PATRICK E. TYLER, "Concerning Liberties, China Is Free to Prosper, but That's All," New York Times, May 30, 1997

BEIJING -- Just around the corner from where Democracy Wall was torn down more than a decade ago, a 40-year-old clothing merchant named Zhang perched himself on the stoop of his storefront and surveyed the explosion of commerce that has changed the face of China.
Twenty years ago, when Mao had the whole country roiling with politics, there was nothing here in the Xidan district but a pitiful stretch of markets; now the street is a canyon of department stores overrun with strolling couples as colorful as the previous generation that shopped here was drab.
"We don't talk about politics anymore," Zhang said. "Why should we? Who is our leader now? Money is our leader."
Asked directly about politics, the voluble Zhang turned cautious, refusing even to reveal his full name to a foreign reporter.
"You see those two policemen over there?" he asked, as he pointed to two patrolmen. "They could throw my behind in jail or kill me," he said, echoing the widely held fear in China of arbitrary police power.
"We don't have any freedom. We can earn money, but -- are you kidding, what freedom?"
The state of freedom in China today has become an important question in American politics, as President Clinton and Congress clash over whether to extend China's "most favored nation" trading privileges. By "engaging" China, Clinton believes he will encourage a long-term trend toward democracy and the rule of law, but his critics assert that a course of greater pressure, even confrontation, is necessary until China ends repression and undertakes genuine political reform.
Never in their history have the Chinese been as free to flourish, to earn, to invest, and to move about their country building networks of commerce and opening markets at home and abroad.
Chinese officials, eager to end the long political isolation that followed the Tiananmen killings of 1989, argue that the Chinese are running their own affairs as never before; peasants are taking part in village elections and China's rubber-stamp Parliament is beginning to assert itself.
Yet part of the great complexity of China today is that even as the Chinese are more and more unleashed, they are far from free and far from satisfied about the state of their liberties.
Across the country, many Chinese say in interviews that above all things they treasure stability so they can prosper, but they also seethe over the corruption and inequities that flourish today. They yearn for a system in which their voices could be heard, their grievances addressed, but often they do not know what such a system of government would be called, and many dare not say.
The death of Deng Xiaoping, China's paramount leader, in February has done nothing to clarify the prospect for political reform. Thousands of political offenders still languish in prisons and labor camps for challenging the corrupt or arbitrary acts of countless local Communist Party chieftains. But some experts believe that strong social pressures for change are building.
To fend off these pressures, Communist Party leaders are seeking to discredit democracy by equating it with chaos. But even as they do, the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty on July 1 will bring into sharp focus the different states of liberty in China.
Many mainland Chinese are already asking, if freedom is good enough for Hong Kong, then why not for us?
Freedom to Prosper But Not to Publish
For most Chinese, the state of their personal freedom must be measured against the dark years of the 1950s and 1960s, when hundreds of millions lived on the edge of starvation. Those were years of tempestuous political campaigns, the names of which howl through history with the voices of lives destroyed.
The "masses" were smothered by intrusions: housing was assigned and essential coupons for food and clothing shackled every Chinese to state dormitories, communes, or cramped factory quarters. Party committees controlled who could marry, who could bear a child, or get an apartment.
Now millions of Chinese are on the move, more and more free to live and work near opportunity. The tyranny of the coupon system and neighborhood committees has collapsed or been replaced by free-wheeling private markets.
But in many families, one member stays anchored to a state job to retain cheap housing and other benefits, while others dive into the sea of private enterprise, driving cabs, running curbside eateries, beauty parlors, and clothing stores in hopes of getting rich. And many are.
"It is true that many Chinese feel more free than ever before," said Wang Ruoshui, a former vice chief editor of The People's Daily and a leading advocate for democracy in the 1980s. "Today, if you want, you can dress like a pirate on the street and you can say anything you like; you can attack Jiang Zemin or Li Peng or the Communist Party as long as you don't publish your views," he added, referring to the president and prime minister.
"People have the freedom to earn money, and this is very important," Wang said, "but this is very complicated. The people have no opportunity to get news or to choose their leaders."
Sun Changjiang, a political reformer under the late Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, offered a bleak estimate of Chinese aspirations for democracy. "The common people don't know what democracy is because their education level is so low," he said. "Even college students don't care about democracy now."
Yet many Chinese, especially party members and government officials, have been indoctrinated to distrust democracy. Over lunch recently, a senior government official, fresh from a mid-career course at the Central Party School, said what many top officials think: "Democracy is a luxury that China cannot afford."
"If we let the people loose, or start a general debate on what form of government we should have," he said, "it would be chaos, just like the Cultural Revolution."
About 30 miles south of Beijing, Huo Baoxian is the local Communist Party chief in Heixifa village, where local elections have been held three times in the last decade.
