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November 30, 2000

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Despite growing tensions, changes since 1989 have diminished the chances of another mass uprising

By Todd Crowell and David Hsieh/Beijing

THE JUNE 4 EFFECT: It has changed Beijing's approach to economic, political and social policy

WHERE ARE THE RADICALS?: Not at Peking University, that's for certain

OF HEROES AND VILLAINS: Three student leaders and three officials who played key roles at Tiananmen

'MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER': Lulu Fang was there and wished she wasn't

ON JUNE 4, China will pass one of the most sensitive milestones in its modern history: the 10th anniversary of the traumatic Tiananmen crackdown. A decade ago, rampant official corruption and rising economic pain - from soaring inflation - made much of Beijing's population ready to respond to a student revolt for democracy, igniting an epic confrontation with Communist Party authorities. Today, bureaucratic graft is worse than ever, while reform and a slowing economy have put huge - and still growing - numbers out of work. So a specter hovers over the nation in the run-up to June 4, 1999: Will the simmering grievances of the Chinese people explode once again in a mass uprising?

China's leaders are clearly prepared for the prospect. If there was one thing they learned in 1989, it was the importance of anticipating unrest in order to head it off and preserve the nation's all-important stability. Since late last year, President Jiang Zemin has repeatedly stressed the need to "nip unstable factors in the bud," even as his right-hand-man, Premier Zhu Rongji, tries to keep the economy on an even keel while pushing ahead with market reforms. The strategy sometimes means strong-arm tactics, including a crackdown against political dissidents. But often, it is also tempered by persuasion, payoffs and artful statecraft.

The party hierarchy can take some encouragement from how it successfully defused two large-scale demonstrations in Beijing in recent weeks. The first was the sudden appearance of thousands of adherents to a popular quasi-religion called Falungong outside the Zhongnanhai compound, where China's rulers live and work. Taken completely by surprise, the leadership was deeply shaken. But the protesters dispersed quickly and peacefully after authorities promised to look into their grievances.

The second big test was how Beijing channeled the anger of university students and other citizens after NATO bombed China's embassy in Belgrade. After helping encourage the anti-Western protests, the government managed to defuse them after three days. Had it mishandled the anti-American sentiment, the situation could have turned explosive.

People with various grievances suddenly directed them at the U.S. "This has softened pressure on the government and dampened the impact of June 4," says a history student at Peking University. Nationwide, only on one or two campuses did the student fury actually turn against the Communist Party. A large poster at Wenzhou University in Zhejiang province lambasted corruption; it was quickly taken down by school authorities. "It is now harder for people to make political capital out of the anniversary, since they could be branded as America's fifth column," says an outspoken party liberal.

The events of 1989 left a profound legacy in China (see THE JUNE 4 EFFECT). They also affected the careers of both Jiang and Zhu. Jiang, then Shanghai party chief, was catapulted to the top when Deng Xiaoping made him national party leader, replacing the disgraced Zhao Ziyang. Zhu, Shanghai's mayor at the time, won plaudits for keeping the metropolis relatively quiet throughout the crisis. In a recent interview with the American Cable News Network, he expressed confidence that Tiananmen would not be repeated. "The episode in 1989 happened because [the protesters] wanted democracy, but they didn't want the rule of law," Zhu told CNN.

Even so, Chinese authorities remain extremely sensitive to popular perceptions of their commitment to - and effectiveness in - battling corruption. In the late 1980s, much public wrath was directed at official graft centered on enterprises with top-level guanxi (connections), including Kanghua Industrial of Deng Pufang, Deng Xiaoping's son. Now, such maneuverings are no longer the preserve of the privileged. Corruption permeates everything from school entry and job recruitment to medical treatment and phone installations.

Despite incessant campaigns to curb it, graft has reached unprecedented levels - even by official account. Languishing in China's jails are 74 ex-mayors, a fraction of those suspected of wrong-doing. In an ultimate irony, the head of the Justice Ministry's Anti-Corruption Bureau, Luo Ji, was recently sacked for misappropriating confiscated funds. Jiang himself has called graft "a matter life and death for the party." But the dilemma facing the authorities is neatly summarized in a remark attributed to the late party elder, Chen Yun: "Not to fight corruption is to doom the country; to fight it is to doom the party."

In recent months, Premier Zhu has redoubled his government's anti-graft efforts. He has vigorously prosecuted senior officials responsible for major public-works disasters, such as a bridge collapse in Sichuan province which killed 40. Since last summer's Yangzi River floods exposed much shoddy infrastructure, authorities have closely monitored public works and any associated corruption.

The government has tried to curb official abuse in other ways. Over the past decade, it gradually codified the law and nurtured lower-level elections. In some one million village polls since 1989, voters have thrown out Communist incumbents in 20% of the contests. On March 6, villagers in Jile, near Harbin, voted to remove their local chief, Dong Shouyong. It was the first time since the founding of the People's Republic that an elected official had been popularly dismissed.

Giving peasants the right to remove corrupt or abusive officials is a part of Beijing's strategy to maintain stability in rural areas, where protests break out sporadically. Political reformers expect to expand elections to the next level - the towns - within five years. In fact, China's first township mayor was elected by an experimental popular vote in late April. The incumbent, Li Weiwen, won a clear majority in a second round of balloting to continue his tenure in a Shenzhen town.

Also haunting China and its leaders are the growing ranks of the jobless. The issue conditions and often limits some of Zhu Rongji's initiatives to reform the economy and streamline the government. He cannot move as rapidly as he would like to rationalize money-losing state-owned enterprises, knowing that every employee thrown out of work with only the most minimal social safety net is a potential enemy of the regime.

In the larger cities, laid-off workers generally have not taken to the streets in protest because job opportunities are still available. But regions like inland Sichuan and the "rust-belt" northeast are hurting badly. The authorities are adopting various measures to help dismissed workers, including a minimum-wage system, job training and employment services, payment of social-security fees, and provision of basic medical care. Sometimes the government extends "bonuses" - essentially good-behavior payouts - to mark special events.

Officially, unemployment stands at 3%. Few people believe the figure. Feng Lanrui, an employment specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, puts the rate at nearly 28%. That factors in the 100-million-plus floating labor force of surplus farmers, many of whom roam from city to city in search of work. They receive almost none of the relatively meager social benefits available to urban dwellers.

With the influx of rural migrants and a growing scarcity of jobs as China enters a deflationary phase, crime in the cities is rising to alarming levels. Overall rates in the mid-1990s were already eightfold those of a decade before, with migrant crime accounting for 40% of the total. Migrant gangs are proliferating, and organized and violent crime are becoming big headaches for urban police forces.

Authorities have experimented with job-creation programs, with uneven results. Efforts have also been made to expand the pool of unemployment funds. State workers must now contribute 1% of their income and their employing enterprises 2% of their wage bill. Most of the benefits are dispersed only to the registered unemployed and those in special need. However, a pilot program in Guangzhou extends them to migrant workers.

Scratch just beneath the placid surface of almost any Chinese worker middle-aged or older and there is plenty of social tinder. Listen to Zhang Lanying, 47, a redundant food-industry worker who followed the usual pattern of his generation: "We encountered all of the bad times. I have hardly any education. It was really tough getting resettled after ten years on the farm during the Cultural Revolution. And now I'm unemployed."



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