A steady drumbeat of dramatic news stories fills the foreign media about rural revolts against corrupt officials who have stolen farmers' land with scant compensation or allowed it to be polluted by unregulated factories. The stories are all true as far as they go, but what most of the reports fail to mention is that virtually all of these demonstrations are isolated incidents with few links outside of their localities.
If you plotted all of China's demonstrations on a map, the country would look like it was covered in leopard spots. Each spot individually bespeaks a horrible human drama and grave injustice, but collectively, they do not add up to a national crisis.
Not yet, anyway. When they might be transformed into a kind of national political movement is where the "tipping point" question comes in. It is a favorite parlor game question for China-watchers and one with endless permutations.
The central government in Beijing is often horrified at the mafia-like behavior of local officials but seems either powerless to do anything about it or unwilling to expend political capital in shutting it down. But it is quite happy for local governments to get tough if they discover that local demonstrations are being coordinated with protests elsewhere, or agitators have come in from the outside to advise locals on their rights.
In such cases, the full and frightening power of the Chinese state will be deployed against the hapless agitators, both to squash the spread of protests and remind others of the consequences should they dabble in political organization. The ruling party's intolerance of organized political opposition is the reason why China no longer has a fledgling "Democracy Party." All of its senior members were rounded up and sent to jail or exiled.
But in its place a far more disorganized but sinuous anti-government movement has been built up, networked through the Internet and the mobile phone. The members of this network are kind of professional agitators, who give advice to villagers trying to stand up against local officials.
They are only loosely affiliated with each other but their influence is palpable. Through text messages and the like, a villager questioning his land deal in Guangdong can very quickly know how a farmer in a similar predicament in Hunan fared.
It is worth noting the last two years of record-breaking protests in China have coincided with extraordinary economic growth. That tells you the tipping point is not yet here, but that doesn't mean that one day it will not arrive with a thud.