Just beyond the ever-peering gaze of Mao Zedong, whose portrait stands sentinel over Beijing's Tiananmen Square, a teenage hawker on the Avenue of Eternal Peace is committing a crime: selling books that have been banned by China's cultural commissars.
Each evening, roving street merchants transform pockets of the city into a movable feast of forbidden fruits - from President Clinton's grand-jury testimony on videodiscs to $2 copies of the film "Seven Years in Tibet."
Selling blacklisted memoirs by dissidents and racy exposs of Communist leaders is a criminal offense. But as the teenager explains, "I've got to make a living somehow."
For decades after the 1949 revolution here, the Communist Party dictated strict parameters on Chinese life. Books, film scripts, and even pop songs are pored over for traces of ideological nonconformity. Works that promote "socialist civilization" are approved for distribution through state-run bookshops, theaters, and radio stations. Others are censored or banned.
But Beijing's free-market reforms are fueling the black market, Chinese publishing experts say, which in turn is eroding the party's limits on culture. The government, which lost its moral authority when it fired on unarmed protesters here in 1989, "sometimes turns a blind eye toward the expanding black market," says a young artist in Beijing. The government's 1980s slogan "To get rich is glorious" seems to be inspiring increasing numbers of entrepreneurs, some of whom emulate corrupt officials in using any means - legal or illegal - to accumulate wealth.
As the sun drops below the staid, state-owned stores and government offices on Beijing's central boulevard, sidewalks take on a festive atmosphere as hawkers from virtually every corner of China compete with their wares. The black marketeers live outside the state system by their wits and ability to evade the law, and each evening help erode the planned society that the thought police try to enforce by day.
One chilly evening, an itinerant bookseller who called himself Rich Man Chen displays a collection of illicit paperbacks: "The Private Life of Chairman Mao," "Clinton and His Women," and "Mao and His Women."
"Some of the books are smuggled in from Hong Kong," Mr. Chen says. "Others are pirated copies of books printed abroad, while the rest are published secretly inside China. All the books are distributed through an underground publishing network" stretching from south to north China, he adds.
A bookshop manager here says, "Issuing a ban usually results in making the book a hit." Those who risk selling proscribed works jack up the price, and a curious public is often willing to pay to read books that anger the party, she says.
Many peddlers say that only the uninitiated are apprehended by police. During a recent patrol, some hawkers run, others crowd a sweet-potato stall, the smoothest blend into the crowd. The police confiscate one woman's videodiscs and let her go with a warning. "These people are sabotaging our efforts to safeguard intellectual property," says an officer who identifies himself by his badge, No. 1127176. "The best we can do is try to make an example of the peddlers we catch."
Some American and Chinese experts say there may be another reason for the hands-off attitude."There have been credible reports that senior military and party officials, or their children, operate some of the factories that produce pirated music and movies," says a Western official.
Party chief Jiang Zemin recently accused unnamed officials in the military, police, and judiciary of massive corruption, and has said graft could threaten the future of party rule.
On the avenue, the crowd of peddlers re-forms minutes after Officer 1127176's departure. Many say they suspect the police resell confiscated videodiscs or present them as gifts to their superiors. The perception of official corruption is so widespread, among not only these black marketeers but also the disillusioned, post-1989 generation, that many Chinese say they feel entitled to skirt the law at every opportunity.
Many young, reform-minded officials concede they, too, buy banned books or films on the black market. Some say the works give them a more balanced view of the rest of the world.
The Western official agrees. "As an official, I could never say that piracy of American intellectual property is good. But most Chinese can only afford counterfeit copies of Western films, and movies like 'Seven Years in Tibet' help counter government propaganda."
Perhaps the most important effect of the underground publishing industry is its giving back a voice to activists who were silenced after the attack at Tiananmen Square, say many Chinese scholars and students. Gao Xin, a political reform campaigner, has seen his investigative reports on Communist Party elite climb an informal black-market bestseller list. Mr. Gao, who now writes from exile in Cambridge, Mass., says his works are gaining readers in China's State Security Bureau, police, and Communist Party. While Gao expresses annoyance that the black market deprives him of royalties, he adds that "The black market allows many, many Chinese people to read my books, and that makes me very happy."