Heixifa displays the economic achievements of the Chinese peasantry. Along the dusty lanes, many new brick homes stand where mud-walled huts used to be and the bounty of the fall harvest bulges in each household storeroom. The peasants enjoy better nutrition and health care, and jobs have opened in township enterprises or on fish farms.
There is no democracy here, though there are democratic instincts even as the Communist Party's dominance in local affairs grows.
"In the countryside today, the party secretary is in charge of everything," said Huo, a bespectacled man in his early 40s who is a rather popular figure in the village of 260 households. "All the political moves are decided by the party before they can be implemented."
In his village, he added, the village committee members and the village chief are elected, but they must be nominated by the party.
The Power to Vote But Not to Decide
In a country where all policy is made at the top by the Politburo and the Communist Party Central Committee, the significance of village elections at the bottom of the system is not that they are liberating the peasantry, but that they provide for improved local leadership and a measure of participation.
Village elections in China have done little to relieve the average peasant's burdens or eliminate arbitrary government intrusions. County governments levy taxes and fees and county family planning officers relentlessly enforce the one-child policy, while township and county police officials crack down on religious practice and unsanctioned political activity.
Yet in Heixifa, even the party secretary, Huo, displays a democratic instinct at times. "In my village," he said, "all major decisions have to get the approval from the people in the village. For example, when it comes to buying farm equipment, the villagers have to vote on it."
And when the village receives an order from above, the villagers do not always obey. "Sometimes, when we don't like a decision," Huo said, "we procrastinate on purpose and won't execute it. For example, the county pushed hard to build a fertilizer factory and asked our village to raise 100,000 yuan ($12,000). We didn't like it, and finally our procrastination trashed the deal."
But these rights are not enshrined in any law. The farmers are more concerned about their land, their grain production, and their taxes and fees. Ignorance is the greatest limitation on political development; even Huo recognized that and has started reading groups to raise the literacy level.
"I don't think the majority of voters realize that they are engaging in democratic elections," he said. "But despite the fact that the village election is only a form or procedure, we take it seriously."
So do many of China's intellectuals. But for now, there is no groundswell to take more than the incremental steps China is taking in the countryside, and in legislation that is creating the foundation for a rule of law that does not yet exist.
Many Chinese believe that it would take a reversal of China's economic fortunes, a sudden downturn in growth or a return of high inflation, to rekindle Chinese interest in democracy and political reform.
"An entrepreneur said to me once, 'As long as I am making money, what do I care about who is the prime minister?' " said Wang. "I am not optimistic about the future. Perhaps they will have more freedom, but not more democracy."
Democracy Called a Road to Chaos
To Westerners, China from a distance often seems a bleak landscape of repression and human rights abuse, but at closer range, the vastness of opportunity incites an overwhelmingly different impression. Confronted with forests of building cranes and spanking-new factories, many visitors say the China they encounter does not resemble the image of China shaped in the West.
But political repression is always less visible than commerce.
The economic freedoms so visible today in major cities and along China's bustling coastline mean little to hundreds of millions of other Chinese, living in inland provinces where hunger and scarcity reign.
Despite reforms in criminal procedures this year, there are few if any basic protections against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. There is no freedom of the press nor any prospect for freedom of expression in the arts, film or news media.
The Ministry of Justice admits to holding more than 2,000 "counter-revolutionary" political prisoners, a number that has declined in recent years. But countless thousands of other political and religious prisoners of conscience are in labor camps and mental institutions.
In a heavily policed society, little has changed since 1979, when young intellectuals like Wei Jingsheng and Xu Wenli pasted up on Democracy Wall their calls for reform. That stretch of masonry was dismantled in 1980, and in 1982 big character posters were outlawed. Wei went to prison, where he remains today, and Xu is a political hermit.
In 1986 and again in 1989, pro-democracy movements erupted on the streets of Beijing, and each time the government cracked down, most brutally on June 4, 1989.
Wang and other intellectuals who participated in the robust democracy debates of the 1980s have watched since 1989 as the Communist Party has sought to tar the concept of democracy as a viable system for China.
"The propaganda organs show fighting in the Taiwan parliament or they show poor Russian farmers and they tell the people: this is democracy," he said.
The people, he added, "have been misled to believe that democracy equals chaos in the streets so they don't think of June 4th as an example of students making a demand for democracy. They think of it as an expression of democracy" -- more chaos and riot.
In the early 1980s, when Wang served on a high-level party commission with Li Ruihuan, now a member of the ruling Politburo, Li interrupted a discussion on the merits of democracy by asking: "Do we still want more democracy? Didn't we get enough of that in the Cultural Revolution?"
These deeply ingrained attitudes, Wang says, prove that many Chinese have taken a negative lesson about democracy. "And they think it is useless to oppose the government because you cannot change it."