BEIJING (Reuters) - Twenty years after China’s pro-democracy crackdown, dissidents contend with a Communist Party that has in many ways strengthened its hold on power, defying their hopes it would crumble along with the Soviet bloc.
That has forced dissidents to rethink their tactics after their goal of democratic reform was dashed when the Party ordered tanks and troops to quell huge protests centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989, killing hundreds.
For Li Baiguang, spending 37 days in a foul Chinese prison cell in 2004 was enough to convince him the Party would not collapse.
Li, now a human rights lawyer living in Beijing, was detained for helping farmers try to oust local officials they accused of corrupt land grabs, ending up in a police cell packed with dozens of men accused of robbery, rape or graft.
Watching cowering prisoners beaten blue by guards was one of the bruising encounters that underlined the intention of the ruling Party to crush any challengers, he said.
“We thought that after 1989 the Party would immediately collapse,” said Li, 40, who plunged into student protests in his home province of Hunan and in Beijing 20 years ago.
“But we underestimated the Party’s strength and control. Those who went through 1989 won’t forget it, but we’ve realized the road to those goals is much more tortuous and distant than it seemed.”
Instead of being tossed from power like their ideological brethren in the former Soviet bloc, as many critics predicted, China’s Communists launched market reforms and honed new ways to counter discontent, said Teresa Wright, a political scientist at California State University, Long Beach.
“To shift the balance in favor of the dissidents now, something would have to change fundamentally, such as an economic crisis or a split in the upper echelons of the Party,” said Wright, whose forthcoming study, Accepting Authoritarianism, examines the Chinese government’s success in maintaining authority. “There are no signs of either,” she added.
Against this wall of one-Party power, some dissidents have found hope in religion; others have turned to environmental causes; others, including Li, have forsaken outright political confrontation in favor of skirmishes over grassroots discontent.
“We intellectuals have had to find less direct ways of making reformist demands,” said Zhang Boshu, a philosopher in Beijing who has campaigned for political liberalization since 1989.
“More and more citizens are aware of their rights. But in the short- and medium-term we can’t expect the Party’s power to give way ... This is a long journey.”
The Party’s grip seemed far less certain to many at the feverish peak of the 1989 protests, when tens of thousands of students and residents clogged Beijing streets chanting for an end to official corruption and privileges.
With political liberalization galvanizing the Communist world, Beijing seemed ripe for change if reformers won out.
But the reform-leaning Party chief Zhao Ziyang was purged after June 4. Instead of political liberalization, Party patriarch Deng Xiaoping from the early 1990s offered roaring economic growth that gave growing numbers of people a stake in prosperity, and also swelled state coffers, allowing more cash for both professors and security police.
“It’s important not to overplay the role of fear in ensuring the Communist Party’s power,” said Wright. “The regime has often been able to portray itself as benevolent and well-intentioned, and to displace grievances to the local level.”
In the past decade, many rights activists have turned their attention to those grassroots grievances.
China’s marriage of unequal wealth and one-Party power has stoked discontent in villages and industrial cities, where farmers and workers have felt neglected and exploited. This hinterland of unrest has become the focus of a transformed dissident movement; not the middle-class in the big cities.
“Our roots are in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but we’ve had to reach far down to places far from Beijing,” said Chen Yongmiao, a rights campaigner who helps run a “post-reform” group and website focused on the future of activism.
“We’ve got to stop waiting for an emperor in the capital to grant us our rights.”
This loose coalition has embraced the cause of detained and unpaid migrant workers, farmers deprived of land, child victims of toxic milk powder, and members of unregistered churches, recruiting thousands of lawyers, intellectuals and students.
“The ultimate goal is still democracy and rule of law. But in circumstances where we can’t fundamentally change the system, should we sit back and do nothing?” said Li.
Activists still risk detention and official pressure, as Li found. Some rights lawyers may be effectively disbarred in coming days unless their employers and the state-run lawyers association approve their usually routine annual inspection by May 31.
“There’s no way now for the rights movement to link up and threaten the Communist Party,” said Teng Biao, a Beijing rights lawyer and academic.
“But the spread of civil society will continue. Some of us may go to prison, but the social forces behind us won’t weaken.”
Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates