Walking on Eggshells

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JAIME A. FLORCRUZ BeijingYu Tielong was confident that he would win last week's election for chief of Wangshanding village in eastern Zhejiang province. What followed was less expected. Local officials abruptly annulled the poll, ostensibly because some of the candidates weren't present for the voting. The real reason, according to Yu's supporters: he is a member of the China Democracy Party, a new and not yet officially recognized opposition group. And there, in a nutshell, is the story of political reform in China. That Yu was allowed to stand for election is a sure sign of progress. But the annulment of his victory suggests that the ruling Communist Party is not ready to give up its 49-year monopoly on power--not even in small quantities. Says Tianjian Shi, a Sinologist at North Carolina's Duke University: There is progress in village elections, but it's a long way from a multi-party system.Yu, a traditional-medicine practitioner, is one of a small group of activists pushing the margins of political dissent in China. Emboldened by Beijing's relatively relaxed attitude these days, they have set up political bodies like the cdp to test the government's sincerity. They clearly believe this is an opportune time to agitate for further gains, says an Asian diplomat in Beijing. That same optimism allows some intellectuals to call openly for human rights in public forums. Books that deviate from the official line--like Political China, a recent compendium of essays advocating reform--are allowed to be published and sold. And Beijing appears to have increased its threshhold of tolerance with its signing last month of the United Nations' Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To realize human rights is the aspiration of all humanity, said Qin Huasun, China's envoy to the U.N. It is also a goal that the Chinese government has long been striving for.But actions, not promises, are the true test. And no one should forget that the Communist Party is still the boss. With the economy sagging and sections of the population showing signs of restiveness, Beijing simultaneously is stepping up efforts to stifle organized dissent through intimidation, imprisonment, house arrest or exile. Even those released from prison are kept under tight surveillance. Just ask Xu Wenli, 52, who has survived two decades of repression. One of the leaders of the Democracy Wall movement--a campaign against Maoist dogma in the late '70s--Xu was arrested in 1979 and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for attempting to overthrow the government. Now wan and thin, he is still seeking complete freedom. Since his release in 1993, he has been constantly shadowed by plainclothes policemen who eavesdrop on his conversations and videotape his meetings. Two weeks ago, Xu was briefly detained after urging China's legislature to allow independent trade unions and challenging the government to live up to the human-rights covenant.PAGE 1  |  
But even Xu sees faint signs of hope. Although his harassment persists, he says his police handlers have become more subtle and relaxed. They call him Old Xu and sometimes take him out to dinner. They were polite, he says, on the two times they ransacked his home this year and confiscated his computer and fax machines. Sometimes I feel sorry for them, says Xu, noting that the men staking out his home have to endure mosquito bites in the summer and the stinging frost in the winter. They too are human.Harsh repression, Chinese officials seem now to acknowledge, only makes icons out of otherwise obscure rabble-rousers. They apparently don't want to make a martyr of Peng Ming, 42, an outspoken dissident. Through his Beijing think-tank, China Development New Strategy Institute, Peng has written books and research papers, organized forums on sensitive political and economic issues and helped retrain (and organize) laid-off workers. He and his followers were poised to set up a self-styled Green Party last month when the authorities cracked down. When the police raided his office, Peng was mentally prepared for prison. But they only took away my passport, he says. This should be regarded as progress. It's like a husband who used to beat his wife. Now he just curses her.For activists like Peng, Beijing's signing of the human-rights covenant is a positive development--even if the spirit of the document isn't always followed. Many people doubt that the government will follow through, Peng concedes, but the government should be encouraged, even if it is only pretending. Beijing, for its part, can afford to be lenient. After all, none of the dissident groups poses a serious threat to Communist Party rule. Periodic crackdowns are necessary because we can't allow public protests to jeopardize stability and economic growth, explains a senior Beijing official. But as long as they don't threaten stability and the Communist Party's leadership, we will tolerate divergent opinions.If national elections were held today, Xu concedes, the communists would be voted back into office. Few people know who I am, he says. The China Democracy Party will have to prove itself before it can win a national election. He believes it will be at the grassroots level, as in Wangshanding village, where nascent groups like the cdp have the best chance of winning--providing, of course, that they are allowed to do so.With reporting by Mia Turner/Beijing  |  2