BEIJING -- At a time when the majority of the world's nations hold democratic elections, the recent scenes here have seemed like footage from a Cold War newsreel.
Behind closed doors and surrounded by police, Chinese courts sentenced three democracy advocates to double-digit prison terms last month for trying to form the first open opposition party. Judges also sent labor activist Zhang Shanguang to jail for 10 years because he spoke to the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia about protesting farmers.
The harsh sentences were part of the toughest crackdown since 1996 and came at the end of a year in which the Communist Party had allowed a measure of political freedom.
Intellectuals were able to write about and discuss such taboo subjects as human rights and national elections. Some saw the apparent thaw as a sign that China might be slowly heading toward a more open system.
With politically sensitive anniversaries approaching and laid-off state workers continuing to stage protests, however, Beijing moved to choke off opposition.
"Any factors that could jeopardize our stability must be annihilated in the early stages," warned Chinese President Jiang Zemin in the kind of threatening rhetoric that has filled state-run newspapers recently.
Nine years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and eight years since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China is an anomaly among the world's major powers.
While the late Deng Xiaoping's market reforms have dramatically raised living standards during the past two decades, Chinese leaders continue to resist political change because they can and because they fear the consequences if they don't.
China's turbulent history, which has included civil war, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and massive famine during Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward, has left people here with an acute fear of chaos.
The party cracked down last month, in part, because it worries that upcoming anniversaries could set the stage for anti-government rallies. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the 80th anniversary of the May 4, 1919, student protests in Beijing and the 10th year since the massacre of democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square.
China's leaders believe that if they loosen the reins too quickly, they could end up like Russia -- which many here view as the ultimate post-socialist nightmare. Nor does the regime want a repeat of the Tiananmen democracy uprising that ended in the army's slaughter of hundreds of unarmed protesters.
"The lesson the party learned from 1989 is that a little relaxation leads to a million people in Tiananmen Square," says Orville Schell, a longtime China watcher and dean of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.
China's leaders haven't embraced democracy, in part, because they haven't had to. The government maintains power through control of the army and an effective security force, which can shut down potential rivals like the fledgling China Democracy Party, whose leaders were sentenced last month.
Party organizers Xu Wenli, Qin Yongmin, and Wang Youcai received 13, 12 and 11 years respectively for "subversion" after trials in which Wang and Qin did not have legal counsel.
Beijing has kept pressure for political change in check by reaching a tacit understanding with the people. In exchange for improved living standards, citizens seem to have quietly agreed not to challenge the party's supremacy.
"The Chinese system still isn't in bad enough trouble, I guess -- economically or politically -- to force the leaders to take radical risks," says Andrew J. Nathan, a political scientist at Columbia University.
The arrangement, though, is tenuous. As failing state-owned factories lay off workers in an effort to overhaul the old command economy, more and more people have taken to the streets to protest.
Responding to mass unrest with a violent crackdown might only add to the list of grievances -- including the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre -- for which Chinese could hold the Communist Party accountable one day.
"Deng Xiaoping's strategy bought them time," says Richard Baum, a China specialist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Beijing has instituted some democratic reforms, such as village elections, with mixed results. Established in 1987, the races have varied from genuinely competitive contests to mere endorsements of local Communist Party candidates.
Chinese leaders often say they cannot expand elections beyond the village level because their country is still too poor, has yet to develop the necessary democratic institutions and has too many illiterate peasants.
This may be true, but it doesn't explain why sophisticated cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, where some people have doctorates and drive BMWs, couldn't hold open elections.
"That is just an excuse," says Fei-Ling Wang, a political scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "I believe that -- just like what happened in Taiwan 20 years ago -- the creeping democracy in Chinese villages will soon grow to the county/city level and higher, inevitably."
Despite the recent imprisonment of opposition party leaders, many observers remain optimistic that democracy -- though not necessarily in the U.S. mold -- will eventually take root in China. Time seems to be on the side of political reform.
Most of the hard-line communists of Deng's era have died or lost power. Today's leaders are generally pragmatic, Soviet-trained technocrats who came of age during the Cold War. The succeeding generation will have had much more experience, if not training, in the West.
Some think that China may evolve into a democracy similar to its neighbor and rival, Taiwan, which displayed its vibrant, multiparty system in legislative and mayoral elections last month. Others say it could emerge as a "softer" authoritarian state with rule of law and more public accountability minus open elections and a free-wheeling, Western-style press.
If the recent past is any indicator, economic development will continue to make China a generally freer society. In the two decades since the nation shed Mao Tse-tung's failed policies, living standards have risen rapidly and people's choices have expanded vastly.
Today, Chinese can criticize the government in their homes with little fear of reprisal and probably enjoy more freedom to work, live and travel where they want than ever before.
"As hard as it is on a day-to-day 'headline' basis to see movement in a positive direction, if one compared the amount of space for individual political and social expression now to two decades ago after Mao's death, the changes have been striking and encouraging," says David M. Lampton, the director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Pub Date: 1/05/99