The young worker in the big blue coat nodded toward the latest wallposter for free elections and an independent press. "We've said it. This will build a stronger nation," he said. "Now we wait to see what they will do."
They -- China's Communist leaders -- may not yet have satisfied the young man but he and other reform-minded Chinese very likely are among the most optimistic dissidents to be found in any authoritarian country today. After two weeks of conversations in front of wallposters and in taxis and restaurants, a foreign visitor finds many Chinese remarkably candid in their opinions but with little of the defiance and bitterness found among protesters in the Soviet Union or South Africa.
"People have been talking like this for years," said a middle-level government worker, only recently returned from political limbo, in a long noontime conversation. "Now the talk is out in the open where foreigners can hear it, but we've been at it far longer than that."
Just how long this patience will continue, in the face of only tentative Chinese government experiments with democracy, will determine the mood in this politically charged capital over the next few years. It may also affect more clearly whether the Chinese are approaching Western concepts of human rights.
The most outspoken people are relatively few in number, yet often represent the best educated families and most needed talents for modernization of the country. Thus, the government has taken some care to keep them happy. Each day that another of their friends victimized in an earlier political purge is restored to an old job or given a long overdue promotion, their support for the new government of Chairman Hua Kuo-feng and Vice Chairman Teng Hsiao-ping grows more solid.
"Let the people say what they wish, the heavens will not fall. A range of opinions from the people is good for a revolutionary party leading the government,"said the People's Daily, in one of the most outspoken recent official sanctions of dissient.
Members of the party Politburo, like the sixth ranked leader Wang Tung-hsing, a former bodyguard of Mao Tse-tung, are still singled out by people in the street for harsh criticism.But even some of those who were seriously hurt by Wang's secret police have absorbed the forgive-and-forget philosophy of the new era.
One government worker was asked his opinion of a recent decision to deprive Wang of control over the party Central Committee's staff office, an important asset.
"When you strip a branch of all its leaves," the man said, "two things can happen. It can wither away, or it can draw more nourishment and prosper and grow more leaves. We'll just have to see how he does with what he has left."
Such words in a conversation with a foreigner are spoken softly, and in a place where others will not hear. Chinese remember that such relaxed talk eventually brought adverse reaction from the government in earlier eras. They scoff, however, at Western theories of an extremist backlash from disciples of the harsher, less pragmatic policies of Mao who might return to power in some future government.
"The only people I've heard express any fears about that have been foreigners," said a Peking worker. "This is a big country, so I'm sure there are some Chinese somewhere who fear we're going too fast, but I haven't met them. Everybody I know wants us to go even faster" in restoring personal liberties, bonus systems, competitive college examinations and other policies that Mao appeared to oppose.
At the wallposter gathering spots, people still occasionally express fear of the "blue demons," the name given the police who are often standing nearby.The only known arrests of dissenters occurred, however, after two got into a violent argument with police in an apparent misunderstanding. It was reported in one poster that the two men were later released.
Compared to the early days of the wallposter movement in November, there is apparently less conversation among Chinese readers now. Wallposter etiquette calls for those at the wall to read in silence, to try to stay out of each others' line of sight, and then to move on.
Even in private conversation, many Chinese still embrace Mao as a symbol for what is best in Chinese communism.Their ideal is usually the old Mao of the revolutionary days and the 1950s, interested in whatever methods would work best, whether they satisfied a Marxist theory or not.
"That was what was wrong with the Cambodians. They weren't Maoists at all," said one Chinese in a private slap at Peking's ally, the radical Pol Pot government, recently overturned in a Vietnam-led invasion. "How can you run a country with no money?"
Despite the open admiration expressed for Japan and the United States in many recent wallposters, many Chinese insist they have to give their own socialist twist to what they see as efficiencies in the West.
"One thing that impresses me about you Americans is you work so hard,"said a Chinese official to a few journalists who had arisen early after working on stories past midnight. "We're just not sure we like your reasons, all this capitalist competitive pressure. But our people should learn to work harder."
"People just want to produce more," said a wallposter writer, "and so the more we talk and criticize, the more we'll find better ways to do that."