the 50th-anniversary celebration the People's Republic of China is staging this weekend is in many ways a play within a play, a metaphor for the sweeping changes and ongoing controls that have shaped the planet's most populous nation as it prepares to enter the next millennium.
Today the world's television cameras are beaming out images of a tightly scripted, Soviet-style military parade, jet-fighter fly-bys, elaborate pyrotechnics, and ethnic minorities pledging their allegiance to the Communist Party in song and dance.
The handpicked performers and audience gathered at Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of modern China, will revel in the revolution's birthday, conveying the impression that all is well in the People's Republic.
Yet behind the scenes, the party's police and propaganda organs have been working around the clock to ensure that none of the dissidents, dispossessed, or other malcontents lurking backstage will steal the limelight during this weekend's festivities. Beggars common on the streets of Beijing were being detained on the eve of the celebration, just as pro-democracy advocates, labor activists, and suspect religious leaders have been rounded up in an ongoing nationwide crackdown.
Most mobile telephones, pagers, and Internet access will go dead in the capital to ensure that the party's birthday plays as planned, and many residents have been cautioned to stay indoors. The martial law-style regulations are a throwback to a more dictatorial era, before the twin policies of market reforms and opening to the world fostered growing spheres of economic, cultural, and personal freedoms for many Chinese 20 years ago.
Yet many ordinary citizens now reviewing a half century of communism here are predominantly concerned about how to avoid repeating history. Most Chinese have their focus squarely on the next century, and those interviewed for this article have mixed views about China's evolution over coming decades.
Wang Dan, the former student leader of pro-democracy protests that rocked China a decade ago, says that the party must resolve its past mistakes if it hopes to pave the way for a period of national reconciliation and peace.
Mr. Wang was jailed for nearly seven years after Army troops and tanks crushed the peaceful 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He has been a student at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., since being released and forced into exile last year. Wang says that "the political system and realm of freedoms have gone backward since 1989."
Indeed, China often seems to take two steps forward and one back in politics, and halting efforts to shape a system ruled by law are often swept away when it comes to jailing dissidents.
While Beijing last year signed the UN's Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, since then it has imprisoned or detained dozens of leaders of the fledgling China Democracy Party.
"The government is showing that it has no self-confidence by arresting followers of the Democracy Party or the spiritual movement Falun Gong," says Wang. "Only if the government pushes forward political reform can it hope to save itself." The alternative, he cautions, is a period of mounting popular discontent and turmoil "as China follows in the footsteps of the Soviet Union," which imploded upon the collapse of communism nearly a decade ago.
A senior official says the government intends to move ahead with "cautious steps toward political reform if the 50th anniversary passes without any significant disruptions."
The official, who has been a member of the party's liberal faction for decades, says "the government's top priority is social stability, and only measures that promote rather than endanger that goal will be considered in the immediate future." The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, adds that the government "wants to gradually expand its protections for basic human rights as it reduces party controls over the economy and culture."
And while the party once aimed to shape the country in the mold of the Soviet Union, "the most popular model for China is now Singapore," the official says.
Predictions that China's closed political system, combined with its rapid economic growth, could one day transform the country into a second, Soviet-style superpower are similarly disparaged by many China scholars in the US. Michael Swaine, an expert on the Chinese military at the California-based Rand think tank, says some Americans "want to paint China as the new Soviet Union ... [and] think the US needs a new threat in order to maintain forward deployment of US troops" on the global stage.
Yet "from an ideological point of view, the Chinese do not subscribe to a view of global expansionism," Mr. Swaine says.
A recent US congressional report charges that Chinese spies have acquired a treasure-trove of American atomic secrets that the People's Liberation Army aims to deploy to threaten American nuclear superiority.
Yet Swaine says that "the Cox Report [on China's alleged nuclear spying] should be read as a political document rather than as an accurate assessment of China's military modernization."
The report is full of flaws, and it remains "unclear what information China acquired, how they have used it, or whether any advances have been applied to deployed weapons," he says.
China's nuclear arsenal of less than 500 weapons is less than 1/10th the size of the US force.
Swaine also says that it is not certain China will retain its communist system as Beijing's market reforms fuel the country's steady rise on the world stage.
"There's a very good chance that China could evolve into a more open, liberal system over the next decades," he says. "The US, the existing dominant power, could still see growing friction with China" as Beijing's economic take-off transforms the Middle Kingdom into a major power.
But "the chances of the US managing and adjusting to China's rise would be much better if China were a democracy," he adds.
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society