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Chinese Spirit of Freedom Glows Despite Repression

ChinaBeijing (China)National GovernmentPolitical DissentBusinessPoliticsGovernment

BEIJING -- A Chinese rock band, making up in noise what it lacked in sophistication, was banging out Western hits in a small dance hall when a young Chinese man struck up a quiet conversation with a foreigner.

The man, a recent college graduate, soon confided that he had been in Tian An Men Square the terrifying night of June 3-4, when tanks rolled into the heart of Beijing against the resistance of angry crowds. Now, he said, despite all the deaths that night and the ensuing months of repression, he still believes that last spring's pro-democracy protests were worth the price.

"In the short term, the effect is bad," he acknowledged. "But in the long term it will be good, because now the people know what the government is really like."

In the six months since Beijing's springtime of dreams was shattered--with hundreds, perhaps thousands, killed by martial-law troops-- China's leaders have waged a frantic battle against the spirit of freedom and rebellion that the young man in the dance hall represents.

First came the terror of the initial crackdown, then waves of arrests, stepped-up ideological indoctrination and more central control over the economy. The result, so far, is a surface calm.

But a decade of openness and reform has unleashed tremendous forces for change. Rock bands may avoid political lyrics, but they manage to keep on performing. Economic reforms may be stalled, but they are not dead. And in Beijing--where propaganda cannot erase people's memories--suppressed rage lies just beneath the surface.

The anger extends across all levels of society.

At a roadside bicycle service shop, the repairman tells an American how great and rich the United States is, then abruptly adds: "China is no good. Chinese people are no good!"

The American protests that surely this is not true.

"Yes, some Chinese people are good," the man concedes. "But our leaders--no good."

Imitates Gunfire

The man leans closer and whispers, "They kill the people." He glances around to be sure no one is watching, then crooks his arm as if it were an AK-47, and imitates the sound of automatic weapons fire.

A college-educated office worker, speaking with a foreign friend, lists the forces that could lead to another explosion: near-total alienation of students and intellectuals; a government austerity program that may increasingly cut into workers' wages, and perhaps lead to layoffs; widespread bankruptcies and production cutbacks in rural industries, which are a key source of employment and wealth in the countryside, and the example of rapid political reform in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

With the right spark, these pressures could combine to bring a renewal of massive street demonstrations, this man said. Another route to political change, he added, would be for one faction within the government to stage a sudden coup.

It is dangerous for Chinese to express such opinions publicly or to be quoted by name in the foreign press. Since June 4, authorities have announced the arrests of about 5,000 protesters and dissidents nationwide, but foreign analysts believe that many more--perhaps 10,000, perhaps more than double that number--have been detained. Some have been released after interrogation, but it is generally believed that most of those detained are still in custody. New arrests continue at an undetermined rate.

At least a few protest leaders remain in hiding. Others have slipped away into foreign exile, where they are attempting to organize opposition to the hard-line leaders now on top in Beijing.

China's most famous dissident, astrophysicist Fang Lizhi--who is believed to be still inside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he took refuge with his wife after the crackdown--recently spoke out for the first time since June 4.

In an acceptance letter for the 1989 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, given to him in absentia at a ceremony in Washington last month, Fang expressed pessimism about China's future. But he added: "It may well be that those who are most terrified (in China today) are those who have just finished killing their fellow human beings."

A European diplomat in Beijing, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he believes China's rulers feel collectively threatened by the anger of ordinary citizens.

"On this question of stability, there is total agreement in the leadership," he said. "For the time being, it's not conservatives versus reformers, which is the problem. It's the people versus the government. . . .

"All the people I know who participated in the movement tell me they are going to do it again. Of course, there's a lot of wishful thinking in this. But it's the mood. And the government knows it's the mood. The government will use the carrot and the stick, whatever is possible, to try to keep stability," the diplomat said.

