China Fever

ROBERT BENJAMIN

June 03, 1993|By ROBERT BENJAMIN

BEIJING — Beijing. -- Parts of China will experience a total lunar eclipse tomorrow. For Westerners, the timing of the celestial event couldn't be more symbolic.

Today and tomorrow mark the fourth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the event that suddenly eclipsed many Westerners' visions of a bright future for themselves in China.

This time four years ago, most Westerners were fleeing China amid bleak predictions of the nation descending into chaos and possibly even breaking up into several political entities.

High-profile ventures such as Beijing's World Trade Center -- a huge hotel, office and apartment complex for foreigners -- were left in half-constructed limbo.

But as in an actual eclipse, China's plunge into the darkness of Western pessimism has proved all too brief.

Just four years later, China fever is again running high among Westerners. And this old disease now seems even more virulent for having weathered the recent blackness.

So many Western businessmen now are flooding in here that they can't find offices and housing in most major Chinese cities.

Scenes that would have been notable just two years ago -- such as the meeting the other day between the head of the General Electric Co. and Jiang Zemin, the Chinese Communist Party chief -- are simply commonplace now.

Pledged foreign investment in China last year was five times that of 1991. This year's total of promised cash is likely to be at least double last year's record.

And why not?

The Communist Party last year virtually endorsed capitalism. China's command economy is being rapidly dismantled, leaving little to regulate an almost universal lust here for a better life.

Everyone -- from former party apparatchiks to former pro-democracy activists -- is jumping into the increasingly corrupt, commercial free-for-all.

The West has entertained heady visions of profiting from China's huge market for more than 150 years. But now it suddenly seems to be waking up for the first time to the true economic potential of the largest nation on earth.

First came a wave of Western predictions last winter that the size of China's economy in absolute terms would outstrip America's within a generation.

Then more recently the International Monetary Fund announced that, by a new method of figuring such things, China's economy already is the world's third largest, right behind the U.S. and Japan.

The pace of all this -- the speed of China's passage in Western minds from light to dark and back to light again -- is startling, even given the familiarity of China's boom-bust cycle since the late 1970s.

But lost in the renewed euphoria are the Tiananmen dissidents: the hundreds -- if not more than a thousand -- slain on June 3 and 4, 1989, and those still imprisoned, whose number is unknown, but surely exceeds a thousand.

Among those in jail are Wang Juntao, 34, and Chen Zeming, 39, intellectuals both given 13-year sentences for allegedly serving as ''the black hands'' behind the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Mr. Wang is said to have hepatitis and heart trouble. His wife desperately tries to keep international concern focused on his plight. Today, she says, he may start a hunger strike, if he is not given better medical care and if Chinese courts do not agree to hear an appeal of his conviction.

Also imprisoned is Liu Gang, 32, a Tiananmen protest leader jailed in northeast China's Liaoning Province. He recently managed to smuggle out of prison a vivid account of his torture by his jailers, including being shocked with electric batons.

''This is the dictatorship of the proletariat,'' Mr. Liu quotes one of his guards as saying. ''This is a meat grinder. If you do not submit to us, I will have you ground to death, bit by bit.''

There is little connection between the suffering of these dissidents and the support that the current Chinese regime receives, however indirectly, from the Western businessmen pouring in here.

Moreover, Western businessmen make a powerful argument that they -- more than foreign governments, human-rights groups or reporters -- serve as long-term agents of social, if not political, change here.

But this Tiananmen anniversary, with China fever running higher than ever, it is hard to escape the feeling that the dead and the jailed have been eclipsed.

Robert Benjamin is The Sun's China correspondent.

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