Tianamen's legacy of boldness
Citizens have grown more vocal about their rights, even though China's political outlook hasn't changed much since 1989
On the evening of May 14, Jiang Qisheng, widely seen as one of China's most courageous dissidents, drafted and e-mailed to a friend a public statement commemorating the victims of the Army crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago.Skip to next paragraph
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The next day, policemen raided his one-room apartment and confiscated his computer.
Ten years ago, a similar statement earned Mr. Jiang four years in prison. He had already served two years for his role at Tiananmen. Today, again, with his declaration circulating on Chinese-language websites, "I know I face the risk of arrest," he says.
In some respects, as Jiang's experience suggests, not much has changed in China's political landscape over the past two decades. "The great promise for expanded democratization is unfulfilled," concludes a recent study by the Carter Center's China Program, based in Atlanta.
But in other ways, the prospect has shifted, say democracy activists. Citizens in all walks of life have grown more aware of their personal rights and bolder in asserting them.
the tens of thousands of popular protests they stage each year against local injustices, and the private lawsuits they bring against public officials are the harbingers of democracy, argues Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy.
"If people cannot get to the square anymore, they take other routes," says Professor Cui, a leading voice calling for the government to repent for the June 4, 1989, crackdown. "They know they have to work from the bottom up."
There is no sign that current Chinese leaders are taking steps toward what outsiders would recognize as democracy. Wu Bangguo, the second-most senior Chinese leader, said bluntly last March, "We will never ... implement a system of multiple parties holding office in rotation, a system with the separation of the three powers."
Once, when the government instituted direct elections for village committees, it gave the impression it would later introduce such votes at ever higher levels of government. That turned out to be false.
"I think they are stuck because they are afraid of political change" and scared that liberal reforms would take the country, and the ruling Communist Party, down the Soviet path to destruction, says Larry Diamond, an expert on democracy at Stanford University.
At the same time, he suggests, "the economic boom has bought them time and legitimacy, and June 4th bought them control, so they got comfortable on the path they are following."
Officials at all levels argue that political stability is essential for economic growth, and that any move toward electoral democracy would endanger that stability.