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China's Democracy Activists Gear Up for Post-Deng Era


By Sheila TefftStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1995


RELEASED on medical parole last year from a 13-year sentence for allegedly masterminding the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, prominent dissident Chen Ziming is now a prisoner in his own home.

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He has to apply for an official permit to go out, and his apartment has been guarded by up to 56 police officers at a time.

Yet, despite forced exile within his own country, Mr. Chen has not ruled himself out as a player in the political drama expected to follow the end of Deng Xiaoping's rule, says his wife, Wang Zhihong. Although publicly silenced by tight official control on dissent, a small core of Chinese activists debate and ponder their role in the era after Mr. Deng, an economic reformer and brutal autocrat.

In a new surge of activism before the opening of the annual session of the Chinese parliament yesterday, some intellectuals and dissidents submitted four petitions demanding constitutional democracy and an independent judiciary.But a spokesman of the National People's Congress (NPC) said the petitions would not be considered.

Since Chen thinks pluralistic democracy and constitutional protections are ''just a question of time,'' Ms. Wang says her husband has undertaken research with other activists seeking ''a democratic road suitable for China's national conditions'' and has begun doctoral study at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, after Chinese universities turned him down.

''During the post-Deng transition, if democratic [liberal] factions both inside and outside the Communist regime no longer place the future of reforms on a strong man, and if they voice their own independent views, it will be difficult for a new supreme patriarch to come into being,'' says Ms. Wang, quoting her husband.

''We need to make it clear that a gradual advance of democracy will not necessarily lead to economic disorders and that democracy is not a panacea for all diseases. The problems that China faces now are very complicated,'' she says. ''We are in favor of a nonviolent and legal opposition and oppose the violent revolution advocated by the Communist culture.''

Mr. Deng, who revolutionized China with his market-style changes but suppressed criticism and challenges to his rule, is no longer believed to be exerting day-to-day leadership or making decisions on policy issues due to poor health.

President Jiang Zemin, who also leads the Chinese Communist Party and the Central Military Commission, ostensibly has assumed Deng's mantle and heads a transition team of senior leaders, including Prime Minister Li Peng, economic supremo Zhu Rongji, and Qiao Shi, a former security chief who now oversees the increasingly active parliament.

In what analsyts saw as a new assertion of authority by Mr. Jiang and a strike against high-level corruption, the government ordered the arrest and dismissal of a prominent industrial family with close ties to Deng.

Yet, Chinese analysts and activists say that Jiang lacks the savvy and clout to achieve Deng's stature and has failed in well-publicized efforts to court the support of the military and middle-level party cadre.

In recent years, the president has promoted loyalists from his home base in Shanghai and more than 20 military leaders to full general. But in the process, he has excluded and alienated other military and provincial officials and left policy in a state of disarray.