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Rumblings in China

THE sixth anniversary of the 1989 massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square passed quietly June 4 - to no one's surprise, since thousands of police were on hand to spot any hint of protest.

Yet dissent from China's official line still managed to emerge. One prominent pro-democracy figure, Chen Ziming, issued an open letter on the anniversary calling for release of political prisoners.

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The weeks leading up to the anniversary saw similar calls, including a May 15 petition from a group of Chinese scientists and scholars that urged tolerance for differing beliefs and viewpoints.

Given the government's determination to silence dissent, and the constant threat of force, it's remarkable that democratic rumblings persist in China. Doubly remarkable, since the horror of Tiananmen Square long ago faded from airwaves and memory. Most countries, including the United States, are more interested in cutting deals with an awakening economic giant than in criticizing its repressive policies.

Most-favored-nation trade status was perfunctorily granted China last month, even though in February the US State Department had proclaimed China's human rights record bleaker than ever.

Detention without trial and torture await anyone who raises a voice against Communist rule. A few, like Wei Jingsheng, the country's best-known dissident, have spoken regardless of consequences. Mr. Wei was seized, yet again, over a year ago and hasn't been seen or heard from since.

Economic conditions have improved in China over recent years. Would there now be even the spotty popular support for greater freedoms that surfaced in 1989? The core of the democracy movement, after all, is an urban elite, students and intellectuals fired by ideas.

What change would be triggered by the passing of Deng Xiaoping, China's Communist patriarch? It's hard to see many reformers in the current succession. These men may not be Maoist true believers anymore, but they jealously guard their prerogatives.

Ironically, the economic opening Mr. Deng encouraged has brought conditions likely to germinate an even greater yearning for change and freer expression. Environmental degradation, huge flows of people in search of economic betterment, rampant corruption by those in positions of power - all these factors work against the stability cherished by Beijing's party chiefs.

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The scientists and scholars, in their petition, argued that only the "supervision of democracy" and an "independent public opinion" can solve a problem like corruption. History may yet prove them right.

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