An eruption of protests throughout China has sent armoured vehicles into town centres, prompted an internet blackout by the government and left thousands across the country blogging about "crazy" violence on the streets.
The summer surge of protests, which flared in the southern industrial hub of Zengcheng over the weekend, has been linked to a range of frustrations with modern China - furies that have drawn the government into crackdowns on activism and massive increases in the domestic security budget.
More than 1000 migrant workers went on the rampage in Zengcheng after a pregnant street vendor in her 20s was roughed up by security guards. Such incidents, while distressing, are not uncommon.
Witnesses said that the centre of town was bedlam, with smashed windows, blazing police vehicles and teargas explosions as rioters hurled missiles at an official building. One bank worker blogged that the Bank of China had ordered an immediate halt to all ATM transactions.
In central Hubei province armoured cars were used last week to quell a riot over the death of Ran Jianxin, an official who had led the fight against corruption in the town of Lichuan but died mysteriously in police custody.
The protests followed bomb attacks on government facilities in two other cities in the past three weeks, and ethnic unrest in the northern region of Inner Mongolia last month.
Although few see China as a likely arena for uprisings in the style of the Arab Spring, Beijing remains terrified that the fast-rising tally of localised protests could be linked via mobile social networking and Twitter-style websites.
Some Chinese academics believe that the true number of protests in the country last year was more than 180,000. After several big clashes in recent weeks the names of half a dozen big towns have been eradicated from the search engines of the country's most popular microblogging sites.
One of the "disappeared" cities, Dongguan, is the fourth-largest producer of exports in the country and has a population only slightly smaller than London's.
The recent violence, however, has exposed the limits of the government's ability to control the urban population using internet censorship what party leaders refer to as "social management".
Authorities have turned to displays of raw power, deploying paramilitary police and armoured vehicles in at least three cities in as many weeks to prevent violence from spiralling further as protesters have repeatedly directed their anger at government buildings, often ostentatious symbols of power. What connects the violence is the way a flashpoint - in Inner Mongolia, the death of a Mongol at the hands of a Han Chinese truck driver, and in southern China, the assault by security personnel on a pregnant migrant worker - sets off much wider conflagrations.
The disturbances could reflect badly on President Hu Jintao, who has tried to promote the concept of a "harmonious society" and who is due to retire as party chief next year.
"There's an increasing sense of frustration that (leaders) are unable to put out a consistent, unifying message, even within the party," said Kerry Brown, head of the Asia program at Chatham House, who met senior party officials last week. "Local officials are overreacting partly because of a lack of clear leadership at the top."
But the unrest is likely to strengthen the clout of Zhou Yongkang, who technically ranks ninth of nine on the Politburo Standing Committee but wields huge power as he oversees the police, intelligence agencies, prosecutors and courts.
Authorities have been careful to balance their use of force with conciliatory gestures, including the removal of some local officials. State media have also been reporting the unrest relatively quickly and openly, compared with previous years, in what some analysts see as an attempt by the government to take control of the narrative ahead of bloggers.
A Monday editorial in the Global Times, a tabloid linked to the Communist Party, warned against trying to connect the recent incidents of unrest and draw conclusions about China's social stability. "China is not a nation where public anger collectively seeks to topple the existing order. It is time to debunk this ludicrous lie," it said.