Chinese authorities today ordered the shutdown of Peking's "Democracy Wall" poster area, China's last forum for free public expression and an object of controversy and world attention for more than a year.
A notice posted on the wall and released by the New China News Agency said that beginning Saturday, public wallposters could be displayed only at a remote Peking park and only if the writer registered his name, address and work unit.
The government said it would not censor the posters, but the new rules seemed likely to curtail sharply the sometimes freewheeling attacks on government policies and government leaders that have drawn thousands of Chinese -- and many foreign journalists and diplomats -- to the dirty brick wall enclosing a Peking bus yard.
The decision appeared to climax a serious debate within the Chinese leadership over how to contain the year-old democracy movement, which has the sympathy of many educated Chinese whom the economy-minded government wants to cultivate. Since a controversial 15-year sentence was handed to a 29 -year-old electrician who wrote wallposters criticizing top leaders, the official press has appeared divided on how to handle free expression, and today's decision seems to represent a compromise.
A major element in today's decision appeared to be continuing foreign interest in the wall, which is located along Peking's main street, the Avenue of Eternal Peace, next to the main telegraph office.
Some wallposters have given unusually detailed and seemingly authentic looks at the Chinese prison system, rural conditions, internal party squabbles and the complaints of thousands of Chinese about bureaucratic wrongs. The wall has generated untold numbers of news stories and broadcasts in the foreign press.
The Chinese news agency quoted one local leader as saying the wall had "become an important site for a small number of foreigners with ulterior motives who seek intelligence that jeopardizes the fundamental interests of the Chinese people."
Some wallposter writers among Peking's democracy movement reacted cautiously to the decision.
"I don't like the idea of registering, because it will frighten away some of the common people who would otherwise express themselves." said Xu Wenli, a top editor of the April 5 Forum, a leading unofficial magazine here.
Xu was in his tiny office, a room in his apartment building, with three other people printing and stapling the next issue of their magazine. "I myself don't mind registering," he said, "We operate openly."
A spokesman for the Peking Municipal Revolutionary Committee, which issued today's order, defended the policy as simply a shift in the wallposter site that "protects the people's democrtatic rights."
Referring to the present wallposter site, known as the Xidan wall, he said, "China's socialist democracy is not displayed on the Xidan wall, about which some foreign journalists make a big hullabaloo. All our government offices, schools and factories have sites or notice boards on their own grounds for wallposters . . . Anyone can present opinions and demands to organizations or to the leadership at higher levels."
Work unit wallposters are not accessible to outsiders. They are easier to control because nearly every Chinese depends on his unit leader for housing, work assignments and even permission to marry. Great numbers of the posters on Democracy Wall have been written by Chinese complaining of persecution by their unit leaders.
In a new poster today, a woman from northeast China complained that her factory supervisor had raped her and then forced her to quit her job, leaving her with no way to make a living.
The notice of closing of Democracy Wall was placed on the wall itself late this afternoon and guarded by two uniformed policemen. Several Chinese still strolled along other parts of the two-block long wall, however reading the posters that mostly contained individual complaints against the government bureaucracy.
A poster put up Sunday entitles "Xidan Wall Cannot Be Closed" had attacked hints in the press that wallposters would be banned. The poster predicted that "several little democracy walls" would arise if Xidan Wall were closed. That poster was soon removed.
Today's notice, which said the new procedure would go into effect Saturday, said "all big character posters in the future are to be put up only at the selected site in Yuetan [Moon Altar] Park." Yuetan Park is in the northwest part of Peking about a mile from the current wallposter area. The park is surrounded by several treeless blocks of residential apartment buildings housing Chinese workers.
According to the New China News Agency, "a registration center will be set up near the selected site for those who put up posters to register their names, pseudonyms, addresses and units to which they belong. The content of the big character posters will not be examined at the registration center."
The municipal spokesman said the registration requirement would protect against illegal activities. "No country in the world allows a person to make false charges and libel others," he said. The notice said wallposter writers would be held accountable for "the political and legal implications" of their wallposters.