Chinese officials are fond of telling foreign journalists that we should dispel our prejudices by going down to the countryside and seeing "the real China". The trouble is, when I heed this advice, the realities of China's money politics, ever-expanding political-security apparatus and disregard for its own laws often turn out to be more serious than I previously imagined.
In Heilongjiang province, up against the Russian border, what had looked to be an ordinary land dispute proved to be an epic battle where officials had confiscated thousands of hectares of land from more than 40,000 farmers and rented it back to them like feudal lords.
I was shown an X-ray of a dispossessed peasant's skull, with a bullet in it. I was told the guns were in the hands of mafia gangs who had been brought in by the area's biggest rural landlord, who derived his power from his former role as the local Communist Party security chief.
The mafia and the local government had become one and the same, protected by a web of bribes and bureaucratic loyalties at each superior tier of government.
And in Tangshan city, a middle-class woman called Liu Yuhong told us how she had travelled to Beijing during the tense occasion of last year's 60th anniversary National Day military parade. She had wanted to lodge a "petition", or official complaint, seeking to learn the whereabouts of her parents who were being held in a labour camp (they had been detained for "petitioning" over a trivial property dispute).
Liu was taken by police, handed to private security operatives and dumped in an exposed row of bare concrete cells, where she was starved of food and water for five days. Liu's face was beaten until the walls were speckled red and she was force-fed an unknown fluid until she vomited. She later miscarried on a concrete prison floor.
Liu's case is gruesome but not unique. The extra-legal kidnapping of petitioners, subjecting them to abusive treatment and storing them in "black jails" is now commonplace. In fact, it is one of China's fastest-growing industries. One private security company, Andingyuan, employed 3000 people to kidnap petitioners in Beijing on behalf of local governments, in daylight, until it was shut down two months ago.
One point to make about these abuses of power is that we are finding out a lot more about them. We learned about the black jail company because Chinese journalists wrote about it. I found out about the petitioner Liu Yuhong because she had posted her story on the internet. The Heilongjiang farmers publicised their dispute with the help of democracy activists in Beijing.
These days you can discover a fair bit about "real China" by simply having an internet connection, despite the vast and growing propaganda and censorship apparatus that tries to stop the Communist Party from looking bad. Ordinary people are recording the daily abuses of police and officials - often with their mobile phones and sometimes with video cameras that you can buy in Beijing in the shape of a shirt button for $35 - and exposing them on microblogs.
"My father is Li Gang," said the son of a district deputy police chief, boasting as to why he would never be brought to justice for running over and killing a student. That phrase became instantly famous across China and is now shorthand for shirking any sort of responsibility.
Chinese living standards are rising astonishingly fast but Chinese expectations are rising even faster. People who not long ago were faceless "masses" and "peasants" are gaining personal independence and economic leverage, becoming exposed to the information world and developing a sense of entitlement about what the state should do for them - or at least what it should stop doing to them.
A new civic society, including a class of genuinely professional journalists, lawyers and scholars, is springing up to represent their interests faster than the state can push it back down.
The accelerated evolution of Chinese society and information technology is placing enormous pressure on the Communist Party. In recent years the party has responded by harnessing its prodigious resources to buy, deflect and sometimes brutally suppress these challenges to its monopoly on power. The party wins every battle but each is more costly than the last.
A growing number of thoughtful non-radicals in China believe power within the Communist Party is now too diffuse and the party's vested interests are too great for it to manoeuvre out of the way of history and avoid disaster. "China has not found a way to break the dynastic cycle," as a once-influential policy adviser likes to tell me. Others expect the party will find a way through as it has a dozen times before.
But almost everyone agrees China needs a way out of its giddying cycle of prosperity, freedom and repression. This is what the debate about political reform in China is all about.
China's political reformists generally agree their country needs more of three things to reduce abuses of power: transparency, justice and democratic accountability. But they seldom agree on how to get there.
