Actors in China's Political Drama

BACKING away from a campaign pledge and bowing to intense corporate pressure, President Clinton has told Congress he wishes to grant most-favored-nation trading status to China. This removes a key weapon for pressuring the Chinese government to improve its dismal human rights record. Meanwhile, most of the dissidents who took on the omnipotent Chinese Communist Party at Tiananmen Square four years ago remain in jail.

Mr. Clinton did slap the wrist of the Chinese by threatening to withdraw their trading privileges if they don't ease up on the dissidents. And some people argue that the best way to crack the closed Chinese system is to foster trade. American airplanes and videos, the argument goes, eventually will encourage an American-style democracy.

Why the Chinese government was willing to rile its trading partners by ordering tanks into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, is the subject of a precisely detailed book by two people who are in a position to know, Robin Munro, a China specialist with Asia Watch, and George Black, a columnist with the Los Angeles Times.

"Black Hands of Beijing: Lives of Defiance in China's Democracy Movement" takes a brick-by-brick approach to uncovering the details of the Tiananmen saga - for example, presenting specifics of meetings in the weeks before the military clash that at times border on the mind-numbing. The story begins with the rise of the movement's key leaders - called "black hands" by the government - who ultimately guided many of the events.

The word "black" is Maoist nomenclature for "bad elements," like capitalists or antirevolutionaries, and "hands" is for those who allegedly manipulated the naive students like puppets on a string.

The two principal black hands were Chen Ziming, a portly entrepreneur who founded a group of think tanks called the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute (SERI), and Wang Juntao, an inveterate reader of romantic tales who became deputy editor of the independent journal Beijing Spring and later a SERI analyst.

Two surprising conclusions emerge from the authors' precise reporting. Chen and Wang, basically moderates during the clash, weren't arrested for directing the flag-wavers in the square. Their crime was to launch the glimmerings of a civil society outside of the Communist Party.

For example, with a 1988 grant from the United States National Science Foundation, SERI polled Chinese citizens. The results were startling. Some 72 percent said democracy is the best form of government - explosive stuff for a one-party system, dangerous information for an emerging opposition.

The second conclusion is that the old party stalwarts were less worried about the students than about an uprising by the workers, what Deng Xiaoping called the "Polish disease." Munro and Black argue that the government didn't send the troops in until the authorities discovered a small tent housing the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation in the corner of the square.

This book isn't for the faint-hearted. There are no grand statements of direction at the outset to encourage the reader. But the authors do provide a thorough, and at times enthralling, portrait of the men and women behind the dramatic television images of a lone student defying a Chinese tank.

For an easier path into the heart of Chinese communism, try "The Man Who Stayed Behind," by Sidney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett.

It's a remarkable saga, told with sympathy and dry wit, of an American student activist who traveled to China during World War II and stayed for 35 years.

In addition to his longevity in a country that reduces most foreigners to despair, Sidney Rittenberg lived with Mao in the caves of Yenan, rose to become a high party member, and twice was jailed for long stretches as his star fell.

During the heyday of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, Rittenberg's zeal for China made him a Communist celebrity. At one point, he found himself lecturing 100,000 students at Nankai University on the joys of revolution.

Then, for the second time, he was imprisoned, this time for nine years. He later discovered that, as a pawn in a greater contest between Communist Party factions, he had inadvertently overstepped the bounds and offended Mao himself.

Although he left China in 1980, despairing of the twists and turns of Communist policy, Rittenberg was not bitter. "If I were given the chance to rewrite my life, I would not cross out even my years in prison," he notes in a characteristically upbeat tone.

Written jointly with Amanda Bennett, a Wall Street Journal reporter and former Beijing correspondent, Rittenberg's story of imprisonment, war, party politics, and divorce was enough to keep this reader up late, eager for the next episode.

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