After 3 Years, China Still Keeps the Lid Tight

May 31, 1992|By ROBERT BENJAMIN | ROBERT BENJAMIN,Robert Benjamin is The Sun's Beijing correspondent.

CHENGDU, CHINA — 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.

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