The top-down approach is exemplified by this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo. Liu is a quietly spoken veteran of Tiananmen Square who helped co-author a manifesto for constitutional democracy called Charter 08. The charter calls for constitutional reforms that might see the Communist Party voted out of power.
Liu's Christmas Day sentencing to 11 years in jail for endangering state security - the toughest since that offence was legislated in 1997 - spurred the Nobel Committee into action and shocked Chinese intellectuals everywhere. Hundreds of them had signed the charter and thousands more supported his right to express his views. The party turned Liu Xiaobo into a martyr who now enjoys far wider support than before he went to jail.
Either Chinese society is becoming more rebellious or the state is becoming more paranoid, or both. Liu was one of 1095 people who were indicted for endangering state security last year, according to the latest China Yearbook.
"Added together, the number of arrests and indictments for endangering state security in 2008 and 2009 exceed the totals for the preceding five-year period from 2003 to 2007," says Joshua Rosenzweig of the Dui Hua Foundation, noting that figures in the two recent years were boosted by riots in Tibet and Xinjiang.
An alternative grassroots approach to political reform is exemplified by a charismatic, pugnacious and unkempt former lawyer called Yu Jianrong, who is an expert on rural conflict at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Professor Yu is a master at pushing, poking and negotiating the red line that separates activists from dissidents, without crossing it.
The day after Liu's sentencing, on Boxing Day, Yu addressed a crowd of Beijing lawyers which included several Charter 08 signatories and many more who were already reeling from earlier crackdowns. He described China's problems in raw and black-humoured detail. He said the party's obsession with its absolute monopoly on power had led to increasingly serious abuses of power, which led to worsening social discontent, which led the party to feel under siege and tighten its grip on power further. Things had got so bad, he said, the party had left itself with two options, only one of which was viable.
"The first is that anxiety about these catastrophic consequences will spur all interested groups into working towards a rational compromise; they will use reason to search for a baseline that everyone can agree upon," he said. "The second is that maybe because this compromise does not occur, [China] will experience fundamental, revolutionary turmoil."
Yu's suggested "baseline" for durable stability may not be revolutionary but it is radical: subject the Communist Party to its own laws and constitution.
Liu wanted to change the constitution and was jailed for it. Yu is campaigning to replace the party's costly "rigid stability" policies with a commitment to the constitution as it is, and he is gaining popular traction.
In March the State Council revealed the domestic security budget for the first time. It showed the party spent a staggering 514 billion yuan ($80 billion) on domestic security last year, up 16 per cent from the year before and marginally short of China's entire official military budget.
In April a team of Tsinghua sociologists slammed the bureaucratic incentive system that was pushing local government officials into an escalating cycle of security, oppression and social discontent.
"Blindly preventing the expression of legitimate interests in the name of stability will only accumulate contradictions and render society even more unstable," said the Tsinghua team, led by sociologist Sun Liping.
Recently Yu's gadfly routine seems to have gained a new level of official endorsement. His hard-hitting commentaries and blogs have become - have been allowed to become - hugely popular. The Beijing News and Southern Weekend newspapers published glowing profiles of Yu's character and family background.
The English-language Global Times reports Yu is now endlessly educating cadres on how to behave, with various central government departments picking up his tab.
The paper describes Yu screening a video clip of police beating rioters and protesters to a large group of cadres from Shenyang: "Who gave these interlocutors the right to beat petitioners? If you guys ever try to block citizens from airing their grievances then you have infringed upon our rights endowed by the constitution. China stands at a political watershed where the ruling mindset that stability trumps all must be abandoned."
In August and September, the Premier, Wen Jiabao, issued a series of strident calls for political reform and personal dignity, which gave cover for Yu and others to make further demands for reform.
"All political parties, organisations and all people should abide by the constitution and laws without any exception," Wen told CNN.
Some say the party would reform if it knew how to without losing control of the process. In practice, it seems hopelessly stuck between the rising sophistication and expectations of the people, on the one hand, and its obsession with its own power and privileges on the other.
But the discourse of political reform is more vibrant than ever.