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After 3 Years, China Still Keeps the Lid Tight


Chengdu, China. -- Three years ago this week, the capital of China's most populous province seethed with anger.

Chengdu's hospitals were packed with injured pro-democracy protesters, perhaps dozens of whom later died.

Mangled skeletons of burned vehicles lay in a heap in the center of town, behind China's largest statue of Mao Tse-tung.

Nearby, hundreds of heavily-armed police officers ringed a large block of stores completely leveled by fire.

All this resulted from almost two days of hand-to-hand combat between military police and tens of thousands of demonstrators, who had come from all over Sichuan province and who were joined by a mob of hoodlums.

The fighting constituted Chengdu's version of the better known and more deadly confrontation that took place at the same time near Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where at least hundreds were killed.

Today, a return visitor to Chengdu is hard-pressed to find vestiges of that grim event -- just as Beijing shows few overt signs of its blood bath.

Chengdu's famed teahouses and street-side restaurants are in full swing. About every third storefront appears under renovation. A huge red banner beside the massive Mao statue proclaims: "Five Star Beer." A modern, attractive department store rises four stories above the once burned-out block.

The contrasts between then and now are extreme. But they are not isolated from the direction that China has taken since the weekend of June 3-4, 1989, when the world watched the Chinese military squash a generation's aspirations for more freedoms.

In the three years since the Tiananmen Square massacre, China's leadership, however divided, has kept a firm lid on political dissent -- a remarkable feat given the scale and intensity of the 1989 protests in dozens of Chinese cities.

The Chinese Communist Party essentially has accomplished this playing to the widespread and well-founded fear of chaos here and by providing enough Chinese with a rapidly rising living standard.

"Many people remember the way life was so hard in the 1960s and 1970s, and things are so much better now that they aren't interested in making trouble," a low-level government functionary Chengdu says.

"June 4 is in the past," adds a recent college graduate in Beijing, who participated in the Tiananmen protests. "Most people are moving on with their lives, focusing their attention on practical things like making money."

Put simply, this political formula -- often labeled "new authoritarianism" -- offers consumer goods instead of Western notions of democracy and human rights, a more-than-acceptable trade-off for many who have long known only subsistence.

It is not a uniquely Chinese or even socialist formula, but a path well paved throughout Asia. Singapore's one-party rule, strict limits on dissent and high standard of living represent its logical conclusion, one overtly admired by China's leaders.

As evidenced by recent events in Thailand and earlier upheavals in the Philippines and South Korea, however, Singapore's ability to retain absolute political control in the face of rising middle-class expectations may prove to be an exception as Asia rapidly develops.

But in China for now, insuring control with military force remains entirely feasible.

Even as China's patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, has been pushing for accelerated economic reforms, he also warned just a month ago in the party newspaper, People's Daily: "Once the forces of turmoil reappear in the future, we will not hesitate to use any means to eliminate them as soon as possible."

That knowledge plays heavy in the minds of those here who still privately confide that they can never forget what happened in China three years ago.

Consider a young Beijinger in his 20s, who was very active in the protests. He still hoards in a secret place dozens of gruesome pictures he took of the dead and dying in a makeshift morgue set up in an underground walkway west of Tiananmen Square.

These images include a man with an arm blown off, another with half his head missing and a woman in her 70s shot to death. In all, he recalls, he saw 40 to 50 bodies in just that one place.

"That night," he says, "I saw what bullets can do, and there is no way that I would dare to go out and protest again."

As the Tiananmen anniversary approaches, some students and workers are rumored to be planning various small protests in Beijing. But state security agents appear to have made thorough preparations to nip in the bud any possibility of mass dissent.

Tiananmen Square is thick with plainclothes agents year-round, including old men posing as tourists with two-way radios in their plastic shopping bags. Agents also have set up shop this spring at Beijing University, China's premier university and the well-spring of student movements throughout modern Chinese history.

All memorial observances for deceased leaders have been banned -- a reaction to the mourning over the death of former party chief Hu Yaobang, a display that sparked the Tiananmen protests. Even such small protests as the posting of a tiny banner calling for democracy -- as happened this spring in Beijing's university district -- bring an immediate show of force.

Foreign journalists, viewed by the Chinese government at the very least as potential trouble-makers, are regularly tailed by agents. Their phones are bugged. Their sources risk arrest. And sometimes they are threatened, as in the case of the Washington Post reporter whose Beijing office was recently searched for documents by agents.

At the same time, a very small number of extraordinarily brave Chinese dissidents continue to criticize their government and speak out for greater freedom in interviews with foreign reporters. Several pro-democracy parties claim to be operating in secret.

But these dissidents are the exception that proves the rule. Their views never appear in the Chinese press. And if they become too much trouble, authorities can easily nullify their potential impact by simply allowing them to leave the country or by jailing them along with thousands of other Chinese political prisoners.

Meanwhile, a broad clampdown on artistic expression, another potentially threatening sphere, remains in force.

While there recently have been small signs of loosening in this area -- including a widely popular, satirical TV series that at times very indirectly mocks the leadership -- hard-line Maoists remain in control of much of the state culture, propaganda and press bureaucracies.

They recently promoted heavily the 50th anniversary of Mao's famed talks on literature and art, speeches that stress the subservience of art to socialist political goals. And they have sent TV workers to live with peasants, in line with the Maoist

concept that intellectuals should learn from the masses.

Private booksellers are under increasing scrutiny from agents looking for suspect material. "We're supposed to liberate thought," says a Beijing bookstall operator, employing the latest party jargon. "But the government wants us to do it under their guidance, not anyone else's."

The Chinese film industry focuses on dreary historical epics extolling Communist military victories, while banning Chinese-made films with contemporary themes that have been nominated for Academy Awards.

"No one really believes that they can speak up now just because of Deng Xiaoping's economic reform campaign," says a frustrated young cultural affairs official. "Some people may make a mistake and try it, but they will be crushed.

"Right now, it's only OK to concentrate on making money -- that's all," he says. "A lot of young artists are giving up to become small businessmen. There's no use for their art. They don't have the opportunity to have an audience."

In place of a free market of ideas, China's "new authoritarianism" offers an increasingly freewheeling consumer market. Urban Chinese -- who just a decade ago sought watches and TVs -- now aim for air conditioners and motor bikes. Many peasants aren't far behind.

Markets are now so well developed here that hula hoops, which first appeared in Beijing in February, turned up less than two months later in tiny villages in the isolated mountains of Sichuan. Glittering fashion shows, sometimes attended by government ministers, are the rage in the capital these days. Nascent stock markets are booming.

All this can produce the superficial impression that Chinese life is so quickly changing that political change surely must follow. But none of it should be mistaken for a loss of control by the Communist Party, whose membership swelled by 1.6 million last year to more than than 51 million.

This control pervades the vast majority of Chinese lives in ways unconceivable for most Westerners. From work and housing to marriage and the distribution of condoms, there are no real limits to the purview of party and government cadres, particularly in urban areas.

The path to attaining almost anything here still lies in maintaining good relations with officials -- a form of unyielding pressure to toe the line politically and one that deeply scars the psyches of many young Chinese. It is a pressure that accounts for some of the joyful release of energy witnessed during the Tiananmen protests and one for which there are still few, if any, outlets today.

"I can tell you when I am happiest," says a social science teacher at a Beijing university. "I am happiest when I am watching a movie and the screen gets out of focus and everyone screams. So I can then scream and scream and scream. There is just no other opportunity to scream."

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