BEIJING — China's authoritarian government pushed back Monday against the specter of political dissent, warning citizens that any transition to a modern democratic system is still decades away.
The pronouncement came on the heels of activist gatherings Sunday inspired by the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia — public meetings in Beijing and Shanghai that were very small and very quickly disbanded by police.
Although it isn't possible to know exactly what's happening in the corridors of power of the notoriously opaque Chinese Communist Party, there have been several indications that China's leadership is trying to manage lingering domestic social problems while avoiding the sort of turmoil that's plagued hard-line Arab governments.
Comments by senior Chinese leadership that were made public, combined with opinions aired Monday in state media, seemed to reflect a two-pronged approach of seeking to get a handle on hot-button issues such as corruption and income inequality while dealing harshly with any emerging challenges to the Communist Party.
An editorial in Monday's state Global Times newspaper urged Chinese intellectuals in particular to be more patient with the government’s goal of becoming "a modern country governed by political democracy. It just needs several more decades to realize this ambition."
For now, the essay said, everyone should toe the official line because "in theory, it is not totally unfeasible that the nation could fall into social turmoil should its public governance fail."
There was little doubt left about how the government views those who don't comply.
A second piece, carried only in the English-language edition of the Global Times, compared participants in Sunday’s lapsed protests to "beggars in the streets." The fact that the incidents happened in the first place was censored from Chinese-language publications and the Internet.
Prominent Beijing human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said state security officers had come to his home Sunday and asked him about his "opinions on Egypt and Tunisia," two nations in which large protests have deposed leaders recently.
"I said if we don’t speed up political reform, it'll be very dangerous," said Mo, whose law firm represented Liu Xiaobo, the dissident writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who's serving an 11-year prison sentence on charges of trying to subvert state power.
Several lawyers and activists reportedly have been detained in the past week.
President Hu Jintao and a top Communist Party official, Zhou Yongkang, spoke to senior leadership at a "seminar" over the weekend, telling the audience to pay attention to public concerns and make certain that they don't get out of hand.
The Xinhua state news wire paraphrased Zhou, who oversees legal issues, as emphasizing the need to "safeguard people's fundamental interests" and at the same time "consolidate the ruling status of the Communist Party of China."
There've been recent reports that several members of China's ruling politburo held a meeting Feb. 12, a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, to discuss what was happening in the Middle East and how to strengthen Chinese propaganda efforts. Among the measures reportedly on the table were stopping independent commentary from spreading, overseeing Websites more closely and preparing for "the possibility that part of the Internet will be shut down."
A summary of the reported gathering was posted on Boxun, a Chinese-language Website based in the United States, and written about on The New York Review of Books website by Perry Link, a professor at the University of California-Riverside and noted China analyst.
Link, who previously edited a set of Chinese government documents on the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square, wrote that the summary was obtained by a democracy activist in Beijing who is "well positioned to judge" its authenticity.
It wasn't possible to verify the document's veracity independently.
Some China observers cautioned against viewing recent news items as a sign of deep concern in Chinese ruling circles about what's happened in places such as Cairo.
"The government here has been fairly consistent. They tighten when they believe that public opinion has to be guided," said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based analyst who closely tracks official publications and reports. "The tightening is a reminder that they are in charge; it's not a product of anxiety on their part."
Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese leadership, agreed.
"If you read (Hu's) speech, he recognizes that China really is faced with a lot of social issues and you have to deal with them," said Bo, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore. "“But he's not an alarmist. He's not saying, 'If we don’t do something the whole thing might collapse.' "
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Tom on Twitter
Follow China developments at McClatchy's China Rises blog