In the mid-1980s, China experienced a heady period of freewheeling debate as more and more critics of the government began to speak out without their former fear of reprisal. The decade culminated in the protests of 1989 in the capital, which drew demonstrators from all over China demanding democracy and other civil liberties. The prospect of a coordinated, nationwide opposition movement unnerved the Communist regime enough that it sent tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people.
This latest round of expansion-contraction can be traced to 1992, when the political atmosphere lightened up again, partly to boost the nation's halting economic reforms.
Think tanks began issuing books on modest political reforms. Salon discussions brought up the once-taboo topics of democracy and human rights. Liberals were further emboldened in October when Beijing signed--though it did not ratify--a U.N. treaty on civil and political rights.
Party Won't Brook Direct Challenge
However, discussion was one thing, organized action another. There was never any indication that China's rulers, despite their being led by the relatively moderate Jiang, would allow a direct challenge to Communist supremacy--hence last month's trials and convictions of the China Democracy Party members for plotting to "overthrow the state."
Since the trials, Jiang has said the government will quash any "subversive" activities and root out anything found in computer software, films and publications that might "endanger state security."
Yet hard-hitting books on Chinese economic policy, magazines containing articles critical of the government, and historical texts questioning past mistakes of the Communist Party, such as the disastrous 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, can still be bought.
The proliferation of fax machines, cell phones, computers and the Internet also has diminished the regime's ability to control information.
Still, many Chinese are no doubt taking the crackdown seriously; some will probably censor themselves for a while, Schell said.
Some analysts consider the current political contraction a warning shot. Several potentially sensitive anniversaries fall in 1999: the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the 20th anniversary of the Democracy Wall movement, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic and the 80th anniversary of the May 4th movement, a progenitor of student activism in China.
The Chinese, who are big fans of numerology, have used anniversaries in the past as an excuse to mount new protests. The recent crackdowns may be the regime's way of making them think twice.
Another motivation may be the economy, which has run into trouble after years of nonstop growth.
To shore it up, the regime has begun imposing stricter economic controls. It also is afraid that unrest is growing among the rising ranks of China's unemployed; indeed, many of the China Democracy Party's founders were involved in an effort five years ago to form an independent labor union, which the authorities smashed.
"I would say the political atmosphere was relaxed in 1977 to 1979, 1984 to 1989, and 1992 to 1999," said Andrew Nathan, a China specialist at Columbia University. "Each was cut off by a political tightening normally connected with an economic tightening."
Anthony Kuhn of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.