NEW YORK, AUG. 22 -- The collapse of the coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has given China's dissident and underground groups a tremendous boost in morale and marks a setback for the Chinese leadership, according to dissidents reached both here and in China.
The Chinese government appeared tacitly to support the coup when it issued a statement Tuesday saying the move was an internal affair of the Soviet Union. Confidential Chinese documents have indicated that China's hard-line leaders strongly disapprove of Gorbachev's program of political liberalization, blaming him for "the loss of Eastern Europe to capitalism."
Several Chinese said that a key difference between the Soviet coup leaders' failed attempts to use tanks to crush dissent in Moscow and the hard-line Chinese leaders' successful use of tank-led forces to smash the 1989 protest movement was that the Soviet people had a powerful leader like Russian President Boris Yeltsin to rally around, whereas the Chinese protesters did not. The Soviet coup collapsed in three days without any major violence by the Soviet army against civilians; in June 1989, the Chinese army killed hundreds of people to crush the democracy movement.
"People all over Beijing are celebrating the failure of the coup tonight," said a young intellectual reached in Beijing today after word of the coup's collapse spread through the Chinese capital, mostly by way of foreign radio broadcasts. "I personally know of some Communist Party members who are also celebrating."
China's Communist Party-controlled press reported Gorbachev's ouster several days ago but had not as late as today reported on the widespread popular opposition to the coup in the Soviet Union. The government cut CNN television transmissions to a number of hotels in Beijing, apparently to prevent Chinese employees from witnessing the mass resistance in Moscow to the coup leaders and their tanks.
Chinese dissidents in the United States predicted that the immediate reaction of Chinese leaders to the collapse of the coup will be to tighten police controls over society, much as they did in December 1989 when president Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in Romania. The downfall of Ceausescu, who was closely allied with China, bolstered dissident morale in Beijing and caused the Chinese government to put police and military officers on alert.
But dissidents said that the collapse of the Soviet coup would have a much longer-lasting morale-boosting effect on dissident groups than did Ceausescu's downfall.
"I am absolutely elated by the failure of the coup in the Soviet Union," said Li Lu, 24, a deputy commander of the Chinese students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and now a student at Columbia University here. ". . . The Soviet hard-liners' coup lasted 60 hours. The Chinese hard-liners' coup has lasted for two years, but it will not last forever."
The bespectacled Li today began the sixth day of a hunger strike in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington to protest the prison conditions under which two prominent Chinese intellectuals, Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, are being held in Beijing. The two have been on a hunger strike for nine days.
"All the Chinese underground organizations are really happy about the collapse of the coup," said Dimon Liu, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy in China, a Chinese coalition organization based in Washington.
After talking for several hours by telephone with dissidents inside China about the putsch, Liu said: "They were ecstatic. They're trying as quickly as possible to disseminate the word around China." Liu said dissidents were spreading details of the Soviet events throughout China by way of telephone calls and a computer network.
A dissident graduate student at Harvard University said he was glad about the collapse of the Soviet coup but felt sad that in 1989 the Chinese people had been unsuccessful in stopping the tanks.
"China has no Yeltsin," the student said. "The fact is that Yeltsin makes such a difference." But Dimon Liu disagreed. "If there is a need for a Yeltsin in China, a Yeltsin-like figure will appear," she said.
Chinese interviewed both here and in Beijing agreed that the failure of the Soviet coup would not produce immediate, dramatic changes in China. For one thing, China's military leaders appear to be less subject to open factional splits at the moment than the Soviet army was. But the young intellectual interviewed in Beijing today said the Soviet events will serve as a model for China.
"In the short term, we'll have no change," she said. "But in the long term, it will show our leaders what the future holds."
Others said the Soviet example will help to build the courage of dissidents in China. "We're just waiting for our old leaders to die," said a young worker in Beijing.
The worker said there was a generational difference in the reactions occurring in China, with some older Chinese applauding the overthrow of Gorbachev but with most young people admiring the Soviet leader.
A report published in the South China Morning Post newspaper in Hong Kong earlier this week said the Soviet coup gave China's leaders hope that China would "not be victimized by the increasingly cozy relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union." But Harry Harding, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the failure of the coup reinforces China's fear of a close U.S.-Soviet relationship.
Reaction to the failed coup was mixed elsewhere in Asia. Post correspondent William Branigin reported from Bangkok:
The collapse of the Soviet coup in the face of popular resistance was greeted in Manila as another triumph for Philippine-style "people power." In Vietnam, meanwhile, it met with a cautious response from Communist rulers who have scorned Soviet political reforms, and among Cambodians, it reinvigorated hopes for progress toward ending a 12-year-old war when opposing factions meet in a Thai resort next week.
In the Philippines, where a new U.S. military base agreement is being hotly debated, the initial reports Monday that Gorbachev had been overthrown prompted a number of politicians and commentators to demand higher base-related aid from the United States. They argued that the prospect of renewed enmity between Washington and Moscow increased the importance to the United States of its Subic Bay Naval Base, and thus strengthened Manila's hand in reopening talks on base "compensation."
The U.S. government, however, flatly rejected the idea of raising its basic offer of $2.18 billion for Subic over a 10-year period, while the administration of President Corazon Aquino said the events in Moscow would affect the base agreement, which is expected to be initialed shortly and sent to the Philippine Senate for ratification.
The Communist government in Hanoi, a longtime Soviet ally, was circumspect in addressing the Moscow events, stressing a need for stability.
Vietnam's official media, however, clearly suggested by omission that Hanoi was favorably disposed toward the coup plotters, disseminating only the version of events reported by the official Soviet news agency Tass and quoting without commentary the putschists' claim that Gorbachev had quit for health reasons. Yeltsin was not mentioned until today, when the official Nhan Dan newspaper briefly noted that the Soviet state of emergency had been lifted, Agence France-Presse reported from Hanoi.
Asked why the Vietnamese government had not commented on the dramatic Soviet developments, an official of the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok today said only, "It was too early, and now it's too late."
Before the coup collapsed, it raised anxieties among residents of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, about their precarious freedoms under a 1986 reform program of economic "renovation," which has been the target of sniping from some conservative leaders in Hanoi.
"This does not look good for us, not at all," one shopowner told an American reporter Tuesday. "The hard-liners have been looking for excuses to go back to the old way of doing things."