Fear of second Tiananmen exposes fragility of China

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

April 07, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- China's season of silence is in full swing.

Every spring, Beijing's security apparatus, its relatively few dissidents and its foreign press corps gear up for the anniversary of the slaughter of hundreds of protesters near Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989.

The fragility of the Communist Party's grip on power is revealed by the silence it tries to enforce on many matters, beginning with the Tiananmen massacre.

"If one man talks, then a dozen other activists will talk. If a dozen activists talk, then everybody will talk. And if everybody talks, then this regime can't survive. Everything depends on silence," says a longtime China watcher with close ties to dissidents here.

So authorities desperately try to suppress any public commemoration of the Chinese army's murders of unarmed demonstrators almost five years ago.

With the passing of four Tiananmen anniversaries, springtime here carries the expectation of often pointless clashes between foreign reporters chasing any whiff of protest and ultra-vigilant security forces determined to snuff out any such signs.

The exercise is deadly serious, though.

Chinese dissidents are jailed without fair trials under horrible conditions that can include torture. Foreign reporters have been beaten while covering Tiananmen anniversaries; their risks now include jail. Last week, a Hong Kong reporter received a 12-year prison term here for obtaining financial data that China alleges to be "state secrets."

This year, the crackdown on dissidents and foreign reporters has come earlier than usual, and tensions are greater than any time since 1989.

One reason is a few courageous dissidents. The other factor is the Sino-American conflict over human rights keyed to the deadline for renewing China's profitable trade status with the U.S., a deadline that neatly coincides with the Tiananmen anniversary.

Authoritarian states most fear men who have moved beyond fear, such as China's best-known dissident, Wei Jingsheng. Paroled from jail last September, he has been speaking his mind fearlessly to foreign media, and the accounts end up back in increasingly porous China.

Chinese leaders these days put on a confident show, and they have much to crow about. Many of the world's largest corporations, for example, now say they must have a major presence here.

It thus may seem unfathomable that Beijing would make the mistake of handing one man out of 1.2 billion people so much power by repeatedly harassing him under the spotlight of the international press.

But that's what China has done by detaining Mr. Wei a month ago, forcing him to leave town, forbidding him to speak to the foreign press for three years, detaining him again last week and then saying this week that he's under investigation for new crimes.

The party's great fear of Mr. Wei gives insight into how negatively it must assess China's stability these days. Party leaders apparently agree with their critics that conditions here are ripe for a social explosion.

In a nutshell: China's doing better than ever, and, at the same time, it appears set for another huge spasm. The contradictions bother experienced China analysts, who find these truly perplexing times.

Senior leader Deng Xiaoping, 89, is believed to be dying. A top-level power struggle has begun, the shape of which is only rumored. After Mr. Deng dies, hard-liners and reformers likely will jockey to pin the blame for Tiananmen on each other -- or Mr. Deng himself.

Meanwhile, China's economy rips along with double-digit growth, luring the world's money. But severe economic imbalances have led to rising inflation, unemployment, labor actions and discontent.

The overall situation mirrors one of Mao Tse-tung's famed lines: "There is great disorder under heaven, and the situation is excellent."

That does not mean that an explosion inevitably will come. Certainly, Beijing will do everything in its power -- and its powers remain considerable -- to prevent it.

So, while repressing so severely the voices of a few in a society as large as China may seem from afar like a brutal overreaction, it is thoroughly logical for a regime whose worst nightmare is expressed by another well-known Maoist dictum: "A single spark can start a prairie fire."

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