By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - The senior Chinese official who helped defuse a standoff with protesting villagers has told officials to get used to citizens who are increasingly assertive about their rights and likened erring local governments to red apples with rotten cores.
Zhu Mingguo, a deputy Communist Party secretary of southern Guangdong province, last week helped broker a compromise between the government and residents of Wukan village. Ten days of protests over confiscated farmland and the death of a protest organizer drew widespread attention as a rebuff to the stability-before-all government.
Speaking to officials about Wukan and other protests, Zhu said these were not isolated flare-ups, the Guangzhou Daily, the official paper of the provincial capital, reported on Tuesday.
"In terms of society, the public's awareness of democracy, equality and rights is constantly strengthening, and their corresponding demands are growing," Zhu told a meeting on Monday about preserving social stability, the paper said.
"Public consciousness of rights defense is growing, and the means used to defend rights are increasingly intense," said Zhu. "Their channels for voicing grievances are diverse, and there is a tendency for conflicts to become more intense."
Zhu also cited protests by migrant factory workers who complained about ill-treatment. These areas where unrest erupted had won praise as "advanced units" - showcases of growth and harmony, noted Zhu.
Not so, he said.
"In these areas there were many problems that were not swiftly identified, and when they erupted, the consequences were even more serious," said Zhu, referring to the response by local officials.
"Like apples, their hearts were rotten even if their skins were red, and when the skins broke, there was a real mess."
FENDING OFF RISKS OF UNREST
Red is the color of the ruling Communist Party, and Zhu's comments reflected debate within it about warding off risks of unrest from an increasingly unequal and diverse society.
In recent days, Chinese courts have jailed two dissidents for nine and 10 years respectively, underscoring the government's determination to silence critics whom it fears will channel discontent into organized opposition to one-party rule.
That concern is magnified by preparations for a party congress in late 2012, when the central leadership will retire and make way for a new generation.
Zhu put much of the blame for the recent unrest on local administrators. In Wukan, he said, officials had sold off more than two thirds of the village land, without providing for residents' welfare.
"Now, where are the state cadres who remember that farmers don't have land for their food?" Zhu told the meeting. "When do they think of the hardships of ordinary people."
"If these complaints had been dealt with sooner, would they have ever caused such a big ruckus?"
The protests in Wukan ended after officials made concessions over the seized farmland and the death of a village leader, Xue Jinbo, whose family suspects he was beaten in custody.
Villagers denounced local officials as corrupt and heartless throughout their months-long dispute, which erupted in rioting in September. But they ended up welcoming province officials led by Zhu as brokers who finally stepped in to forge compromise.
The officials agreed to release three men held over the land protest in September, when a government office was trashed, and to re-examine the cause of Xue's death, protest organizers said.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ron Popeski)