BEIJING — 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.
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.
Senior leaders are expected to rally around Jiang to preserve party control and stability immediately after Deng's death, although eventually rural unrest, deepening troubles of state enterprises and worker discontent, challenges to Deng's legacy, and economic reforms could unravel this tenuous unity and trigger a power struggle, analysts say.
''China has already entered the post-Deng era,'' says a former newspaper editor who lost his job for supporting 1989 pro-democracy protests. ''Given Jiang's reputation and ability, he can only be a leader of a nation at peace.''
In such a jittery atmosphere, increasingly uneasy security officials detain, scrutinize, and attempt to muzzle dissidents. Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous voice for democracy, remains under detention most likely in the Beijing area while his assistant Tong Yi was reported by Human Rights in China to be beaten in a labor camp.
Chen, the 1989 activist, was released from jail last May for treatment for cancer, but his many written appeals to end his house arrest have been turned down. Unlike his fellow activist and friend Wang Juntao who went to the United States for medical care, Chen refuses to leave China, according to his wife.
''He has committed himself to democracy in China and, if he is going to do so, he has to remain,'' says Ms. Wang. ''He says he will only leave the country as a free man.''
Chinese authorities are particularly uneasy about dissidents' efforts to reassess Deng's legacy, a process which in the past has set off major party infighting and leadership upheavals.
A reassessment of Chairman Mao Zedong after his death in 1977 sparked internal party turmoil over the Cultural Revolution and Deng's subsequent return to power.
Earlier this month, authorities confiscated a critique of Deng Xiaoping written by Lin Mu, a pro-democracy activist living in Xian in Shaanxi Province. Mr. Lin says he still intends to publish the book despite official dismay over sections about former a Deng protegee, Hu Yaobang.
Hu's death in 1989 prompted the Tiananmen reexamination and withdrawal from the official hardline defense of the 1989 military massacre may already be underway. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Deng Rong, Deng's daughter, defended her father's ordering the Army against pro-democracy demonstrators but called it a ''tragedy'' and suggested reconciliation could come in the future.
Her remarks, said a senior Communist Party journalist purged after the crackdown, have spotlighted the Tiananmen issue and put pressure on the senior leadership.
''What Jiang Zemin and the others want is to blame everything on Deng,'' he says, pointing out that Deng's five children enjoy extensive business interests.
''His children are aware his reputation has plummeted. So, for their own survival, it is imperative for them to raise his reputation before his death,''the journalist said.
Dissidents say Deng's death could prompt a revival of conservative opponents of market reforms but suggest more liberal forces could rally behind less hardline leaders such as Qiao Shi, party elder Wan Li, Deng loyalist Li Ruihuan, or even rehabilitated Zhao Ziyang, the party chief ousted for his support of 1989 demonstrators.
''If the leftists are defeated, there will be a favorable turn,'' writes one political activist in a recent essay.
''If the healthy factions within the party and the forces of democracy movements that represent the interests of the general public are defeated, China will walk into the dark,'' the activist said.