Day after day the posters on Peking’s “Wall of Democracy” had been getting more insistent. Debunking remarks about the once-Great Helmsman Mao Tse-tung were extended to his successor, Chairman Hua Kuo-feng; demands that Vice-Premier Teng Hsiaoping should take over Hua’s other job, the office of premier, mingled with diatribes against the top men responsible for Teng’s temporary demotion after 1976 riots in Peking’s Tien An Men square. On Nov. 15 the ferment even spread into the columns of China’s three official daily papers. A major event, dramatic changes in the leadership for instance, seemed about to burst upon a thoroughly rattled world. Rumors that the Chinese Communist party’s central committee was in session merely added to the number of ques-
tions being asked by Western diplomats, anxious about the possible effects on the delicate balance of world power.
By the end of last week, at least some of the answers had been given—and they were none the less sensational because they came from the Chinese capital’s ordinary citizens rather than from the corridors of power. What happened was that 10 years after the ill-fated Prague Spring, when ordinary voices spoke out for democracy in Czechoslovakia, in the depths of a Peking winter thousands of well-educated Chinese dared to call openly for human rights and democratic freedoms.
What they wanted, they made clear, was not to overthrow their Communist government but to liberalize it, like the reformers of the late Ching dynasty who struggled to save imperial rule by
changing its worst features. Soviet tanks crushed liberalization in Prague; the campaign by enlightened Chinese scholars to emulate Japan in 1898 lasted only 100 days; and it remains to be seen whether the two-week-old “Democracy Movement” in Peking fares any better. But it certainly went off with a bang. Western journalists and diplomats making a routine Saturday check at the Wall of Democracy suddenly found themselves besieged by eager questioners.
What, they were asked, is the state of democracy in your country? Can you criticize your leaders without being called a traitor? What do you think of Chairman Mao? The scenes were repeated the next day and the next. On one occasion the crowds learned that a United States journalist was due to have an interview with Teng. Would he ask a few questions on their behalf and report back? He would, and later did through an intermediary.
In return, the foreigners asked some questions of their own. Who would the Chinese vote for if there were an election for premier? A great shout of “Teng.” And for chairman? Another shout, this time of “Hua”; and, asked if
they were not afraid to talk, an even greater shout of “Meiyou pa”(we aren’t scared).
Clearly they were not. No foreigner, even a Russian, could walk for long near the Wall of Democracy—which runs beside a bus depot on the Avenue of Eternal Tranquility—without being engaged in conversation by someone speaking English and sometimes French or German. All the topics that foreigners longed to talk about with ordinary Chinese were suddenly open for
discussion with the young reformers. They took as their model Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone can stand up and say anything short of sedition or treason. They knew of Hyde Park, they said, from their reading and language studies—and the subjects discussed by the Wall were much the same: human rights, Western living standards, love and marriage, books and films. On a more literary plane, one questioner wanted to know whether English speakers also find Shakespeare difficult to understand.
One of two newly formed “Democracy Study Groups” pasted up what it called
Issue No. 1 of a newssheet urging free elections for party officials, reforms in line with the Yugoslav model for factory management and employment, and a relaxation of the grip kept on people’s lives by the security police. Identity papers should be simplified, the newssheet said, and personal dossiers checked for accuracy.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, was that some young Chinese were willing to give foreigners their names and addresses, with a smiling invitation to “write to me when you have time.” They had, they explained, emerged from a period of “feudal fascist dictatorship” which descended on China in the later years of Mao’s life, when his Cultural Revolution brought chaos, repression, xenophobia and persecution of intellectuals.
That such engaging frankness, to say nothing of the scope of the reforms demanded, might not be altogether welcomed by China’s leaders, became clear as last week wore on. Teng, who some suspected had set up the whole business to promote his own prospects in an internal power struggle, quickly squelched that line of speculation by saying that, at 74, he was too old. He also, while describing the Wall itself as a healthy development, warned the young democrats against letting“democracy” become instability which could jeopardize China’s priority goal: sweeping modernization within 20 years.
This means that in many areas the young people will not get what they want. One demand, for instance, for the
right of an individual to choose his own job, could undermine the present strict control on the movement of labor, especially from the countryside to the cities. And there is bound to be resistance to the argument that, since people have recently been given the right to elect leaders at the local level, they should also be entitled to choose who rules at the top, including who should be party chairman.
Yet the leadership must win over the young reformists if it can. For the first time, conditions exist in China for the emergence of dissident groups as in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of young men and women have pocketed correspondents’ and diplomats’ business cards and already some foreigners have even received telephone calls from Chinese who earlier had come up to them in the street. If the students and young workers are prevented from achieving the permanent right to stand up and speak their minds in public and to put up posters on any subject without risking investigation, they now have the unprecedented option of going over the heads of their leaders and establishing covert channels of communication with foreigners.
Journalists’ and diplomats’ telephone numbers have always been kept secret from ordinary Chinese. This is no longer the case and, short of changing all the numbers, there seems no way the leadership or security police can patch the gaping hole in the bamboo curtain.
In fact, however, the Chinese leadership itself has pierced the curtain sufficiently over the past year to permit events to be watched much more closely than, say, in the latter years of Chairman Mao. Chinese leaders have been crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of their twin current goals: modernization, which they have made clear will involve substantial trade and cultural contacts with the West (thousands of Chinese students are on their way to universities in Canada, the United States, Britain and elsewhere); and the neutralizing of what China regards as the expansionist aims of the Soviet Union. In this cause, China this year sent Chairman Hua to exchange friendly greetings with Romania’s President Nicolae Ceausescu (see following story) and Yugoslavia’s President Tito; has signed peace and trade treaties with its old foe Japan; and substantially increased its contacts with the United States and the European community, which Hua is expected to visit next year.
So in Canada, the United States and other Western countries, the latest developments were being watched with keen interest. In Ottawa, the reaction was cautious. An External Affairs
spokesman pointed out that signs of openness had been seen before, notably in Mao’s “Let a hundred flowers bloom” campaign in the 1950s, but had often had unhappy sequels as political power balances shifted and one day’s orthodoxy became the next’s heresy.
In Washington, where the Carter cabinet is split on how to deal with ChinaNational Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wants to form a close alliance with Peking while Secretary of State Cyrus Vance prefers a more evenhanded line between China and the Soviet Union—the reaction was also cautious. “We could be seeing the start of the most significant historical movement of the final quarter of the century,” said one diplomatic source. But “right now it’s like we are stroking a tiger.”
There were pointers in Peking that the Chinese leaders recognized that this reaction existed and wanted to allay fears that China was not determined to work quickly and calmly toward modernization. Teng went out of his way to tell Japanese visitors that there would be no changes at the top as a result of the central committee meeting and the size of the demonstrating crowds gradually dwindled.
By the week’s end security guards were patrolling the places where, only a few days earlier, euphoria had been given free rein. By that time, however, the news of the latest threatened invasion of China’s ally Cambodia, by the Soviet Union’s protégé Vietnam, was out; and there were reports of large Soviet troop movements on the Chinese border. Events other than those in Peking itself, it seemed, might dictate the future course of reforms. In China, as everywhere else in the world, a winter thaw can be all too brief.
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