China got through the recent anniversary of the massacre of demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in Beijing with little difficulty. Police presence was overwhelming. A few dozen key dissidents were rounded up beforehand. Order was kept.
Senior leader Deng Xiaoping is 90 and in failing health. The regime is understandably edgy. Like him, it fears disorder, far more than it worries about a little criticism from abroad.
But ferment cannot be kept from China for long. The reforms of Deng to unshackle the enterprise of the Chinese people make this inevitable.
One sign is the unprecedented number of petitions from prominent citizens calling for reversal of the verdicts on 1989 demonstrators and the release of political prisoners. This may reflect a desire within upper reaches of the Communist Party to loosen up.
Another sign is China's joining the Internet. Dissident intellectuals are in touch with overseas and exiled Chinese even more than in 1989, when faxes from Boston alerted them to the government troops massing to suppress demonstrations.
The Chinese gerontocracy's next confrontation is with the world women's movement, though that is avoidable and not in China's interest. A U.N. conference on women is scheduled for Beijing in September. China wanted to host it. At these large events, many voices are heard and ideas cascade. The unofficial conference of nongovernmental organizations is always larger and louder than the official gathering of governments. Rio de Janeiro, Cairo and Copenhagen have recently displayed their ability to hold such parallel conferences.
But China's government has cold feet about the nongovernmental conference, no doubt fearing it will encourage domestic dissidents. So, on the ground that central Beijing lacks facilities for some 40,000 possibly quarrelsome women from around the world, it has banished their conference to a distant exurb with almost no facilities.
Many of the most prominent women in the world were planning to attend that conference, not the cut-and-dried government affair. Many of them are accustomed to amenities of a certain standard, found in Beijing but not 40 miles outside it. The dispute over venue is getting hotter as September approaches, threatening the conference. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has attempted to mediate, so far without result.
It is time for China's government to relax about communications it cannot prevent in the modern world. But it appears the old men who run China are not about to relax anything.