Hong Kong - "They feel they are sitting on a volcano," said a prominent Chinese academic when explaining the government's crackdown on its critics.

"Even though China is very different from Egypt or Tunisia," the Chinese government realizes that "there are so many people who are unhappy over so many different issues, including seizure of land by officials, corruption and housing, that they are fearful that any one issue may provide the fuse that sets off a huge explosion in the country."

The latest Gallup global well-being survey, compiled between 2005 and 2009, provides a glimpse into the mood of the Chinese people. It found that despite robust economic growth, only 12 percent of Chinese people thought of themselves as "thriving," while 71 percent said they were struggling and 17 percent said they were suffering. This is clearly linked to a poor or nonexistent social safety net.

(The happiest countries incidentally were found to be in Scandinavia, where people's basic needs are taken care of to a higher degree than elsewhere. Oil-rich countries that provide for their citizens' welfare, too, reported high levels of satisfaction.)

China ranked only 125 of 155 countries, behind war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan and even behind poorer countries such as India, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

To prevent public dissatisfaction from erupting, Beijing is cracking down hard on public interest lawyers who help the vulnerable fight for their legal rights, whether it is over tainted milk, illegal land grabs or flimsily constructed school buildings that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing thousands of children.

In the recent human rights dialogue in Beijing between the United States and China, U.S. delegation head Michael H. Posner accused China of "serious backsliding," spotlighting the case of Teng Biao, a leading human rights lawyer detained without charge since Feb. 19.

Before the dialogue began, the official newspaper Global Times commented that "most Chinese people are disgusted with Western pressure on human rights."

However, this attitude was very different from that of people fighting for human rights in China. For example, Li Fangping, another leading rights lawyer, said international attention was crucial to cases like that of Teng Biao.

"His detention, for over two months now, is completely illegal," Li said. "The effect of the dialogue may not seem direct or obvious, but there will be an effect and it will help."

Ironically, the day after dialogue, Teng Biao was released, but hours later Li Fangping was abducted by security personnel. Perhaps his comment on the value of foreign pressure led to his own detention.

The lack of progress at these human rights dialogues has led to calls for ending the talks, which consume a great deal of time and resources on the part of senior American officials.

However, victims of abuses evidently appreciate these efforts. Gao Ge, sister of the detained artist Ai Weiwei, said she hoped that his case would be brought up during the dialogue and "I think the whole world is paying attention."

As long as Chinese victims appreciate such efforts, they should continue. After all, the official vituperation shows that the government wants such efforts to stop.

The lawless behavior of the Chinese authorities, such as making people "disappear" without resorting to any legal process, is extremely worrying. And the government continues to insist that China is a country governed by law. In this regard, it is good that China has agreed to begin another dialogue with the U.S. in June, this one involving legal experts.

Hopefully, Chinese legal experts will consider issues from a legal perspective and be willing to discuss the legality or lack thereof of their government's actions.

It is true that changes in human rights need to come from within a country and cannot be imposed from without. But in China, the government is attempting to silence voices calling for change.

Outsiders can only call on the Chinese government to honor its commitments, made in the Chinese constitution and in U.N. human rights treaties. Ultimately, human rights can only be guaranteed if the Chinese government respects the Chinese people.

This it should be willing to do without the urging of foreign countries. After all, what is the point of having a people's republic if the people are not the masters of their own country?