Will the real China please come forward?
By one account, pro-reform leaders have brought an isolated nation into the Internet Age in just one generation.
By another, these same leaders use police, courts, and prisons to silence religious and political activists.
Which one is China? Both images can be found in the US State Department's annual human rights report, and they reflect paradoxical views of China as it enters the 21st century.
Two men as contrasts of China
"Chinese society is beginning to resemble the West, and the scope of freedom is expanding," says a former human rights agitator who is now an entrepreneur in Beijing.
In contrast, the mother of imprisoned democracy activist Wang Dan disagrees. "For our family, there has not been a single sign of human rights progress," says Wang Lingyun, a retired researcher at Beijing's prestigious Museum of History.
Putting generic human rights labels on a nation with 1.2 billion people as it undergoes sweeping changes is difficult. Even as it opens up to market forces, China blocks the marketplace of ideas, creating deep fault lines between economic and political freedoms.
And the contrasts with the past are stark. In the 1950s, "Our parents were assigned a job, residence, and class status for life," says the entrepreneur. "Our generation is free to choose any career, and our style of living and income depend on talent rather than loyalty to the [Communist] Party."
'Society more open'
A Western official who monitors China's basic rights echoes that view. "Most Chinese citizens enjoy more freedom now than at any time in the past," he says.
The State Department's review of China says rising incomes and looser social controls are allowing more Chinese to view satellite broadcasts and surf the Internet.
"Chinese society continued to become more open and to diversify at a rapid pace. New social groups with economic resources ... have started to play a role in community life," says the report, which came out in late January.
Yet despite a new tolerance for private wealth and many Western ways, "thousands of figures remain in jail for the peaceful expression of their political or religious views," the Western official adds.
Although both Wang Dan and the would-be entrepreneur joined the massive student protests that swept across China in 1989, their diverging lives since then illustrate liberty's growth and limits here.
The entrepreneur was not targeted in the nationwide arrests that followed the Army's crackdown on demonstrators in 1989. He was able to finish school with only a black mark in the party-controlled file that follows each Chinese for life.
"When I graduated, I was disillusioned with the government, and stopped being an activist to become a businessman," he says.
Wang Dan, who headed Beijing's most-wanted list, was initially jailed for four years on charges of "propagating counter-revolution" for leading peaceful marches that called for liberalization of party rule.
In a throwback to Mao Zedong's policy of punishing an entire family for the "class sins" of one member, his mother was also arrested and thrown into a cramped jail cell with common prisoners.
"The government has never explained why it imprisoned me, much less apologized," says the gray-haired Wang Lingyun.
The retired scholar was only freed after being injured in jail, and still walks with a limp dating from her days in prison. When Wang Dan was released in 1993, the government barred him from returning to Beijing University and blacklisted him from the state economy.
Wang supported himself by writing political commentaries for the Hong Kong press and studied through a correspondence course with the University of California, but was re-arrested. Both of those acts, the government charged, were aimed at overthrowing the Communist Party, and Wang was sentenced in 1996 to another 11 years in prison.
Wang's onetime colleague in the pro-democracy protests has prospered in the last five years by selling office equipment. As a member of China's growing upper class, he drives an imported sedan, dines at Beijing's best restaurants, and is preparing to buy his own apartment. "Since I left school, I have not paid attention to politics, and politics has not paid attention to me," he says.
No mercy for political offenders
"The party has 'forgiven' most youths who joined the 1989 protests but later forsook politics," says a Chinese official. "But figures like Wang Dan, who revived his calls for political change after his first jail term, are seen as dangerous repeat offenders who should be shown no mercy."
Wang Dan is now being held in a jail cell in northeast China, where the frigid Siberian winds that once swept through the Soviet Union's political gulags bring long, harsh winters. His parents are permitted to visit him one hour each month, but are not allowed to give him warm clothing.
"Despite endless requests, the prison officials have refused to allow Wang Dan to seek medical treatment, and his health is rapidly deteriorating under these conditions," says Ms. Wang.
Being with foreigners
"Chinese society is becoming much more open for everyone except political activists," says the private entrepreneur, who admits he must still request anonymity in an interview with a Western reporter.
Contact with foreigners could lead to arrest after the 1989 crackdown, when the party accused the West of conspiring with Chinese students to overthrow communism. But today, Chinese youths can easily mix with their Western counterparts in the new cafes and dance clubs, and "anyone who has money is free to go abroad," he adds.
"Now I believe that reformists within the Communist Party are slowly pushing China toward not only economic but cultural integration with the rest of the world, and student protests can only hurt that trend," he says.
"The party will never publically admit it, but more and more of the younger leaders want to see China move closer to the West," he says.
"Even changes in China's legal system seem to be patterned after the American model," he adds.
Recent amendments in Chinese law are designed to give detainees quick access to lawyers, allow citizens to sue the government, and seek compensation for abuse of power.
"If these changes are actually implemented, they would bring China more in line with international standards," says the Western official.
Yet authorities continue to commit serious rights abuses that include "torture ... of prisoners, forced confessions, arbitrary arrest, and lengthy incommunicado detention," says the State Department. The Western official says laws on treason are so vaguely worded that they can be used to punish even a public call for a free press.
In China, says a Chinese legal scholar, "the party periodically publicizes trials of people like Wang Dan to warn the people not to step into the invisible and changing zone of the politically forbidden."