Peking gets jitters on massacre anniversary

China fears Tiananmen protest, writes Teresa Poole in Peking
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The Independent Online
About 100 people living in Peking's "artists' village" near the old Summer Palace have been ordered to move away in another sign of the Chinese government's extreme nervousness ahead of tomorrow's sixth anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square.

The police told the artists this week that they would have to move, and they also set up a checkpoint on the approach to the village to bar visiting foreigners. The informal colony has existed for several years and is sited on the north-west edge of the city, just beyond the university district. Over the past few days most of the painters, writers and musicians have obeyed the eviction order.

The unprecedented number of petitions, letters and appeals issued by political activists around China this year has clearly unsettled the government and it may have targeted the village because one signatory, Huang Xiang, lived there until detained two weeks ago.

The government is planning a very quiet weekend in Peking. By last night a security clampdown was in place in several potential troublespots, with large numbers of extra police and soldiers around Tiananmen Square, the university district and the United States embassy compound. An unseasonal thunder storm left many plain-clothed policemen conspicuously out in the open, sheltering under umbrellas.

This year the government appears particularly anxious about venues where Chinese and foreigners, particularly journalists, are likely to interact. Gatherings, including drinks parties, in public places arranged by foreigners have been banned for the 10 days spanning the anniversary. Bars around the universities have been closed, and at least one popular cafe frequented by foreigners and Chinese has suddenly shut for two days of "renovations".

The sweep against political activists has also been more concentrated than in 1994. It is known that more than 20 people, almost all signatories to one of the petitions calling for human rights, have been detained by the police. More than 20 more have been held temporarily for questioning. The network between different groups in China is now such that news of such detentions reaches the outside world quickly.

Few ordinary Chinese, however, know of the arrests, or the written appeals this year for a re-evaluation of the official verdict on June 1989 as a "counter-revolutionary" movement. But they would recognise other pleas by the dissidents, for the rule of law, and an end to corruption.

The government's sharp reaction to the tiny number of activists still bold enough to speak out for political reform appears to be based on fears among China's leaders of the potential for discontent among certain sections of the population.

Several high-profile official announcements have been made in the run- up to the anniversary as part of a continuing attempt to appease common complaints. At the start of this week, the government issued new rules against corruption, including banning state enterprise officials from setting up private businesses, using their position to help friends and relatives, and forbidding them from buying imported luxury cars. Anger at corruption was one of the factors in widespread support for the 1989 students' pro-democracy demonstrations.

That said, while few Pekingers will be unaware of the symbolism of tomorrow's anniversary, most will be spending their weekend enjoying the hot, if changeable, weather. Only since a month ago have Chinese people had the luxury of regular, two-day weekends and there has been a surge in tourist breaks to local scenic spots, and an even greater number of people thronging the shops.