When Beijing University--the nation's most prestigious school and a hotbed of last spring's protests--reopened for the fall semester, a party official gave a speech bluntly warning students that the city of Beijing is upgrading its ability to suppress protests.

"One of the vice mayors said to me that they are preparing to establish a horse-mounted division and riot police equipped with non-lethal weapons," the official declared.

"I understand that we are preparing to produce rubber bullets and are also preparing to import 'coloring bullets,' 'shock bullets' and all kinds of bullets I've never heard of before," he continued, provoking some laughter among the assembled students. " 'Coloring bullets' explode and spray red and green dye all over your skin that can't be washed off, making it easier to find and arrest people. 'Shock bullets' emit sound at a frequency that the ear just can't stand, shattering people's nerves."

The official also defended the use of real bullets against protesters last June: "What army only deals with foreign aggression and not with internal, anti-government rebellion? What kind of army is one that can't open fire to carry out its orders? A government that can't use its army and an army that can't open fire are an incapable and absurd government and army!"

Martial law--imposed May 20, two weeks before the army was ordered to shoot its way into the city--remains in effect. But it has become far less visible in the past two months.

Police, rather than soldiers, now control access to Tian An Men Square--which is open again, but only to those who obtain special sightseeing tickets. Nighttime security checks of vehicles have diminished.

While anger over the June killings appears to be almost universal among Beijing residents, many people--perhaps a majority--are willing to accept virtually any leaders. These people believe political stability is essential for improvement of their own lives and therefore hope that China can avoid further upheavals.

"If China is divided or in chaos, that's no good," a hotel gift shop clerk explained.

The June crackdown re-established the overwhelming dominance of senior leader Deng Xiaoping and a few other octogenarian revolutionaries, who asserted their authority to insist that the army be used to end the student-led protests.

But Deng, 85, has visibly aged in the last six months. Recent videotape clips on state-run television have shown him struggling to express himself in short speeches to high-ranking party and military leaders.

Wen Wei Bao, a Beijing-controlled newspaper in Hong Kong with good access to high-level Chinese sources, recently reported that Deng gave a speech to Chinese leaders in September in which he acknowledged that his mental powers might soon begin to fail.

"When a man grows old, he tends to become stubborn and lose energy," Deng said, according to this report. "I am old now. My brain still works, but I may say crazy things in the future."

Last month, Deng gave up his last formal party post, turning over the powerful chairmanship of the party's Central Military Commission to Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin. Deng has made it clear that Jiang, who now heads both the party and the army, is his chosen successor as China's preeminent leader.

Jiang, 63, a former mayor and party chief in Shanghai, is a technocrat with a reputation as a political hard-liner who favors moderate economic reform and continued openness to the outside world.

But Jiang--who was named party chief in late June to replace the ousted reformist Zhao Ziyang--faces various potential rivals as he attempts to consolidate power.

The stiffest challenge, at least in the short run, could be launched by President Yang Shangkun, 82, who is in much better health than Deng and who comes close to matching his record as a revolutionary veteran. When Jiang succeeded Deng as head of the military commission last month, Yang was elevated to first vice chairman, and his younger brother, Yang Baibing, 69, was named the commission's secretary general--the fourth-highest position in the military hierarchy.

Premier Li Peng--who strongly advocated the martial-law crackdown and who is widely viewed as less committed to market-oriented reforms than Jiang--appears to have won greater control over economic policy as a result of the June events. But Li, 61, has never been a popular figure, either within the party or among the Chinese people, and he is now so closely associated with the June massacre that many people believe his political future is dim.

In the jockeying for power that is already under way and seems likely to intensify after Deng's death, other figures who could play potentially critical roles include Defense Minister Qin Jiwei, 75, generally regarded as a strong supporter of reforms, and Qiao Shi, 65, the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security.

Further in the background, but still important, are Chen Yun, 84, an ailing but still-powerful advocate of central planning who over the last decade has resisted some of Deng's reforms, and Vice President Wang Zhen, 81, a hard-liner widely despised by reformist intellectuals.

