Thanks to Laura Rozen for linking to accounts of a vicious, probably fatal, beating meted out by local toughs in Taishi on a democracy activist--in front of a horrified Guardian correspondent.
For me, the key to the story is possibly this graf:
The tactics in Taishi, however, were more sophisticated than those used by other protesters. Outside legal experts were asked for advice and the protesters used the internet and mobile phones to spread their campaign on bulletin boards and among domestic and foreign journalists.
Furthermore, the activist, Lu Banglie, was not a local. He had come to Taishi to encourage locals to vote in upcoming elections to challenge the corrupt local government.
I believe the central Chinese government considers democratic and quality-of-life agitation useful--when it is exercised by locals against local regimes.
While allowing the locals to let off steam, it enables the central government to present itself as a counterweight to corrupt local power and burnish its "protector of the people" credentials.
What the central government does not want is for non-local human rights and democracy activists to attempt to supplant it in its self-chosen role, and create a situation in which locals look to non-government intermediaries--a democracy movement with national pretensions, or international media--for aid.
Then the central government would find itself in the undesirable and disadvantageous position of a complicit, inefficient, and distrusted force competing against these alternate sources of support--and itself losing the political and moral initiative that comes from being a sole mediator and instead becoming the focus of legitimized pressure groups demanding that it "do something".
Just as the segregated South frowned on "outside agitators" as a challenge to the traditional power structure, the Chinese central government must be deeply concerned at the rise of an alternate national political network.
And just as non-local civil rights activists were brutalized and murdered in the South, the central government--and not just the under-siege local politicians--may have decided that a salutory dose of terror and intimidation at an early stage might be needed to nip this democracy movement in the bud.
Apologies and investigations can come later, but will not dim the memory--or message--of the vicious, high-profile assault on a non-local democracy activist and his impotent witnesses from the international media.
A human rights observor described Lu's beating as going "far beyond anything that has happened before". The fact that it was committed in full view of a foreign correspondent was also unprecedented.
And, perhaps, no accident.