John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter XIII
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The Black Hole of Bali
 
1997 - 1998
 
After Deng: New Directions

(a) Exit the patriarch

(b) Images at a funeral

(c) Hong Kong to Beijing

(d) How democracy came too late

(e) Just another Red Bean Day

(f) New hopes of reform

 

 

Twenty-one years after Mao Zedong's death, 1997 was another turning-point for China. Deng Xiaoping had vowed he would stay alive to witness the handover of Hong Kong: he did not quite make it. His death on 20 February preceded the return of Hong Kong `to the motherland' on 1 July. Both events had been anticipated by many people with apprehension. Would China be plunged into new political confusion? Would the lights of democracy be darkened in Hong Kong? The new regimes in both cases made a much less dramatic start: the leadership under Jiang Zemin in Beijing was well aware of the need for a smooth transition in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

After the Beijing Massacre a million Hong Kongers held candle-light vigils and the territory's own democracy movement became a real political Party. In October 1992 governor Chris Patten had enraged Beijing with his proposals for a new more democratic electoral system. China suspected a British plot to retain influence in Hong Kong and asked why Britain should suddenly champion democracy there after denying it for more than a century? The Council elected in 1995 under the new system was disowned by Beijing which set up a Provisional Legislature to take over. Britain and China continued to bicker over the handover arrangements till the last moment. Eight thousand foreign journalists converged on Hong Kong for the handover: foreign tourists stayed away for fear of trouble.

Travelling in Guangdong province before the handover, I tried to fit Hong Kong into the context of the country which it was about to rejoin. Though the province was the richest in China, there was still poverty in the villages of hilly eastern Guangdong. Migration to the Special Economic Zones or - for the luckiest ones - to Hong Kong itself was the only way out. I explored the growing network of roads and railways which will link Hong Kong more closely to the mainland, from Guangzhou to Beijing. I visited Humen on the Pearl River, where in 1841 a Chinese commissioner burnt more than 20,000 chests of opium imported by British traders - the cause of the First Opium War and the opening of China to the West. Now Guangdong has its own narcotics problem. I also visited new cities booming with light industry which had been transferred from Hong Kong to take advantage of cheaper labour costs.

The Hong Kongers approached the handover in a practical spirit: it was the opportunity to have a good feast, and it provided a wealth of souvenirs. A few shed tears at the British withdrawal, rather more waved flags to welcome the incoming token forces of the People's Liberation Army. Most people took it calmly: Hong Kong carried on with daily life and accepted the logic of geography. The handover was peaceful and the outside world quickly lost interest. In May 1998 a new Legislative Council was elected under more restrictive rules, but the democrats still became the main opposition Party. The first stage had gone well: the long-term evolution of relations between Hong Kong and Beijing would depend on how China evolved - and on economic developments affecting both of them in Asia.

In Beijing the post-Deng leadership settled into shape at a Party Congress in the autumn and a National People's Congress in spring 1998. Zhu Rongji, known as China's `economic Tzar' with a reputation for practical dealing, replaced Li Peng as Premier. Returning to the Yangzi valley, I found the Three Gorges Dam - Li Peng's pet project - well under way. From Chongqing above the Gorges to Wuhan below them, urban China being rebuilt in a haze of pollution. There were encouraging signs of more tolerance for political argument - within limits. Blackboards outside private bookshops announced the arrival of the latest best-sellers from Beijing, which dealt outspokenly with corruption, poverty and the other `negative consequences' of economic reform.

Tiananmen Square could still not be mentioned, although the new radical thinkers called for a fresh start to political reform. Two prominent dissidents - Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan - were released as a gesture to Western countries which were looking for reasons to justify improving relations - and boosting trade - with China. The new British Labour government said that the experience of Hong Kong should be `a bridge and not a barrier' to Beijing. Jiang Zemin visited the US in November 1997, paving the way for President Clinton to visit China in June 1998. China had long since left behind the age of Mao: now the age of Deng was beginning to fade too. A new age was emerging, even if no one could yet give it a name.

(a) EXIT THE PATRIARCH

21 February 1997

The two faces of China, one peering stolidly backwards and the other looking ahead with mixed feelings - were visible in yesterday's reports from Beijing. From the official apparatus came solemn music and stern appeals to the Chinese people to Uphold Party Unity with Comrade Jiang Zemin at the Core. Out in the streets, on the packed trains and new highways, people bustled up and down the country with hardly a pause.