Much depends on who dies first.

"I personally think that Deng looks horrible--old and confused," commented an American businessman based in Beijing. "I do not see anything good coming out of an early Deng death. The most pessimistic scenario I see is Deng dying, Yang Shangkun making a move for power, (Defense Minister) Qin Jiwei saying 'No, you don't,' both of them bringing their boys with tin hats into play, and blood on the streets.

"The optimistic scenario is, Deng hangs on in relatively good health for three or four years, some of the other octogenarians go before him--specifically, Yang Shangkun, Chen Yun, Wang Zhen--and in the meantime, in these three or four years, the closet Zhaoists . . . are allowed to reassert themselves."

For now, China faces severe economic problems as a year-old austerity program aimed at slashing inflation and cooling what had been an overheated economy threatens to cut too deeply.

Last year China's gross national product grew by 11%, with industrial output expanding by 18%. Inflation ran at 26%, according to official figures.

In recent months inflation has come to a virtual halt. Prices rose 8% during the 12 months ending in October, according to official figures, but this increase primarily reflects price hikes of last winter and spring. Along with the drop in inflation, however, has come an industrial recession, with production in October down 3% from September, according to official figures.

Chinese leaders and the official media have publicly acknowledged that hard times may lie ahead.

"Only through a few years of hard work, belt-tightening and unity can we go past this stage and continue . . . our socialist modernization," the Beijing Daily declared in a recent commentary.

Some believe that the government is taking a big risk by carrying on with the austerity program, scheduled to last another two years.

"They tell the people to prepare for a rough life, but this could be very dangerous," a university student commented to a foreign friend. "If the workers don't get their bonuses, they won't be happy. There'll be trouble that will make last spring's movement seem like nothing."

Such talk is so widespread that the official New China News Agency felt compelled last month to issue a report formally denying that workers' bonuses are to be ended.

"The rumor that bonuses will be abolished next year is sheer nonsense," the news agency reported, quoting Gong Shuji, head of the Beijing Labor Bureau. Gong acknowledged, however, that "austerity of course implied workers' wages and bonuses would not be increased as rapidly as usual," the agency said.

Economic difficulties are aggravated by sanctions imposed by the United States and other Western governments, which limit certain types of loans and trade, and by reluctance on the part of foreign business to put more money into China.

"If you see an economy that's regressing, where material incentives are being de-emphasized, where the party is asserting control in the workplace, where people have to engage in political study one afternoon a week, where foreign exchange is less available--these things would tell me it's not as good an environment as a year ago, and maybe I ought to be looking at Malaysia or Thailand or Indonesia," explained a foreign businessman with many years of experience in China.

Martial law also stands as a constant reminder that despite the surface calm, the situation is far from normal, this businessman added.

"The fact that martial law is still in effect--that troops still ring the city--is an indication that the leadership is still concerned," he said. "If they're concerned, who am I not to be concerned?"

Not everyone, however, expects another outburst of protest any time soon.

"The ones who were so active, who were so idealistic, now they see that it does no good to care about politics, to care about the future of the country," a young Chinese teacher of English, the father of a 3-year-old boy, said despairingly.

"The ones who are best off now are the ones who were going out on dates, looking for lovers, while everyone else was out protesting for a better country," he said. "Now the ones who didn't care are praised for 'not getting involved in the turmoil.'

"So the ones who were active, now they understand what the older people were telling them. They understand why their parents were telling them it would just bring them trouble in the long run. "Maybe in 15 years my son will be part of the new generation who will try again, who will think that the country could be better and will care and want to make changes.

"I'll try to tell him that it's too dangerous, it isn't worth it, just worry about yourself. But it won't do any good. He won't listen. He'll tell me I'm just one of those old people who doesn't understand. He'll still have hope. The young people are always the pioneers. So he'll go out and try to make the country better. And I'll have to let him go."

Times researcher Nick Driver contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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