There once was widespread optimism the new national leadership's informality would be matched by an open-mindedness about public expression. With the introduction of stricter controls on online debate and bans on media coverage of sensitive topics - and the more recent detention of three well-known dissident writers - such hopes have been thwarted. It is a regrettable situation, as the efforts to limit discussion are bound to be undermined by the power of new technology. Meanwhile, there will be damage to China's reputation abroad, at a time when the country wants to take up regional and global leadership. There are indications of a rising level of discontent as the mainland undergoes unprecedented social and economic change. The number of grievances being brought to government offices is on the rise and so is the frequency of protest. Concerns about central government bureaus are valid, as the possibility of unrest has risen, and there are serious implications for Communist Party discipline as well as political legitimacy. But the path to stability and shoring up the party's standing lies in addressing the grievances, particularly at local level, not in harassment of those who bring the problems to light. One controversial issue is resumption of farmland for development. Communities are rising in protest at the inequality, corruption and profiteering that these projects feed on, while some of the writers being 'grey-listed' by the government are academics who study the issue. Signs that Beijing is looking at reforms to the petition system and resolving disputes more quickly are encouraging. One test of progress will be whether those appointed to deal with the problems are independent of officials. The list of topics about which discussion is strictly limited has grown longer in recent months. It now includes both the resumption of farmland and corruption among local cadres. And despite the early hopes for a broadening of civic debate, the new leadership has shown a readiness to use national security laws to limit expression and to tighten the propaganda chiefs' grip on publications. But the country's development challenges arguably call for more vigorous debate about how to balance competing interests, not less. Tighter control of public expression, meanwhile, is likely to be counter-productive. There is no doubt the central government's methods for monitoring the information that appears on the internet and mobile phone networks is growing more sophisticated. Nonetheless, writers determined to get around these measures will always find a way and so will their audiences. Banned books still circulate in pirate form and mirror sites hosted overseas provide ready forums for sensitive discussion. Attempting to control the free flow of information, while increasingly futile, will do nothing to win hearts and minds.