As Beijing prepares to sign a global bill of rights pact, democracy activists are already testing the government's pledge to expand political freedoms.
The Communist Party's agreement last week to sign the United Nations covenant on civil and political rights is breathing new life into China's long-silenced dissident community.
Activists nationwide, many of them former student leaders of 1989's massive democracy demonstrations, are joining to attempt to set up the China Democracy Party, register local human rights watchdogs, and appeal for the abolition of political labor camps.
Would-be founders of Communist China's first opposition party have applied to register the party in six provinces in the last weeks, says Frank Lu, who heads a Hong Kong-based human rights group.
Yet the Communist Party is sending out mixed signals in how it intends to deal with the resurgence of democracy activists, which could reflect a split among Beijing's rulers over how extensively to comply with the UN's mandate on freedom of speech and association.
Some activists fear China's security organs may be setting a huge mousetrap for them.
In the last several days, the police have detained dissidents trying to register the Democratic Party in Shanghai, Beijing, and Changchun, says Mr. Lu. While most have since been released, at least one is still being held. In contrast with the State Security Ministry's arrests, officials in the more reform-minded Ministry of Civil Affairs have told Democratic Party applicants in eastern Shandong and central Hubei province that the government would consider the proposal if detailed membership and leadership lists are submitted.
The Communist Party for nearly a half century has relied on its monopoly on power, a ban on independent rights monitors, and its political gulags to rule. Granting concessions in any of those areas could fundamentally alter China's political landscape.
But a multiparty system, civilian checks on rights abuses, and a ban on extrajudicial jailings would all seem to be mandated under the UN covenant on political rights that China is set to sign, says Andrew Nathan, a legal scholar at Columbia University in New York. Yet Professor Nathan and other experts on international law say there is no guarantee that China will faithfully adhere to the covenant's provisions.
Qin Yongmin, a rights activist in Hubei province, says he and other leaders of the fledgling Democratic Party are aware of the dangers involved in trying to register the group.
While Beijing may be trying to change its image by officially tolerating the new party, it may have a more sinister motive in requesting detailed membership and leadership lists. China's ubiquitous secret police "may want the information to orchestrate a wide-ranging crackdown on the party," says Mr. Qin.
While Beijing's leaders have for decades feared that legal limits on their power could weaken their rule, Qin says respect for human rights could actually bolster the party's legitimacy. "By exposing problems in society, we actually want to help safeguard stability," he adds.
Xie Wanjun, a former student leader of the peaceful uprising that shook China in 1989, agrees. "Nine years ago, we used street protests and hunger strikes to press our demands for democracy, but now we are more mature," says Mr. Xie.
"Now we have abandoned confrontational tactics, and want to coordinate with the Communist Party to help resolve the social conflicts being created by unemployed state workers and civil servants, along with others who are being hurt by economic reforms," he adds.
Xie says that the Democratic Party recognizes the leading role the Communist Party will play in China for the foreseeable future.
Leng Wanbao, who recently applied to register the Jilin provincial chapter of the Democratic Party after eight years' imprisonment for his political activism, says he is optimistic as more global-minded leaders replace the country's revolutionary founders.
The battlefield victors of the communist revolution long relied on the maxim that "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun" to rule China. Yet their successors, Mr. Leng says, "seem to care more about China's international image, and are more open to learning to rule within the limits of a system of law."
"China is going to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights next month, and that document guarantees the right to set up opposition and rights groups," Leng says. "After Beijing signs the treaty, I don't see how it can legally ban our party."