu web sites and electronic messages were the rage among avant-garde students in Beijing, Qinghua and Fudan universities. Last autumn, gumin power manifested itself in the wake of slumps in the Shanghai and Shenzhen bourses. Investors, including farmers who had recently come under the spell of stocks, held demonstrations in several cities during which the offices of government departments and stock-brokers were vandalised. There are signs one of the leadership's worst fears - the collusion between businessmen and 'trouble-makers' such as dissidents and separatists - is becoming reality. In the spring, several entrepreneurs in Xinjiang were detained by state security agents for allegedly providing help to the splittists. Hundreds of private businessmen, of course, were active players in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. Even in non-crisis times, movers and shakers in the civil society are asserting their rights as free-thinking individuals. In the past six years, courts of all levels have handled an estimated 170,000 cases of citizens and civil groups suing government departments for dereliction of duty and other lapses. While private businessmen are denied formal roles in the party and government, they are throwing their weight about through 'back-door channels' such as buying official positions. The savvy red capitalists started with purchasing memberships in grassroots-level people's congresses and consultative organs. Recently, the nouveau riche have snapped up posts as senior as country chief and vice-mayor of medium-sized cities. Party ideologues have claimed efforts by private entrepreneurs to promote free-market competition and the free flow of information could bring about the 'peaceful evolution' of the country to capitalism.