Step by cautious step, China is becoming a more open society. For the first time since 1960, foreign diplomats and journalists are being admitted to plenary sessions of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, which will convene Aug. 30 for two weeks.
This contrasts with the congress of 1975 when the so-called "gang of four" was still in power. That congress, according to one participant, was like an underground party meeting.
Foreign journalists were shipped off on a sightseeing tour to Tianjin, while delegates were not even allowed to tell their own families. They were told only to bring money and rice coupons and, in the atmosphere of those times, some feared something untoward was about to happen to them.
This year, the first session of the Fifth National People's Congress, to give the session its full title, has been preceded by a press conference, no less. Its agenda has been already so thoroughly leaked that few major surprises are expected.
Prime Minister Hua Guofeng is retiring, as are at least five deputy premiers, including Deng Xiaoping. The new prime minister will be Zhao Ziyang; the new first deputy premier, Wan li. None of these names were announced at the Aug. 26 press conference, but these changes are now a matter of such common knowledge that there would be public surprise if they did not take place.
Another indication of a more open society: A replacement will have to be found for Petroleum Industry Minister Song Zhenming, whose resignation was accepted by the standing committee of the National People's Congress Aug. 26. Mr. Song has taken responsibility for "evading responsibility and covering up mistakes" in connection with the Bohai Gulf No. 2 oil-rig disaster last November. The rig capsized, resulting in 72 fatalities.
The official People's Daily splashed the news of "severe measures" taken by the State Council (Cabinet) regarding the oil-rig disaster across the top of its front page Aug. 26. The decision includes not only Mr. Song's dismissal, but a "demerit first grade" pronounced on Kang Shien, deputy premier in charge of the petroleum industry.
These measures, in a sense, are a tribute to the persistence with which newspapers here, and especially reporters of the Worker's Daily, tried to get at the facts of the case -- despite the Petroleum Industry Ministry's desperate attempts at first to cover up the affair and then to blame it on habits left over from the days of the "gang of four." (The "gang of four" was headed by Mao Tse Tung's widow, Jiang Qing, all powerful from 1966 until Mao's death in 1976.)
The press conference giving the agenda of the National People's Congress was held in the sprawling Great Hall of the People on Tian An Men Square where the congress itself will be held. Premier Hua will not give the customary report on the work of the government as he did at last year's National People's Congress. Instead he will make an "important speech" at a session on the major tasks of the State Council and on the change of its leading functionaries, it was announced.
Foreign journalists will be invited to attend this session, at which Hua is expected to make what amounts to his swan song as prime minister.The Constitution will not be revised to create the position of head of state, the press conference was told. But Article 45, which currently includes the "four bigs," will be changed.
The most famous of the "four bigs" is the right to write big character posters, a right flamboyantly exercised by democratic dissidents during the heyday of the "democracy wall" last year. Chinese sources insist the elimination of this right does not invalidate the rest of the article.
"Citizens enjoy freedom of speech, correspondence, the press, assembly, association, procession, demonstration, and the freedom to strike, and have the right to speak out freely and air their views fully, hold geat debates and write big character posters," says the article. The first option of the article, up to "freedom to strike," will be retained, sources say, and only the latter part, which came into vogue during the now discredited Cultural Revolution, will be eliminated.