Beijing — Well, and what was so remarkable about (the first great Chinese Emperor) Qin Shihuang? He executed 460 scholars. We executed 46,000 of them! This is what I answered some democrats. --Mao Tse-tung Once upon a time, there was a country whose rulers completely succeeded in crushing the people; and yet they still believed the people were their most dangerous enemy. --Lu Xun, China's most famous 20th-Century writer .
As the people of China ushered in the Year of the Snake on Feb. 6, some of the country's top leaders were already growing edgy about what the snake might bring.
At a special New Year's Eve tea party in the city of Nanjing, President Yang Shangkun, one of the senior leaders of the People's Liberation Army, urged 1,700 army officers to "join hands with the (Communist) Party, government and civilians in overcoming difficulties China has encountered in its ongoing reform."
In Beijing, inside the cavernous auditorium of the mammoth Great Hall of the People, about 4,000 Communist Party officials assembled for the New Year's reception of the leadership--an annual ritual in which the party's senior cadres sip tea, eat delicacies, renew old ties and listen to speeches praising the party's good deeds.
But this New Year, Premier Li Peng sounded a slightly sour note. He told the leaders that they needed to do "an even better job" during the coming year. "Everyone is very concerned about the situation in our country," Li acknowledged.
The situation was as gray as the skies that hung across north China. The economy was sputtering, racked by inflation. Many citizens were increasingly vocal in their disdain for the party leadership.
But most Chinese, seeking a respite from their day-to-day grievances, made sure to celebrate the New Year in the traditional, festive way.
For days in advance, Chinese flooded markets to buy food and clothes, made trips to the barber or hairdresser and cleaned their homes. Work stopped for more than a week as hundreds of millions of people visited their families and friends.
Residents of Beijing set off fireworks, defying the official prohibition against them in many public areas. In the city's parks, fortune tellers did a thriving business, flouting the ban on their trade.
Even then, many people in China believed that 1989 would be momentous. It was to be a year of special anniversaries--in a country whose love of history and of numbers makes anniversaries particularly important.
For the ruling Communist Party, 1989 would bring the 40th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic--the day, on Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao Tse-tung had declared to the throngs in Tian An Men Square: "The Chinese people have stood up."
Others outside the leadership were already looking ahead to two different milestones. One was the 70th anniversary of the May 4 Movement--the great awakening of Chinese students and intellectuals--commemorating the day in 1919 when Beijing students sparked a series of nationalistic protests that swept across China. The other anniversary would come on July 14, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
Chinese students said--and party leaders feared--that either of these days could provide the focus for massive demonstrations against the leadership of the Communist Party.
In retrospect, China seemed at the beginning of the year to be on the brink of an explosion. Signs of social unrest and political deterioration were everywhere.
Prices were running 30% or more above the previous year, a rate of inflation higher than at any time since the victory of the Communist revolution in 1949. Throughout China's long history, its people have thought and worried about money as much as any people in the world. In Chinese cities, the rising prices made people angry.
"Under Mao, China was in chaos, but at least the prices were stable," a young Shanghai office worker murmured to an American correspondent. "Now, China is stable, but the prices are in chaos."
During 1988, each new wave of price increases had touched off panic buying. People bought jewelry, televisions, cooking oil, soap, whatever they could buy with their cash. There had been runs on banks.
From July 25 to 27, 1988, in the northeastern city of Harbin, residents lined up outside banks and withdrew $3.38 million, an amount unprecedented in that city since the Communist takeover. Over those same three days, all of the stocks of televisions, tape recorders, refrigerators, washing machines, rice cookers and carpets in all of Harbin's department stores were bought out.
To help make ends meet, many people were taking second jobs or even leaving their regular factory or office jobs for new kinds of work. They could do that under the regime's economic reform program--drive a cab, sell food on the street, do piece work at home, translate mystery novels from English into Chinese, anything that might earn money.