- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

BEIJING | Chinese authorities are doing everything in their power to ensure that nothing rains on the nation’s 60th anniversary parade Thursday - including keeping 18 cloud-seeding airplanes on standby to disperse any thunderstorms before they reach Beijing.

But six decades after Mao Zedong’s communist revolution, a robust debate continues over whether and when a regime that has blended strict social controls with increasing economic freedom will evolve toward greater democracy.

On Tuesday, much of central Beijing was on lockdown as hotels, restaurants and shops were shut along the parade route from the Avenue of Eternal Peace to Tiananmen Square. Tourist attractions including the Forbidden City, once home to emperors, were closed to the public.

Leading dissidents and human rights lawyers have been arrested or are being kept under close watch. New regulations banned petitioners from coming to Beijing to air their grievances - a practice that goes back to imperial times. Among those rebuffed were parents of some of the thousands of children sickened in China’s scandal over tainted milk.

Still, in the days leading up to the anniversary, there have been two stabbing incidents, protests by about 100 university students calling for the release of a lecturer and 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrator, a bus fire and what authorities say was an accidental gas explosion at a Muslim restaurant in central Beijing on Friday.

More than 30,000 police and 100,000 civilian volunteers have been mobilized to maintain order during the main event, which will include a military parade, musical performances and fireworks. About 200,000 soldiers, students and others are obliged to take part.

According to state-run media, two dozen new military vehicles and a dozen new flight formations will be unveiled. But residents along the route have been told not to go to their windows or roofs or take photos.

Only carefully vetted “special guests” will get tickets to see the parade and other festivities live at Tiananmen Square, Beijing Vice Mayor Ji Lin told reporters. Mr. Ji encouraged others to watch television.

Orders also were sent to other cities and provinces not to allow mass anniversary celebrations out of fear that they could become magnets for social instability.

All of this has some asking why China’s government is feeling so insecure after three decades of steady economic progress and rising living standards.

China is focusing on the economic and military aspects of the 60th anniversary because it wants to “show its power and ability to mobilize people to do things as one,” said Mo Zhixu, a writer and head of the Independent Chinese PEN Center who is also one of the founders of the popular blogging platform Bullog.cn, which is blocked in China.

“The government wants to awe and bemuse the people, to let them see how powerful China has become,” said Mr. Mo. “But I think people are having a negative reaction to the parade because it has interrupted their daily lives.”

Mr. Mo, a signatory of Charter 08 - a document originally signed by about 300 Chinese intellectuals and later another 8,000 citizens which calls for free expression and free elections - was briefly under house arrest in August.

He said his house was searched and some of his property confiscated because he wanted to start a campaign to ask people to write about how their lives and thoughts had changed since June 4, 1989, when Chinese authorities violently broke up student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.

Violent protests, or as China calls them “mass incidents,” have been increasing in the past few years, targeting local corruption, environmental pollution and cover-ups of health problems involving children. A repeat of anything close to the events at Tiananmen 20 years ago is exactly what China’s authorities want to prevent.

Wang Zhengxu of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China in Beijing last week that there “couldn’t have been a different outcome” to Tiananmen because China wasn’t ready for mass democracy then.

Compared with Eastern European democratic groups, China’s protest movement in 1989 was small and more elite and not capable of inspiring the entire country to embrace democratic values, Mr. Wang said.

He said he thinks it will take at least another 20 years for China to achieve a partial democracy.

“By 2050, China will be a free country,” Mr. Wang said.

Mr. Mo said, “If we want to get a result, there should be a start.”

In the next 15 to 20 years, China will become the world’s largest economy and per capita income will rise. Its social complexity and people’s perceptions of values such as rights and liberties also will change, Mr. Wang said. People will demand more accountable, open and transparent government.

“Once a society picks up in economic development, more liberal democratic values develop,” he said.

Mr. Wang predicted more transparency and accountability at the local level, something he said is already happening. Nongovernmental organizations, some of which have been on the receiving end of recent government crackdowns, probably will see a more open regulatory framework, he said.

Yu Zhihai, founder of the online NGO 1kg.org, which taps travelers to take books and supplies to rural schools, said he hasn’t seen an improvement in treatment for civil society groups.

An increasing number of people are taking part in NGOs, but these groups need to be “wiser” about how public they are about their protests and use the Internet instead, he said.

Mr. Wang said township elections could be possible and intraparty democracy within the Communist Party of China likely would develop in the next 10 years. “The party is quite serious about these things because of corruption,” he said.

Ling Cangzhou, a Beijing-based scholar and journalist and one of the drafters of Charter 08, also said China could be a democracy in 10 years.

“I view the trend of asking for more freedom of expression and assembly as irreversible,” Mr. Ling said. “The Chinese government still controls the major media, but it can’t fight against people’s aspirations to seek freedom of expression and assembly when they can use the Internet and cell phones to get the word out. That’s why there are so many mass incidents breaking out in China in recent years. The Chinese government hasn’t been ready to conduct reform, but this trend just can’t be stopped.”

The Communist Party doesn’t want to see a collapse of the system overnight, Mr. Wang said, adding that he thinks the party is “quite strong” and that working with it is the best way to achieve real democracy for China’s people. “We hope it will be a smooth transition,” he said.

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