China's eagerness to create a more open image for itself is being seen as an opportunity for democracy advocates.
Wang Youcai, who was jailed for two years after the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, asked for permission to found a new political party on June 25.
His bold move is a test of China's Constitution, which includes articles on free speech and association. But rather than send him a written reply, three policemen showed up at his home in the coastal city of Hangzhou and detained him. He was told that a constitutional clause on "socialist rule" forbids any real opposition to the Communist Party.
Yet in a measure of Beijing's new tolerance, he was allowed to spend half his time in detention "explaining to the police why China needs a multiparty system," Mr. Wang said in a phone interview. After six hours, he was released.
Wang says there are "growing signs of a political thaw," especially after the 1997 death of supreme leader Deng Xiaoping. Yet one of his co-petitioners in asking to set up the China Democratic Party might disagree.
Activist Zhu Yufu is still being detained in Hangzhou, says Lu Siqing, a Hong Kong-based human rights monitor. His additional offense "was passing out handbills on the streets of Hangzhou to tell the people about the new party," says the rights watchdog.
Many Chinese hope that Beijing's unprecedented willingness to allow President Clinton to talk to the masses through broadcasts will herald a permanent shift. Many reformists are using the Clinton tour to ignite a nationwide debate.
Zhao Ziyang, the former party chief who was deposed for opposing the use of violence against protesters nine years ago, is reported to have issued an appeal for Beijing to atone for the 1989 massacre.
One of his former aides, Bao Tong, says, "Only by resolving the legacy of 1989 can we begin to build a new future here and between China and the US." The looser controls on free speech that have marked Clinton's visit "are the first step toward a post-Tiananmen reconciliation," he says.
"But the real test will come when Clinton leaves. If our freedom to speak out continues, that means a new era is beginning."