A Study Group Is Crushed in China's Grip

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 23, 2004

BEIJING -- On a Saturday morning in the summer of 2000, eight young people met in a shabby apartment near Beijing University and started a study group to debate the need for political reform in China. Some were students. Others were recent graduates. Not one was over 30.

They were still friends back then, brought together by a shared desire to change their country for the better. After lunch, the group -- seven men and one woman -- took a stroll across campus, earnestly discussing the nation's problems under the willow trees surrounding a green lake.

Two days later, one of the students recorded the day's events on a sheet of lined paper under his university's letterhead.

"I attended a meeting of the New Youth Study Group," Li Yuzhou, a philosophy major at People's University, wrote in a hurried script. He noted the time of the gathering -- 10 a.m., Aug. 19 -- and the names of all the participants. He described their views on political change, asserting that some favored "violent methods." He added that his friends wanted to keep the group confidential.

And then he delivered the report to the Ministry of State Security.

Three and a half years later, four members of the study group are in prison, serving sentences of eight or 10 years on subversion charges. Two are free but living with the shame of implicating the others when interrogated by police. And Li has fled to Thailand, where one recent afternoon he leafed through some of his reports and struggled to explain why he became an informer and betrayed his friends.

Nearly 15 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre and 13 since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in the largest and perhaps most successful experiment in authoritarianism in the world. What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip.

The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China's two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

The leadership's interest in such a ragtag group reflects a deep insecurity about its grip on power. The party has delivered two decades of rapid growth, defying those who believe economic reform must lead to political liberalization. But it is struggling to manage rising social tension and popular discontent and remains especially wary of student activism, which sparked the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

So the party moved quickly to eliminate the New Youth Study Group. In doing so, it forced eight young people to consider how much they were willing to sacrifice for their beliefs -- and for their friends.

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