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John Pomfret -- After Tiananmen, How Did the Communists Stay in Power?

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Such factories and other development projects have also created problems. Since the early 1990s, party bosses and developers have joined forces to roust millions of farmers off their land to build factories and development zones. This has led to huge protests. But the party has learned from Tiananmen. Instead of cracking down on all the malcontents, it jails only the peasant leaders. The rest, it buys off, giving them enough compensation to return to their ordinary lives.

Recognizing the vast gap between rich and poor, the party has also announced that peasants no longer have to pay taxes. This hasn't succeeded in closing the gap, but it has been well-received by China's farmers.

In the cities, the party has launched reforms that appeal to China's growing middle class. The most significant is a housing reform program that allows (and occasionally forces) people to buy their own homes. Apartment ownership in the cities has jumped from 17 percent of families to 80 percent over the past two decades, while the average living space per person has increased from about 80 square feet to almost 300. Anyone who has ever been to China has seen the fruits of the huge industry this reform has spawned. The cranes! The glass! The marble! In 1998, the home-decorating market was worth around $50 billion. This year it's expected to surpass $200 billion.

But more than money, housing reform has prompted major social changes. For one, it has created an ownership society. The marchers who flooded Tiananmen Square in 1989 had, in the words of Cui Jian, the balladeer of that generation, "nothing to their names." But today's Chinese urbanites own apartments, cars and Jacuzzis -- things they really don't want to lose.

"I have struggled to win my piece of the piece in China," said Tom Lee, a friend who was tossed out of the party following the June 4 crackdown, earned a PhD in the United States and then returned to China to start a software firm. "I want to protect it. I don't want a revolution anymore."

Housing reform has also contributed to individual freedom. It prompted a jump in the divorce rate by creating a rental market, which gave fed-up spouses someplace to go. (In the past, if you wanted to get divorced in China, you pretty much had to sleep on the couch.) It's allowed lovers to live together without getting married.

Personal freedom expanded in other ways, most noticeably in the cities. Old communist China controlled everything. You needed a certificate to marry, divorce, have kids, retire, travel within the country or abroad, move, change jobs. Now, when Chinese finish university, they find their own jobs. Want to travel abroad? Get married? Get divorced? Go ahead.

The party has also reformed in relation to the media and thought control. It has created a system of graduated censorship. University residential communities and upper middle-class gated communities can enjoy uncensored satellite television and generally unblocked Internet access. The rest of China has no such luck, but the media and the propaganda organs that serve them have also changed. Gone are the 13-part series on ball-bearing factories, the staple of the old communist media. China's new communist media is more People magazine than People's Daily.

The party has also let the Internet become a public square in which anti-party views may be aired -- not freely, but with enough regularity to provide a relief valve. The censors have also modified their media controls. When major incidents occur, such as last year's earthquake or the 2003 debacle with SARS, the censors generally ease political pressure by allowing several weeks of relatively free reporting before clamping down -- a significant change from the old days when certain topics were banned, period.

Much has been made in the West of how the party has wiped out the memory of Tiananmen Square, of how many young Chinese have no idea what June 4 means and of the bizarre umbrella-wielding plainclothes police officers who blocked Western TV cameras on the square last week. But the party has also softened its tone on the crackdown. It used to refer to it as "counterrevolutionary turmoil." Now the term is the "Tiananmen Incident." Although the leaders of the student movement remain in exile -- one of them, Wu'er Kaixi, was stopped last week in Macau as he attempted to return to China -- the party has allowed lesser participants to come back for business or to visit family. Journalists who covered the events have also been allowed to return. I eventually made it back, serving as The Post's bureau chief in Beijing from 1998 to 2003.

The party today also uses China's security services differently. It learned an important lesson from Tiananmen: Avoid bloodshed if you can, but at the same time make sure the people understand that the system can still strike back when facing a threat. The decade-long crackdown on the Falun Gong spiritual sect, which has left scores dead, and the spasmodic suppression of separatist movements in Tibet and Xinjiang, send the message: If you get out of line, there are still hard men waiting for you.

Finally, the party itself has changed. Tiananmen saved the party from collapse; it prompted the party to launch a far-reaching investigation into how some political parties succeeded in staying in power and why others failed. As a result of that study, it replaced thousands of party hacks with technocrats and college graduates. It opened its door to business owners who decades ago would have been jailed for walking "the capitalist road." The party now continually schools its cadres (most vice ministers have spent time in the West and many speak some English) and it has upped its requirements for admission. It has also begun to experiment with a measure of intraparty democracy to weed out corrupt or incompetent officials, and it has worked hard to minimize internal battles.

Of course, China and the Chinese Communist Party face a boatload of trouble. The country's demographics are terrible; it's the first country in the world projected to grow old before it gets rich. Its environment is toxic. And at a certain point, China's political system, which still restricts information, will jam up its economic juggernaut. More broadly, the party has yet to find something to stand for other than self-perpetuation. But in China, these feel like problems for another day.

After Western analysts realized that the party would not fall, they seized on another article of faith -- that free markets and trade would bring democracy to China. But that hasn't happened either. Today, 20 years after the party's biggest test, China's Communists have retained their hold on power and emerged triumphant -- and have done so very much on their own terms.

pomfretj@washpost.com

John Pomfret, the editor of Outlook, is a former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post and the author of "Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China."


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