China's season of discontent envelops capital


BEIJING -- This is China's season of dissent and anxiety.

Sensing a shift in control of China, dissidents have been pestering the government with a daring series of petitions calling for liberalization of political life. Sensing discontent, the government has in the last two weeks temporarily detained or arrested more than 40 dissidents, and those not arrested have found their phone lines cut and all visitors barred.

These are the days before the anniversary of the government's massacre of protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989 -- and thus a renewal of the dissidents' greatest hopes and the government's greatest fears, that liberalization will come and the 1989 student-led protests will be re-evaluated.

The government is doing its utmost to ensure the anniversary passes as a nearly ordinary day.

University students have been told not to leave their campus; student bars have been closed to discourage gatherings. At the elite Beijing University, campus authorities have gone so far as to flood a small park, the better to eliminate another potential meeting place.

Across the street from the university's main gate, the owners of private restaurants say they have "voluntarily" closed until sometime next week. "The police came by so often," an owner said, "that we decided to close until after June 4."

The strong steps taken by the government are more than just overreactions by a few local officials. Party sources say a top-level emergency committee has been established to deal with the dissidents' challenge, showing the government's fear that dissent will spread if not quickly crushed.

"Here's a small group of intellectuals with little contact with the people," Merle Goldman, a Harvard University specialist on China, said of the dissidents. "The fact that the leadership is so scared of this group shows how fragile their position is."

The government's extreme anxiety may be due in part to the poor health of the country's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, who is believed to be too ill to influence daily events. The country is being run by a collective leadership centered around President Jiang Zemin. But Mr. Jiang is still consolidating power and apparently fearful of any social instability that the dissidents might provoke.

Also worrying for the leadership is that disparate groups of dissidents seem to be joining forces, a phenomenon not seen since shortly before the 1989 protests. Petitions have been drafted and signed by a large range of people -- the elderly, the young, the well-educated and pamphleteers.

In the past dissidents were rarely so organized. Their new unity shows that they believe the "atmospherics have changed in their favor," said an Asian diplomat who has monitored human rights in China for many years.

"There was a sense that things were moving in the dissidents' favor," the diplomat said. "This emboldened them to write and sign the petitions."

The recent political changes include the sacking of Beijing's unpopular party boss and President Jiang launching an unprecedented attack against corruption, which led in the first three months of the year to more than 5,000 people being convicted of bribery and related charges.

Besides greater freedom, the petitioners' main demand has been for a reassessment of the 1989 massacre, which the government has steadfastly blamed on the demonstrators. The official version is that the protesters were led by hooligans who urged people to attack soldiers.

One petition, signed by 27 relatives of people who died in the demonstrations, called for an independent commission to investigate the massacre.

But the government's strong response to the petitioners shows that such a reappraisal is far from being approved.

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