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2011 Reflections: China rising

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(Read caption) Villagers in Wukan, China protest in a file photo from December.

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It would be a brave man who would predict real political change anytime soon in China.

In the sensitive run-up to next fall's Communist Party Congress, and its once-in-a-decade leadership handover, the authorities will be especially vigilant in their battle to keep China "harmonious." That means stifling dissonant voices through censorship, arrests, and other familiar tools.

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And yet there are unmistakable signs of ferment in Chinese society as it digests the phenomenal economic achievements of the past 30 years. Whether that ferment results in flammable gases is one of the key questions surrounding China's future.

Many signs go unreported, such as the estimated 90,000 riots, protests, mass petitions, and other eruptions of unrest that happen every year, mostly in poor, rural areas. They are almost always localized affairs, targeted at unpopular municipal officials.

An unusually dramatic incident in December did attract national attention, however: The people of Wukan, in the southern province of Guangdong, angered by the threat that their farmland would be confiscated for construction, rose up and threw their local Communist Party rulers out of town.

Less violent symptoms of social change in China are more pervasive, though at first sight they have little to do with politics.

At the other end of the social spectrum from Wukan's villagers, many educated young people in the cities, for example, especially those in their 20s, are showing a much greater sense of independence and adventure than their parents ever allowed themselves.

They are quitting their jobs if they find them boring. They are traveling, they are shrugging off social traditions, and they are immersing themselves in foreign culture, whether that be Western music and fashion, South Korean soap operas, or Japanese anime.

Most important, they are putting personal fulfillment above any sense of duty to "serve the people," once the highest of Maoist values.

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And these same young people – still a small minority, but an elite, opinion-shaping minority nonetheless – are losing their faith in the government, according to a study last year. The more a young person uses the Internet as a source of information, the more he or she thinks the government needs citizen supervision. And Internet penetration hit 500 million people this year, or a little over one-third of China's population.

It is anyone's guess how long it will be before social ferment bubbles up far enough to hit the leaden coffin lid of conformity imposed by China's political rulers. But as young consumers develop a hankering to become citizens, the pressure is building.