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Chinese Carry On `Beijing Charade'

Though hostility to regime has deepened, no protests are likely on anniversary of crackdown

A YEAR after defying China's Communist Party, survivors of the Tiananmen crackdown face an equally formidable adversary - fear. Chinese seeking freedom still rail at the leadership, but in taxicabs instead of in the streets, and in tightly shut rooms instead of on campus quadrangles.

Terrorized by the June 3 and 4 massacre, Beijing residents are likely to keep their hostility concealed and let the first anniversary of the event quietly pass, former activists say.

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Residents of the capital are engaged in what could be called the ``Beijing charade,'' wearing a mask of compliance in public but revealing a face of antipathy in private.

As China's hard-liners continue their iron-fisted rule and revive pass'e Maoist ideals, students, workers, and intellectuals active in the pro-democracy movement say the hope of peaceful reform is waning.

Dissidents say if progressive change does not start peacefully from within the party, it will eventually be imposed from without.

``This political tension and repression can't go on too long. The longer China postpones reforms, the more likely it will explode in unrest,'' a machinery repairman says on condition of anonymity.

By any measure, Chinese this spring have more cause to demonstrate than in 1989.

Communist Party leaders have largely dismissed the grievances that brought millions of Chinese into city streets nationwide last year. Corruption, economic hardship, curbs on basic freedoms, ``old-man rule,'' and other causes for protest have worsened since last spring.

``Seeing our friends shot and crushed terrorized us,'' a young engineer said on condition of anonymity. ``No one today wants to make a fruitless sacrifice. It's clear: If we demonstrate, we'll be shot.''

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Instead, many Beijing residents wait for economic turmoil, the death of a veteran leader, or another crisis to spark an uprising. Such a crisis seems probable under current leaders, dissidents and Western diplomats say.

China's leadership today is mired in stagnation. It is obsessed with retaining total power at any cost and rejects the reforms that would forestall popular unrest and, ultimately, ensure the party's survival, the dissidents and Western diplomats add.

``The collapse of totalitarian society in China will take the Soviet path. The 10 years ahead will be something like the stagnation in the Soviet Union under [Leonid] Brezhnev,'' a liberal scholar says on condition of anonymity.

China's leadership rejected last spring the way of tumultuous reform pursued by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In the past 11 months, the Beijing autocrats who once led the communist world in reform have steadily retreated to antiquated, orthodox forms of Maoist control.

As part of its effort to salvage its popularity, Beijing is reviving Mao Zedong's idea of the ``mass line,'' a concept that vaguely means officials should serve and learn from common citizens.

The leadership is also trying to cleanse its image by exhuming the mythical figure of Lei Feng, a deceased foot soldier who is cast as the selfless patron saint of communist revolutionaries.

``These slogans mean nothing to us. It's like an old woman putting on 50-year-old fashions from her youth and expecting to turn some heads. It's a sad joke,'' the engineer says.

Beneath the veneer of timeworn propaganda, Beijing sustains its harsh ``rule by fear.''

According to public record, most liberals who were arrested since last June could just as well have perished with the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of victims from the onslaught on Beijing.

Beijing has reported the release of 784 dissidents since January, including the announced release of 211 detainees last Thursday. But thousands of protesters are unaccounted for, including many leaders in the movement. Either police refuse to disclose their whereabouts or their families and friends are too afraid to speak.

During the past two months, the leaders have pulled the revolutionary elite before an inquisition. The leadership is requiring 48 million members to reapply for party membership in what is the largest internal shakedown ever by a communist party.

Under threat of political disgrace, party members must write lengthy accounts of their activities last spring. One's view toward the massacre is used as the touchstone in the purge.

At the same time, China's rigid leaders have abandoned political reform in favor of stability. Calls within the party for an independent judiciary, the separation of the party from the state, and other phrases common before the ``Beijing Spring'' died in Tiananmen Square.

``The leadership is running scared; they're alienated from the people and they have nothing but old, outdated answers to their problems,'' says a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.

In one of its most glaring failures, the party has apparently resigned itself to rife corruption, perhaps the most inspiring issue in last year's protests and now second only to repression as a source of discontent for the public.

The state has hauled in hundreds of ``flies,'' or middle-level officials, for graft and other abuses but overlooked the ``tigers,'' or top officials and the children of leaders.

A 20-month effort to ease public discontent with the economy has backfired. Using heavy-handed socialist controls, Beijing has failed to bring inflation below 17 percent.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have been laid off or lost routine bonuses in the downturn as surging prices have eroded everyone's incomes.

Awaiting the shock that will trigger more protests, dissidents respond to the political stagnation and economic decay with either mockery or despair.

For example, students at Beijing University say they're glad the party marched freshmen off to a year of military training and heavy-handed indoctrination.

That way, they say, when the Army next turns its guns against students, at least the freshmen will know how to fight back.

Many university students gather in small groups to discuss politics or share essays on reform. ``Big character posters'' calling on students to shake off their passivity were posted in a central courtyard at Beijing University last Friday, but were quickly torn down by plainclothes police. Students say they don't plan to publicly act on their discontent in more forceful ways.

Urban workers, widely viewed as the key force in a popular uprising, have also become passive. Relying on the state for their livelihood more than most groups in society, they seem to have accepted the strongman rule that is traditional among common Chinese.

``Workers are putting their hopes in the emergence of an enlightened leader who will solve all of China's problems,'' says the machinery repairman. Last in a three-part series. The first two parts appeared Monday and Tuesday.

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