IN a hint of their power over China's vast army of labor, Beijing's city leaders recently summoned thousands of citizens to remove a large frozen lake - chunk by chunk. The 100,000 Beijing residents ``voluntarily'' massed on the shore of Kunming Lake, slipped and slid across the icy expanse, axed it to pieces, and hauled it away using hemp baskets strung on shoulder poles.
Removal of the lake is a modest example of how communist leaders, like the emperors who conceived the Grand Canal and Great Wall, can flex the muscles of China's multitude for their colossal pet projects.
Indeed, as workers chipped away, the lake at the ancient Summer Palace looked like a scene from some classic imperial epic.
Swarms of black figures, as if etched on an immense silvery scroll of ice and frosty air, swung picks and cut the acres of ice into blocks. Far away, from out of the gelid mist, the Seventeen-Arch Bridge stretched to the island of the Dragon King Temple.
But this laboring wave of what communist leaders once called the renhai, or human sea, obscured a political undertow that was distinctly modern.
As part of its intensive effort to forestall activism on campus, Beijing apparently selected the ``volunteers'' from among groups that were aggressors and victims in the June 1989 Beijing massacre of pro-democracy protesters.
Paramilitary police and soldiers in uniform hacked away at the lake shoulder-to-shoulder with street vendors and students from 20 universities in the surrounding district.
``The volunteers are united behind the project's slogan, `Promote the Four Loves: Love the Motherland, Love Beijing, Love Cultural Relics, Love the Summer Palace,''' said Xu Fengtong, director of the palace.
Success of the forced reconciliation was apparently mixed. Students expressed a cheerful sarcasm toward the project over the roar of a loudspeaker that blared, ``The Communist Party is like my mother'' and other verses from the ditty, ``Sing a Song for the Party.''
THE students and other ice cutters averted a minor fiasco for Beijing officials. Palace officials had counted on gravity to clear away the 298-acre lake. But freezing winds out of Siberia halted the draining process Dec. 1 and so the palace turned to forced labor, one of China's most boundless resources.
With much of the ice gone, the palace intends to make the lake more suitable for boating and bathing by hauling away 663,000 cubic yards of silt.
The workers toiled above a lake bed that was hewed out more than 240 years ago during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). That effort by corv'ee laborers was also dwarfed by earlier projects.
The imperial tradition of pressing Chinese into toil dates back centuries, with the Great Wall its most awesome legacy. The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) started construction of the wall but was the shortest of China's dynasties because of its brutality toward the peasantry.
Forced laborers from 584 to 589 AD constructed most of the 1,240-mile-long Grand Canal, a crucial coupling between the economies of north and south China even today.
During the first 11 months of last year, 80 million peasants put in 2 billion ``work days'' to build irrigation channels and drain marshes, according to the official New China News Agency.
China's leaders also rely on several million prisoners - many of them political dissidents - toiling in forced labor camps. The goods made by inmates at Laogai Ying, or labor reform camps, have in recent years been a lucrative source of export earnings.