China's transitional show of unity belies mounting tide of activism

(CBS News) BEIJING - Every 10 years, the reins of power in China pass to a new generation. The orderly transition is tightly choreographed behind closed doors.

Unlike the U.S. election, the Chinese people don't have a say in the process. CBS News correspondent Bill Whitaker reports, however, that the Chinese people are now making their voices heard.

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Everything about the 18th Party Congress is big: Beijing's Great Hall of the People has filled up with more than 2,000 Communist Party delegates. The party elite carry the enormous weight and pride of history, and China's boundless hopes for the future.

But increasingly, the hopes of the vast nation's 1.3-billion people are clashing with the one-party state's leadership. By some estimates, there are 500 protests in China every day -- over everything from corruption to pollution.

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There were massive demonstrations last week in the central coastal city of Ningbo over the expansion of a petrochemical plant.

Communist officials said it was good for the economy, but 10,000 angry citizens said it was bad for their health.

Xu Xinglong, a 35-year-old building contractor, was in the middle of it, capturing video of the protest on his cell phone.

The air quality in Ningbo has been deteriorating for years, he says, along with the quality of food and water. Xu says his daughter is always sick, his wife always sneezing.

"The pollution we suffer is too severe," he tells us. The people of Ningbo aren't known to protest, but Xu says they simply can't take it anymore.

Asked whether he's afraid of reprisals from the government for taking a stand, he tells us he doesn't worry -- remarkable, considering how China's government dealt with protesters on Tiananmen Square 23 years ago.

"Citizens should have a right to say no to the government," Xu tells us, adding that he hopes the Communist Party leaders meeting in Beijing this week are listening.

Ningbo officials bowed to public pressure and halted the plant expansion, for now, at least.

Outgoing president Hu Jintao, meanwhile, said Thursday as the Congress kicked off that the growing gap between China's rich and poor, and rampant corruption, could spark greater social unrest and threaten communist party rule.