China's Dissidents Reopen Debate on Political Rights

As economic reforms return, Chinese writers urge entrepreneurs to take up democracy cause

CALLS for democracy are creeping back into China's political and economic debate.

Dissidents Hu Jiwei and Xu Liangying openly urged democratic reform in recently published local newspaper articles, a sign that China's controls on political discussion are loosening in the wake of economic change.

The reopened political debate comes as China's ruling Communists wrestle with fears of inflation amid rising economic growth. Some Chinese analysts suggest that conservative opponents of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping could use the threat of inflation to slow down the economy and his market reforms in coming months.

Public anger over high prices helped fuel popular discontent that culminated in the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. After the crackdown, the gradual opening up of China to free-market ideas and foreign contact was halted.

In recent months China has stepped back from hard-line communism to foster market reforms, and political activists have tried to use new economic freedom to renew calls for intellectual, cultural, and political openness.

In the most daring clarion call to date, Mr. Hu urged China's growing legions of prosperous entrepreneurs to mobilize for democratic change. The article by Hu, a former chief editor of People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, appeared Jan. 11 in a full-page article in Factory Director and Manager News, an official but independent-minded newspaper in Sichuan Province.

Calling for direct elections and the dismissal of leaders through a popular vote, the former party propagandist exhorted the new business class to "become the main army of establishing China's theory of democracy and promoting the building of democracy.

"In the past, studies and explorations of democracy were limited to intellectuals or circles that are not corporate," Hu wrote. "This is something abnormal. Economic prosperity depends on whether entrepreneurs can have the right of taking part in administration and discussing politics."

Hu was the official in China's National People's Congress in charge of press and publication when he threw his weight behind the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989. He was removed and retired from the post for attempting to convene an emergency session of the Congress's standing committee to overturn martial law.

"If China is to rejuvenate her culture and to accomplish political reform and economic prosperity, China has to have democracy and progress," he wrote. "Without the establishment of democracy, there can't be healthy and happy lives for the Chinese people."

Hu's essay is one of a series of commentaries by Chinese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese scholars to be published throughout the first half of 1993, said Chen Bing, an editor at Factory Director and Manager News. In a telephone interview from Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, Mr. Chen said there had been no reaction so far from Beijing ideologues although the Hu article had stirred a response in the province.

"Some Chengdu journalists had come to the paper, and they were excited that the issue of democracy has come up again," Chen said. "I also have regular contacts with college students in Chengdu, and the article has been something of a sensation on campuses."

IN a separate essay published Oct. 15 in Future and De-velopment, a Beijing-based scientific magazine, natural scientist Xu Liangying warned that China's blueprint for economic transformation will not work without democratic reforms.

Since 1989, "democracy and freedom have been regarded as great scourges and those who stand for democracy have been denounced as hostile elements. It is as if China has returned to the days of anti-rightists [hard-line Marxists] and the Cultural Revolution," wrote Mr. Xu, whose colleague, physicist Fang Lizhe, had played a key role in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and was eventually allowed to go into exile in the US.

"However, the current talk about economic reform ... only sidesteps political reform and avoids democracy as a taboo. It is very doubtful that this crippled reform would ever succeed," he said, predicting that official corruption will spread without public scrutiny.

Conservatives fought back in the December issue of Mainstream, a magazine published by the Guangming Daily. In an article entitled "An absurd argument that is worth noticing," the magazine accused Xu of distorting party policy with Western-style demands for democracy, human rights, and rule by law, and dismissed the scientist as "merely a yes-man repeating the words of others like a parrot."

In an interview with the Monitor, Xu said his article was originally written for publication in a now-defunct Hong Kong magazine. He said he was delighted to see it appear in a Chinese publication, adding that two previous issues of Future and Development carrying his piece and similar articles were banned.

In an early move for democratic change, Xu and Shi Yafeng, a glaciologist and a colleague at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote a letter in February 1989 to senior Communist leaders. The letter, which was signed by 40 other intellectuals, said that democracy must accompany economic reform; basic civil rights and freedoms should be guaranteed; political detentions should stop and prisoners should be released; and more state support should go to education and science.

Xu, who began translating a Chinese edition of the Collected Works of Albert Einstein while exiled to the countryside during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, said he opposed dramatic tactics such as hunger strikes during the 1989 demonstrations because "democracy in China can't be completed in one stride. It must be an incremental process."

Seated in his study beneath an Einstein poster that carries the quote, "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds," Xu predicted that economic change will force new freedoms for Chinese.

"Conditions are a bit more relaxed now compared with June 4," he said. "With economic openness, China needs money and has to improve its image."

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