Ten years after the Chinese military opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, the leadership unveiled a remarkably different response to a mass sit-in here Sunday: tolerance and talks.
Security here has been tighter for months as both the government and the people count down toward the anniversary of the violent June 4, 1989, crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
When 10,000 followers of Falun Gong, or "Buddhist Law," a seven-year-old movement, descended on Communist Party headquarters, "China's leaders were obviously caught completely off-guard," says a Western official. "The really amazing thing ... was how peacefully both the protesters and the government conducted themselves." But it is unclear whether Beijing's more relaxed approach represents a wide-ranging policy change or was triggered by more pragmatic reasoning.
In contrast with the 1989 incident, security forces were armed with bread rather than bullets as they tried to persuade the Buddhist Law followers to eat before returning home. Most of the demonstrators had slipped into Beijing from other parts of the country under cover of darkness early Sunday and ringed Zhongnanhai, the western section of the Forbidden City where China's top leaders live and work.
"The police were obviously under strict orders from above to be as accommodating as possible to the protesters," says the Western official.
The protesters, a mix of peasants, workers, and students, streamed out of Beijing Sunday night as orderly as they entered after organizers were promised a dialogue with the government.
One protest leader, a civil servant from the nearby city of Zhanjiakou, said the group had been guaranteed a meeting with Premier Zhu Rongji, who heads the reform wing of the party.
She said Buddhist Law - an eclectic mix of meditation, martial arts, breathing exercises, and moral platitudes - "is good for the health of the individual and society as a whole, and certainly presents no threat to the government." She added that its followers "have been persecuted in Tianjin and other areas of the country, and we want Premier Zhu to order a halt to these attacks."
As mayor of Shanghai in 1989, Zhu personally persuaded student protesters to leave the city's streets without a confrontation. In a speech before China's national legislature last month, Zhu said that social unrest should be handled through legal means. "Under no curcumstances ... should we use dictatorial means against the people."
A speaker from Zhu's office said that "Leaders of the Communist Party's general office and the State Council's Complaints Bureau are holding talks with representatives of the Falun Gong." The office declined to confirm whether the premier himself would meet with the protest leaders.
Beijing has been beset by sporadic but growing protests - from peasants disgruntled with corrupt local officials to workers laid off from bankrupt state-run firms. Authorities are apparently developing more moderate means to handle some forms of discontent.
Yet when dozens of dissidents attempted to set up the first formal opposition group since the 1949 Communist revolution, three leaders of the China Democracy Party were given decade-plus prison terms in December.
"Communist Party leaders are still prepared to crack down hard on anyone who represents a direct threat to their power," says a Chinese legal scholar who asked not to be identified. "But they are becoming much more progressive in handling other kinds of protests," he adds.
A police officer deployed near the party's headquarters to cordon the area off appeared to agree. "These protesters are not trying to oppose the government, and are nothing like the demonstrators of 1989," he says. "There is therefore absolutely no chance that we would use force to clear them away."
Rather than hoist antigovernment banners or chant political slogans, demonstrators lined the streets in near silence. Most meditated, read, or tried to spread the teachings of their leader, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in exile in the US.
Some even tried to persuade the police to read Buddhist Law writings as the security forces distributed instant noodles and mineral water to the crowds, along with offers of free bus rides home.
Some protesters said their leaders would hold a dialogue with the government until Beijing officially recognized the group and extended it full protection from persecution.
Says the Western official, "The Falun Gong group claims to have up to 100 million followers worldwide, and that really has to make the government think carefully and hard about how to prevent a wider explosion of unrest," he says. "The softer line with this group has peacefully ended what could have been a disaster. But some government leaders must be worrying now whether their nonconfrontational response could embolden other discontented social groups to stage their own sit-ins."