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Wednesday, June 2, 1999 Published at 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK

Dissidence then and now

Is the new generation of dissidents like the old?

As I prepared for my trip to China I worried that there was probably little chance of making contact with any pro-democracy activists.

I'd read reports about a new crackdown on dissidents that had begun late last year. Three of the top leaders of a new underground political party had been given jail terms of between 11 and 13 years. Other activists were under close surveillance. The authorities were trying to ensure that no one would dare to commemorate the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protest 10 years ago.

With soaring unemployment, faltering economic growth and increasingly rampant corruption, there was an obvious risk of a social explosion. The government didn't want dissidents lighting the fuse.

[ image: James Miles]
James Miles
But China today is very different from the country that in 1989 was engulfed by anti-government demonstrations.

Economic reforms have shredded the fabric of the old political system. The Communist Party no longer controls everything. Workers whose careers were once determined by party aparachiks are now free to find their own jobs in the private sector.

They're no longer so afraid that offending some official will mean losing the chance to be assigned a better apartment. That's because state-allocated housing is now being abolished.

The free market is taking over and it's coming with its essential tools; fax machines, pagers, mobile telephones and above all the Internet, which is delivering a body blow to the party's information monopoly.

As I looked through my e-mail on my computer in London shortly before setting off, I found a message written in Chinese about the latest crackdown on dissidents.

The long list of recipients at the top included activists around China and in the United States, as well as other foreign journalists. At the bottom was the sender's name, Xu Yonghai, and his telephone number in Beijing. Thanks to the Internet, I had a potential interviewee.

When I arrived in Beijing I gave him a call, cautiously omitting to tell him my name or organisation in case the line was being tapped.

He readily agreed to meet. It turned out I'd met Mr Xu before, some five years earlier, shortly before I ended my assignment in Beijing. I recalled talking to him and a mutual friend, both of them not only political dissidents but also Christians who'd refused to register with the state-sponsored protestant church.

As we sat in a "Dunkin Donuts" cafe, Mr Xu told me how not long after that meeting he and his friend had been arrested. Both had been sentenced without trial to two-and-a-half years in labour camps as punishment for their dissident activities.

I told Mr Xu that I wanted to talk to activists in Beijing about the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Despite his prison ordeal, the idea didn't appear to trouble him. He wrote down the address of an apartment where he told me I could meet them in two weeks time.

To avoid detection by the secret police who would inevitably follow the activists, we agreed that I would arrive at the flat before them. The meeting place was in a shabby five-storey block in northern Beijing. One by one, the dissidents arrived and as each one knocked on the door I held my breath, fearing that the visitor might turnout to be a policeman.

The small living-room was soon crammed with some twenty people - half a dozen dissidents and the rest fellow Christians who'd turned up to join them in prayer.

Between them, the dissidents had spent a total of nearly 20 years in jail. Some had been engaged in underground political activity since the 1970s. Never, except during Tiananmen, had I been in the company of so many declared enemies of the Party.

Some of the dissidents appeared a little nervous too. One of them rolled down his sock to reveal a wad of paper which he handed over to me. It was a petition calling for human rights.

I placed it on the table, but he whispered to me to put it in my bag, warning that one couldn't be sure that everyone in the room was on their side.

Another dissident told me that the secret police were monitoring the gathering from the street outside. After singing hymns, members of the group offered prayers in turn. Two of them came close to tears as they recalled the massacre of demonstrators 10 years ago by Chinese army troops. I'd rarely heard those events described with such emotion since the early weeks after the crackdown.

[ image: Wounds from Tiananmen are still fresh]
Wounds from Tiananmen are still fresh
Even if many Beijing residents say they're little bothered these days by Tiananmen, in this room at least, the wounds of that horrific night were still fresh.

But the gathering was also a vivid reminder of how much China had changed. Despite the recent jailing of several activists, these dissidents were continuing to meet as usual and were quite prepared to be interviewed by a foreign journalist - a situation almost unimaginable in the days of terror after Tiananmen.

Three of those attending the gathering were members of the outlawed China Democracy Party, whose leaders have just been imprisoned. Strange that even at the height of the Tiananmen protest, no political party had emerged until last year China's split-prone dissident community formed the China Democracy Party, the first opposition party under communist rule. It now claims to have at least a couple of hundred members and several branches around the country.

As the dissidents left the apartment, one of them, a gaunt man in his early 50s, turned to me to bid farewell. He'd spent eight years in prison.

During his time in jail, he told me, fellow inmates used to say that the two most resilient categories of prisoners were Christians and counter-revolutionaries. Here in this room, he said, you've seen people who are both Christian and counter-revolutionaries. Now you can see why the government is so afraid of us.

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