China's state media has issued an unusually candid warning of the risk of mass riots this year, in what observers said reflected increasing jitters about the global economic crisis.
Outlook magazine, an authoritative weekly published by the Xinhua news agency, said in this week's edition that the economy might become so bad in the coming months that China's social fabric could start unravelling.
"Due to deepening economic difficulties and social security problems since the second half of 2008, enterprise closedowns, layoffs and labour disputes have significantly increased, triggering a rise in mass incidents," it said. "Economic pressures affect the sentiment of various social strata, and disadvantaged groups in particular are seeing their livelihood threatened. Their pent-up discontent could easily burst out... and spark mass conflicts."
According to one ominous statistic cited in the magazine, close to 10 million migrant workers out of a total of 120 to 130 million have lost their jobs as crises overseas have hit the nation's export-dependent economy.
The warning, reiterated in China Youth Daily, the Communist Youth League's publication, came as the nation was coming to terms with the worst macroeconomic data in recent memory.
The Chinese economy grew by nine per cent in the third quarter, the lowest rate in over five years, and the World Bank has forecast growth this year of 7.5 per cent, a level not seen since 1990.
Political scientist Paul Harris said the worsening economy was potentially explosive for China's communist chiefs, who for years have been able to use rising prosperity to help offset deep social tensions about many injustices.
"The government has a long history of being able to deal with protest. But the big question is if it (protest) will become genuinely widespread, and that can only come from economic issues," said Harris, from Hong Kong's Lingnan University.
Dissatisfaction with the economy could be further aggravated by the 60th anniversary of the founding of the communist People's Republic in October, he said.
"The anniversary of the founding of the republic will be significant. People will reflexively, automatically look back and ask where everyone has come since the founding," he said.