Communists Triumph Over China Activists


A history student from the central Chinese city of Wuhan found himself sinking into deep frustration, even despair, when he visited friends at Beijing University recently.

"Everyone in Wuhan feels obstructed, stuck. There is no place to turn," the young man explained in a dormitory conversation. "Writers cannot publish their books. Students cannot publish their essays. I came up to Beijing University to see if anything was going on, if anything was being organized. But it's just so damn peaceful here."

The Communist Party leaders who sent troops shooting their way into Beijing on June 4, 1989, to end pro-democracy protests seem now to have won their brutal gamble. The threat of campus rebellion has faded. Organized resistance to the government is virtually impossible, with only vague reports surfacing of tiny underground groups.

The economy is growing, with indications it may expand 9% this year. China's fundamental economic strength lags behind that of Russia, but city dwellers know they enjoy more food and consumer goods than residents of Moscow. Thus, the immediate problems of the Communist Party in China are primarily internal questions of power and policy rather than the question of control over the country's nearly 1.2 billion people.

At Beijing University, this nation's most prestigious school and the key campus behind the Tian An Men Square pro-democracy protests, unremitting ideological controls, plus a rule that all freshmen spend a year in military training, have broken the back of political activism.

"Next time it won't happen at Beijing University, even though this is the center of the movement, the core, and even though everyone looks to Beijing University," commented an economics student who participated in the 1989 protests. "This campus is too sensitive. There is too much security."

A mood of frustrated resignation prevails at campuses throughout China. The worst of the post-crackdown repression is easing, but many controls remain in place. The government is self-confident enough to move forward with economic reforms. Some intellectuals believe that this will gradually lead to a further easing of repression; even those who long for political freedoms find it a bad time to rock the boat.

"There will not be any kind of disturbances on campuses this year," predicted a scholar who was sympathetic to the 1989 protests. "Students just don't have the heart for it. They have the sense that now that the situation has become more loose, more open, any kind of instigating should be kept to a minimum."

At Beijing University, which has played a key role in student movements since early this century, authorities responded to the Tian An Men Square protests by requiring freshmen to spend a year in military training before moving to campus.

This effort has succeeded in creating a generation gap between seniors--the only undergraduates left who participated in the 1989 movement--and younger students who endured the year of rigid ideological and physical training at a military base 170 miles southwest of Beijing.

"When they finally arrived, they were brainwashed to the point that we had nothing to discuss," declared a senior. "Now we just avoid contact."

Once the new academic year starts this fall, only graduate students and professors will have firsthand memories of the heady spring days of 1989 and their tragic ending.

China has endured so much war, repression and political upheaval throughout this century that the crushing of the Tian An Men Square protests is already fading into the cruel mosaic of history.

But for those who might still dare to stick their heads up, there are plenty of reminders of the risk.

Wang Dan, a Beijing University student who was a top leader of the 1989 protests, is serving a four-year prison sentence. Social scientist Chen Ziming and journalist Wang Juntao, accused of behind-the-scenes organizing, are serving 13-year terms. Ren Wanding spent 1979-1983 in jail for writing human rights essays, then spoke out again during the Tian An Men Square protests. He is now serving a seven-year sentence.

Some second-tier protest leaders have been released from prison, including Han Dongfang, a worker in a factory under the Ministry of Railways who was jailed for 22 months for organizing an unofficial labor union that supported the protests. He was released when it appeared he might die of tuberculosis contracted in prison.

But three important former advisers to ousted Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who was removed from office for allegedly sympathizing with the protests, apparently are still awaiting what may be secret trials. Zhao himself is almost certain to escape trial, but his case is not settled and he remains under a mild form of house arrest.

The most important of the three advisers is Bao Tong, 59, who was director of the Communist Party's Research Center for the Reform of the Political Structure. He is accused of leaking information to protesters. Also facing trial are Gao Shan, 35, a colleague of Bao's, and Wu Jiaxiang, 37, a prominent economist associated with the most reformist wing of the Communist Party. All three have been imprisoned since 1989.

Liberal thinkers inside the Communist Party are viewed by hard-liners as the biggest threat to the party's dictatorship. Many Chinese intellectuals agree that the greatest hope for an easing of repression lies with reform initiated within the party.

Overthrowing or even influencing the party is a daunting goal for those outside its apparatus. Despite the threat of arrest, a few activists on campuses and in factories are trying to build an underground opposition. Worker dissatisfaction sometimes boils up into open defiance and wildcat strikes, which are never reported in China's state-controlled media.

In November, just before U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III visited China, a poster demanding basic freedoms of speech, press, religion and assembly was posted at Beijing University. The poster, signed by the "China Freedom and Democracy Party," was quickly torn down by security guards. But its contents were later published by the Hong Kong newspaper Ming Bao. Similar incidents have occurred more recently.

Last month, a man who identified himself as a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party of China provided Western reporters in Beijing with a copy of the party's charter, which states its goal is to "organize China's democratic and patriotic forces to eliminate the one-party Communist dictatorship." This underground party was said to have been established in late 1989 and now has several hundred members across China.

There is also a group that calls itself the Free Labor Union, which has produced at least two leaflets calling for the right to establish unions free of Communist control. This group claims to have a core of about a dozen leaders who put out leaflets and have contact with about 200 members nationwide.

Generalized worker dissatisfaction, separate from any organized attempts at undermining communism, may be of greater significance to China's near-term future. But wildcat strikes tend to be narrowly aimed at protecting workers' immediate interests; in this sense, they may be as much anti-reform as pro-reform.

Many measures needed to rationalize China's economy involve the elimination of cherished socialist rights such as the "iron rice bowl"--guaranteed lifetime employment even for workers who do not perform well.

Firing unneeded workers--part of a reform process officially called "smashing the iron rice bowl"--is deeply unsettling, even if handled fairly. On the still-rare occasions when layoffs occur, they often come in an atmosphere of deep distrust, where managers are seen to be playing favorites and retaliating against personal enemies.

The official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, in a study never released for general publication, reported that about 1,620 worker protests took place in China in 1990, including strikes, slowdowns, rallies, petition drives and sit-ins. The document, seen by a Western reporter, estimated that about 37,450 workers took part in these activities.

This figure is large enough to reveal considerable worker dissatisfaction but small enough to show the Communist Party remains in firm control of most workplaces.

Such protests are as disturbing to Communist Party reformers as they are to hard-liners.

"At present, with the price of grain rising, housing rents going up and workers' 'rice bowls' being further smashed, it is extremely easy for contempt and even dissent to be created among the tens of millions of workers," said Wu Mingyu, deputy director of the government's Development Research Institute. "If we cannot find a good solution, it will easily lead to social unrest." The director's comments were quoted earlier this month by the official China News Service.

The government fears that some day students and workers will again link their grievances in general protests. And this is, indeed, the dream of at least some youths. "The only thing to do is prepare for the future," declared the Beijing University economics student and 1989 demonstrator.

To prepare, even the most radical thinkers generally have little choice but to compromise with the system, try to stay out of trouble, learn something worthwhile and perhaps make some money.

"The seniors are the only ones who were here in 1989, and now they're occupied with job assignments and other practical matters," commented a woman studying literature. "Few are concerned enough with politics to be active. Furthermore, who would dare?"

Researcher Nick Driver contributed to this report.

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