FACING just a few bursts of Army gunfire, Beijing residents yesterday appeared to be more grim than afraid as the difficulty of achieving democracy in China sank in. For seven weeks before the recent carnage, Beijing citizens revelled in a freedom of self-expression unseen during 40 years of Communist Party rule. Each time student leaders peacefully advanced China's powerful pro-democracy movement, Communist leaders retreated, and popular support for the activists surged.
The military's wanton shooting on a mass demonstration for democracy Sunday has left Beijing residents numb, compelling them to stay at home with their families, away from work, and to only venture out on silent streets under soldiers' guns to buy scarce foods at the few stores still open.
The suppression appears to have shocked Beijing into recognizing that one springtime is too short to create the democratic institutions that would protect the freedom of their street politicking. United States intelligence estimates the number of protesters killed by the military at 3,000.
``Things were going so well and peacefully; people felt free. But it was also too easy,'' says a man waiting in line to buy cabbages at a street-side stall who identified himself only as Hu. ``It will take a long, hard time to make democracy.''
While Beijing is subdued, residents in several other cities have protested the slaughter of unarmed protesters. The enraged demonstrators besieged government offices and built street barricades in Nanjing, Harbin, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin, and other cities. And several people have died or faced arrest in violent disturbances in Chengdu and Xian.
In Beijing the onslaught appears to have cowed and disillusioned many citizens, convincing them of the futility of trying to win basic liberties through the reform of a communist system. For others, the military assault has shown the urgency of first clearing the way for democracy through armed rebellion.
The Party's totalitarian grip on all political organs, information, education, and the police poses an obvious restraint to pro-democracy activism. But several students and intellectuals say Chinese will find it difficult to build an effective mass movement to create democracy. This is largely because many people are unfamiliar with democratic institutions, the students and intellectuals say.
``Under a democratic government I could say what I want without being afraid of being arrested,'' says Hu, a railway worker. ``And it would be a good way to get rid of corruption,'' he adds, voicing a chief grievance of common Chinese. He does not mention one-person-one-vote, multi-party pluralism, supremacy of the law, or other building blocks of democratic government.
Tian Feng, a student at the University of Political Science and Law in Xian, says most of the masses have a very crude understanding of democracy and law.
``Common people merely support the students because we have called for an end to corruption, and many Chinese feel badly exploited by Chinese officials,'' said Mr. Tian at a sit-in at Tiananmen Square on Saturday, just hours before the rampage by troops and tanks.
While unfamiliar with democracy, common Chinese now appreciate the pressing need to bring about democratic change, says dissident Bao Zunxin. The pro-democracy movement since April has created ``three enhancements of the political awareness'' of Chinese, says Mr. Bao, a theorist at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
``Chinese people have a better understanding of how cruel and autocratic the Communist Party and government are,'' Bao said. ``The party had been claiming that it is a democratic government and a humanitarian government but now it has placed itself as the rival of the students and the masses,'' he says.
Also, the crackdown by communist leaders will encourage students, intellectuals, and workers to struggle together to build the democratic institutions which will realize their diverse aims, including basic freedoms, rule by law, and an end to corruption, he says.
``Now there is a common awareness that China badly needs democracy and that it is because of the absence of democracy that China suffers today,'' Bao says. And recent events have shown Chinese that they must shape their political future themselves and abandon their traditional reliance on a virtuous emperor or wise officials, Bao adds.
``The people realize they must take matters into their own hands and stand up and demand solutions,'' he says.