When columnist Robert Novak asked a Peking crowd some weeks ago for questions he could ask Vice Premier Teng Hsiaoping, the eager Chinese gave him a long list.
When I made the same request tonight, the otherwise friendly crowd gave me an uncomfortable stare, then asked to see my identification.
This is China entering the 30th year of Communist rule, winding down from an emotional high of street demonstrations and oratory in the last few weeks of 1978 and now reintroducing some care and order to daily life.
When Novak was here, high officials were still thrashing out policy in the Great Hall of the People, just yards away from where I talked to a small crowd tonight. Just before I arrived last week, the Communist Party Central Committee laid out the Policy for the new year -- less politics, more hard work.
Now, people in the street will still talk with strangers and ask questions, but subjects like politics and high party officials have apparently been scratched off their lists.
"We're perfetly happy with the situation now and don't have any questions," said one man in the crowd who finally spoke up.
Just behind us loomed the tall monument to revolutionary martyrs, the scene of a massive 1976 riot here in Tienanmen Square by thousands of people angry at the premature removal of wreathes commemorating the late premier Chou En-lai. Chou remains a popular figure, an example to all of a warm and caring leader. Monday will be the third anniversary of his death.
Some people began to gather around the base of the monument the last few days. A few pasted small bills worth about $7 each to the stone base with notes saying they were contributions to a special monument they hoped would be built for Chou.
Guards soon put up chains to keep people away from the monument base. Some official commemoration of Chou probably will take place. Huge light trucks were out tonight, practicing how to illuminate the spire. But it all must be centrally organized, to keep the political juices from overflowing again.
Wallposters along the Avenue of Eternal Peace still call for political reform, though with less punch and less frequency than before. Political fervor has moved to outlying cities like Shanghai, where domonstrations still take place, and Canton, where a large poster just went up calling for justice for China's most famous political prisoner, the pro-democracy writing group known as Li Yi Che.
Here is Peking, one writer has decided to move to another, even more taboo subject: sex. For the last two days a nine-page poster making an extraordinary call for sexual freedom in this puritanical contry has packed them in a long "democracy wall," the long line of temporary fences between Tienanmen Square and the Minzu Hotel on Peking's main street.
"Chinese must be free to have sexual relations when they want and with whom they want," wrote the author, who identified himself as "Young Ni." An unhappy reader had written in much bolder ink just above his name: "An extremely harmful poisonous snake."
Ignoring such spoilsports, a thick clump of male humanity about four bodies deep pushed up against the wall today to get a better look at the relatively small pages.
I watched a pair of young women, arm and arm as is usual in China, stop behind the crowd and stand on tiptoes to get a look at what held the men's attention. One woman, having seen enough, whispered in her friends ear and started to pull away. The friend giggled and still stared, looking regretful as her companion finally succeeded in dragging her from the scene.
"What is this poster about?" I asked one young man. "Uh, uh," he said, looking at me uncertainly, "Uh,... some problems of youth."
The poster author defended the recent, tentative introduction of foreign films, which allowed Peking television and movie viewers to gaze upon Gina Lollobrigida's cleavage when the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" opened here this week.
"Certain people are afraid that if they allow us to see foreign films, we will see nude scenes," the poster said. "It might excite some people but it really won't damage their brains."
"In our present society, there are still a lot of feudalist concepts, where marriage is normally obligatory," the writer said. In veiled language, he suggested that sex without marriage might help east the tension of life in a country where people are advised to remain virgins until they marry in their mid-20s.
Looking for the economic benefit, as all Chinese must under the spur of the "four modernizations movement," the author suggested that careful people having sex outside marriage could also reduce the birth rate.
If such foreign influences on Chinese life are increasing, the Chinese seem to be making a parallel effort to be more blase about foreigners. Stares on the street seem a bit less intense this trip. And for the first time in five journeys to China, including two previous stops in Peking, no official met me when I arrived at the airport here last week.
For 29 years the Chinese government has treated foreign visitors like five-year-olds sent alone on an airplane to visit grandmother. In the case of journalists, an official of the information department of the Foreign Ministry has always been on hand at the airport to claim the correspondents' baggage and drive them into town in a an official car.
It took a while to recover from the shock of having to find my own bags. Two colleagues who arrived the next evening made a brief protest to the first airport official they could find, for as much as we hated to admit it, it was pleasant being treated like a toddler.
I dragged my bags into a rickety bus full of soldiers, sat down on a frigid rear seat, and wondered, while stamping my feet for warmth, if China would ever be the same again.
Being treated as one of the crowd became even more of a problem today for Frank Ching, an energetic American correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal who happens to be of Chinese ancestry.
Ching arrived at the American liaison office here this morning for an interview, only to find his way past the front gate barred by one, then two, then three very large soliders of the People's Liberation Army in big winter coats.
"Snow us your identification," they-said.
"Show me yours first," Ching replied.
"We don't have to. We are the guards here, we protect the people inside."
"You only protect white people Listen, there are many different kinds of people in America, white, black, yellow. Don't you think it is strange that China, a Third World country, should discriminate against Asians."
Ching, who had run into this kind of thing before, decided to take a stand and the argument continued for a half hour. Finally, a Foreign Service officer who knew Ching happened to look out his window and guess what was happening. He came out, identified Ching and the cross cultural experienee ended.
The guards had asked Ching, "How do we know if you are who you say if you don't show us proof."
Ching recalled later: "I thought of saying, 'I guess all Chinese look alike,' but I thought better if it."