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Beijing The Forbidding City

June 18, 1989|Edward A. Gargan | Edward A. Gargan, New York Times bureau chief in Beijing from 1986 to 1988, is now working on a book about China

BEIJING — Aisin Ghiorroh Pu Jie, the brother of the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi, appeared on television the other night to express support for the army's massacre of Chinese workers and students on the streets of Beijing two weeks ago. He, and hundreds of other faces familiar to the Chinese, have been summoned to voice their gratitude to the army and police for suppressing the "counterrevolutionary rebellion," so labeled in the newly minted political lexicon. It is now clear that this rebellion, as the Chinese leadership sees it, was nationwide in scope, an outburst of rage and protest against the tyranny and corruption of the Communist Party. To defend itself, the party has called on even this fragile, doddering remnant of a feudal, imperial past.

To watch Chinese television today is to witness the shackling of people's minds, the visible evisceration of truth, the banality of terror. History is being rewritten before the eyes of those who made it, events distorted before those who participated and ideals trampled before those who dreamed them. China's propaganda machinery, dormant for the past decade, has shuddered to life, a brutish resurrection of the real soul of Chinese power.

For days, Chinese television viewers have been bombarded with images of arrested workers and students, branded baotu, thugs, or daitu, evildoers, their faces swollen from beatings. Wanted posters are flashed on TV screens, calling for a nationwide roundup of workers and students who demanded their government accede to basic demands for democracy and liberty, for an end to the corruption that has eaten into the heart of government and for a life free of fear.

In a report tinged with smug glee, a television announcer described how a sister had turned in her brother, a leader of an independent students union. A model Chinese citizen, the sister spoke of the deed as she bounced an infant son on her knee in the living room of her apartment. Meanwhile, the citizenry of Beijing was told to inform the security forces if they know any threats to the nation. A poster in the Lili Restaurant near Tian An Men Square advises residents in the Chaoyang district, for example, to telephone 59.5013 with the names of neighbors who "stirred up counterrevolutionary turmoil."

For the first time, too, China's people have seen pictures from hidden surveillance cameras. A student leader, Wu'erkaixi, was shown eating in the Beijing Hotel, his actions captured in grainy black and white by a camera tucked into the dinning room ceiling. Images from street corner cameras, sold to the Chinese by a British company for "traffic control," recorded the spread of the army assault, and the resistance by unarmed people. There is, the message says clearly, nothing you can do that is not known to the state.

A portrait of post-massacre China is being drawn nightly on television, the lines and shadows of how the country's leadership intend their land to appear. The picture, starkly etched, provides insights into the minds of this leadership and illumines the way a people, brutalized so many times in the past, responds to this new terror. As one Chinese intellectual quietly put it, "They have learned much from Dr. Goebbels."

Before the slaughter, Beijing hummed with a buoyant street life, an enthusiasm that bubbled from the weary demonstrators on Tian An Men Square onto the sidewalks of the capital, an expectation that maybe, for once, life would change for the better. Everywhere, in the free market stalls that sell cabbages and beans, in the dingy dumpling shops south of the ancient Qianmen, or Front Gate, outside government buildings, people talked incessantly about the latest wrinkle in the protest, about the final demise of the sclerotic, octogenarian leadership. Nowhere could a foreign reporter walk or ride a bicycle without being questioned or offered opinions about the future of China. This, more than anything else, was the new China.

Today, Beijing hums only with the wheels of bicycles carrying silent pedalers to work or home, their faces displaying a blankness of self-preservation, their eyes avoiding contact with any person, whether Chinese or foreigner. People talk not of politics but of weather. The vibrancy of two weeks ago has been frozen by fear.

In workplaces, the political cadres have begun the task of political education, hours of reading from newspapers and party documents, intoning the vocabulary of the new reality, the version of a truth that has been created to efface the blood bath from Chinese memory. A man who works in a large Chinese company told of the mood of these lectures: "In the past, whenever there were political meetings, people read a book or dozed off. Now, everyone sits up straight and takes notes. Sometimes we have to say we support suppressing the counterrevolutionaries."

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