A little-noticed speech by Politburo Standing Committee member Wei Jianxing says much about the plight of the country: labour unrest is on the brink and the leadership is bracing for a massive outbreak of disorder. Last Wednesday's talk by Mr Wei, also head of the official trade union of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was hardly standard fare for Labour Day festivities. 'Whether we can solve the problem of the livelihood and job placement for the unemployed affects not only the success of the reform of state-owned enterprises but social stability and the viability of the socialist regime,' Mr Wei told worker representatives at the Great Hall of the People. Translation: if unemployment worsens, there may be riots on the streets - and the CCP's mandate of heaven may be in tatters. Mr Wei called upon government and industrial units to take good care of displaced labourers. 'Enterprise leaders must change their world view,' he said. 'It won't do just to simplistically unburden laid-off workers on society.' The Politburo stalwart's sense of urgency was underscored by the fact that he knew the situation would deteriorate. Beijing had announced that at least 3.5 million would lose their jobs this year. Similarly bleak scenarios are shared by other top cadres. Upon returning from a provincial tour, another Politburo Standing Committee member confided to his aides that 'many times, I could not use the main entrances of [government] buildings in the regions'. The reason: the almost daily occurrences of jobless workers and destitute pensioners laying siege to the headquarters of provincial and municipal administrations. Said another ministerial-level official in Beijing: 'Every time a group of unemployed workers is in town, we smell trouble. All they need is to spend a couple of minutes on Tiananmen Square and we have a political incident on our hands.' A labour source said the recent spate of killings, kidnappings and semi-riots in the wake of the State Council's sudden decision to ban direct sales and 'pyramid schemes' was but the tip of the iceberg. 'Door-to-door marketing has caught on because the legions of the unemployed see this as their last chance to earn a living,' he said. 'Beijing's failure to engineer a soft landing for the 'direct salesmen' means its control apparatus is not working,' the source added. Woes on the economic and labour front - and challenges to the CCP's status as ruling party - have obliged the leadership to put on what analysts call the harsh face of socialism. As a retired party cadre indicated, since Deng Xiaoping kicked off his reforms in 1978, China has been informed by an intriguing duality, which is reflected by the late patriarch's famous 'both fists be tough' theory. On the one hand, the country has opened its door to the world economy and allowed at least urban Chinese to enjoy a growing pluralism in the social and cultural spheres. On the other hand, emphasis is being given to the Four Cardinal Principles of Marxism, particularly, the dictatorship of the proletariat. The phenomenon that Chairman Mao Zedong characterised as yifenwei'er - roughly translated as 'everything has two sides to it' - has reared its head in the past month. On the one hand, the country has made laudatory commitments to the West to transform its economic and socio-political systems; and there is talk at least among Western journalists of a 'Beijing spring'. On the other, the weapons of 'proletarian dictatorship' are being polished and unprecedented resources are being pumped into the cause of 'regime building'. In the run-up to the historic visit by United States President Bill Clinton, the propaganda machinery is playing up the benign face of socialism. In reality, the pendulum may be swinging the other way. The past fortnight has witnessed major meetings by elements of the ubiquitous control mechanism: the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), the Ministry of State Security, and the People's Armed Police. All three units have been expanding in spite of Premier Zhu Rongji's much-publicised efforts to trim the bureaucracy. Take the police conference. The media has quoted the new Minister of Public Security, Jia Chunwang, as telling the rank and file to weed out corruption and to heed the slogan of 'using the law to run the police'. Xinhua quoted an MPS circular as saying: 'In general, China enjoys a stable social order. But in certain areas of the country, social order is not so optimistic.' That this might be the understatement of the year could be gauged from the unpublished Document No 5 of the Central Committee. The document called on not only law-enforcement departments but all government units to put maintaining social stability and snuffing out challenges to the regime as their 'topmost priority'. The legal establishment, regarded as a 'pillar of proletarian dictatorship', has also swung into action. Eschewing the quasi-liberal rhetoric of his predecessor Qiao Shi, Li Peng saluted conservative themes in his first major speech as chairman of the National People's Congress. 'In essence, China's laws give [concrete] form to the CCP's lines, goals and policies,' Mr Li said at an NPC meeting last Wednesday. Mr Li made it clear he disagreed with the arguments of Mr Qiao and his free-thinking underlings that the constitution and the law were supreme. 'Practice has shown that it won't do for China to go without the leadership of the Communist party,' he said, hinting the NPC apparatus must abide by party leadership. Orthodox goals of bolstering stability and shoring up the party's authority have affected economic decision-making, which has also manifested traits of Mao's yifenwei'er philosophy. On the one hand, Mr Zhu is telling the West that market reforms have replaced the diktat economy of yore. On the other, the administration has slapped multiple fiats on the departments and regions. Beijing sources said the CCP had since last month circulated a central-level document asking administrative units of all levels to take immediate steps to ensure 'healthy and stable development' through boosting investment in infrastructure and expanding exports. Local leaders were urged to make 'personal pledges' that the task of the year - an eight per cent growth rate - would be attained. There are also specific quotas for areas, such as job creation and absorbing foreign capital. At a time when Adam Smith's Invisible Hand seems to be holding sway, China is, from another perspective, being run according to Chairman Mao's good old instincts for self-preservation and control.