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Nine Years After Tiananmen, China's Leaders More Lenient

Former top party leader, jailed for leniency, spoke on June 4 anniversary against massacre.

Here's an example of how much China has changed in the nine years since the military massacre of pro-democracy protesters:

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the June 4 incident, the top Chinese official imprisoned for opposing the attack was able to publicly denounce it again.

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Bao Tong, who stood near the pinnacle of power before being thrown into jail for seven years, said, "June 4 [1989] is a tragedy for the entire country and the entire Chinese race."

Until May of 1989, he was the secretary of the Communist Party's Politburo and tried to persuade the party to negotiate with demonstrators. He was arrested just days before Operation Tiananmen for allegedly leaking details of the planned military action.

Since his release two years ago, he has been under tight surveillance, and has only in the last few days dared to speak out. But he and other advocates of political reform see signs of a new leniency since the 1997 death of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

Party chief Jiang Zemin "appears to be more tolerant of different views," says Wang Youcai, a former student leader who was jailed for two years after 1989.

In the nine years since Bao began his confinement, Chinese society has undergone massive changes.

"Except for political activists, most Chinese citizens enjoy more personal freedoms than at any time in history," says a Western official in Beijing.

Indeed, at Beijing University, which was at the eye of the pro-democracy tornadoes that swept through Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989, a veneer of calm now envelops the campus.

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If the antigovernment posters that were plastered across the university in 1989 still exist, they can only be stored away in dusty attics or in the closets of memory.

Benetton, not protest

Nine years after students at China's top center of learning led a peaceful uprising for political change here, the walled campus, and the city and country outside, have changed almost beyond recognition.

The triangular forum for free speech at the school's center, formerly flooded by pro-democracy activists and handbills, now sports ads for Benetton clothing, Microsoft software, and costly night classes for students seeking to study in the US.

At nearby Dormitory 28, where defiant students set up their own primitive radio station to fan the flames of 1989's protests, a compact disc player blasts out Sheryl Crow, Hanson, and other pop singers on an American compilation that is now at the top of the Chinese charts.

"Most students, either out of cynicism or self-interest, now want to concentrate on improving their own future rather than that of the country," says an English literature major who asked not to be identified.

"Money, fun, upward mobility, and study abroad are the primary goals on campus now, and I can't imagine anyone calling for a new student movement," she adds.

After 1989, a brain drain to US

After Chinese troops shot their way through Beijing to reclaim Tiananmen Square from protesting youths in 1989, the party focused its crackdown on Beijing University.

Although the strategy succeeded in ending public dissent, it also caused growing waves of students from China's top school to abandon their country for studies in America, says a diplomat in Beijing. "More than one quarter of Beijing University's class of 1996 are now in the US," he adds.

To stem the brain drain, "Beijing began loosening social and economic - but not political - controls over China's educated elite," says Mr. Wang.

Today, there are growing signs the party may be trying to forge a post-Tiananmen reconciliation between China's rulers and thinkers, while reserving coercive measures to silence those who continue to speak out against the crackdown.

Wang says that when he attempted to attend the school's 100th anniversary celebrations last month, "About 10 policemen surrounded me and forced me to leave Beijing."

The following day, he says, "The police escorted me onto a plane and held me incommunicado at a hotel in Zhejiang Province for 10 days."

Wang says that although he has never attempted to organize any protests or other antigovernment activities since being released from prison in 1991, he is still routinely followed and his friends are interrogated after meeting him.

Shang Dewen, an economics professor at Beijing University, marked this year's anniversary of the Tiananmen assault by calling for a political system that seems to be patterned after the US.

"China should hold a convention to write a completely new constitution," says Professor Shang. "The government should be split into three co-equal branches, with the president, legislature, and judiciary all chosen through national elections." He would have been locked up if he issued his manifesto two years ago.

That Shang has not yet been arrested is a clear sign of the new level of tolerance displayed by China's leaders.

But it is unclear whether the party's patience eventually will break and a new crackdown will be unleashed, or, if Beijing will gradually concede that it was a tragic mistake to deploy tanks and troops against peaceful protesters.

"In 1989, history went backward," says Tong. "But sooner or later, it must go forward."

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