He should have died before? Certainly Deng's reputation would have been hugely improved if he had met Marx before the Beijing protesters were met by tanks. But his passing is also the fading of a political style which to most Chinese seems anachronistic - even laughable.This is not to underestimate the huge importance of the Communist Party as a nation-running machine. It has also delivered a lot of goods to a lot of Chinese in the past two Dengist decades. No one, not even the dissidents abroad, has any real idea what to put in its place. The notion which has been taken up by some western analysts recently of a China about to fall apart as Beijing loses its grip is too facile.

The provinces may try to dodge the central directives, but the key appointments are still made from the centre. The map of China is an inter-dependent mosaic of new roads and railways: the Party is a vast human web which networks energetically, at meetings and, especially, at `working banquets'.

Yet being irreplaceable does not mean being popular - nor will it necessarily solve China's problems. Millions of Chinese believe the Party under Deng has brought them a better life. But they still denounce its deadly mix of bureaucracy and corruption. Millions more cut profitable deals with local apparatchiks, but still despise those with whom they deal. And many tens of millions of rural Chinese curse the local Party officials who tax them till it is hardly worth farming the land. Most of these millions end up as sweated labour to fuel the urban construction boom, eyeing the bosses sullenly, and regarded with fear by the new urban middle class as a source of new disorder.

Most of the advertized achievements of the rural economic revolution come from areas close to the big towns or in the more developed coastal provinces. Elsewhere Mao Zedong's famous efforts to `bridge the gap between town and countryside' have gone into reverse. When peasant riots broke out in the countryside of Sichuan (Deng Xiaoping's home province) three years ago, most people in the provincial capital - just forty miles away - neither knew nor cared.

The great divide is beginning to be acknowledged. It is over a year since the Party's Central Committee revived the call to fight poverty, and warned that too-fast economic growth could tear the country apart. It became respectable to say that economic development should be put `within the larger context of resources, environment, society and population'. Whether these concerns will produce results - any more than the annual official campaigns against corruption - is another matter. The targets have a habit of fading or changing shape.

The Western chorus of enthusiasts for China's `economic miracle' share the responsibility. Take what should be a straightforward question: how many Chinese live below the poverty line? The answer in September 1993 from the World Bank, which has been reporting on China for over 15 years, was fewer than 100 million. The answer in September 1996 was . . . 350 million - a more than threefold increase. Whoops, said the World Bank, `we are now using recently improved data'.

The destruction of the environment may be an even more massive item on the new agenda. Anyone who travels in China and sees the thick scum of effluent on the rivers (when they are not dried up) knows that only too well. Beijing is spending more funds on cleaning up - but the problem continues to gush out from the same dynamic which drives the economic reforms. There is more awareness generally of these problems. TV programmes and radio chat-shows discuss peasant migration, pollution, corruption and crime quite openly, only steering clear of politics.

The Party elite has had months, probably years, to get its act together for the post-Deng age. There will be no excuse if it descends to factional infighting for the spoils. The challenge of guiding this vast nation into an uncharted transition should be much more rewarding - if only they are up to it.

 

(b) IMAGES AT A FUNERAL

23 February, Hong Kong

There are many different Deng Xiaopings to be recalled in Hong Kong on the eve of his funeral. It all depends which of the versions on sale is chosen. There is Deng the hero, who after the age of Maoism set China on a new course of `stability and prosperity' for the next century. There is also the Deng who ordered the tanks to Tiananmen Square and whose death will lead to `new disorder'.

There are fascinating glimpses of Deng struggling to regain Mao's favour in the Cultural Revolution, 25 years ago. And even earlier glimpses of the young Deng visiting pre-war Hong Kong.

Every bookstall carries up to a dozen instant publications, ranging from The Great Architect of China to Deng's Secret Life. Up-market Deng kitsch is also going fast. A thousand holographic watches with his face were sold from a shop on the Peak.

Deng's Selected Works are less in demand, but there is plenty of easier material. The headline of one sympathetic magazine says simply: `Death of a good man'. Another recalls Mao Zedong's aphorism that death can be lighter than a feather or heavier than Mount Tai, depending on the worth of the deceased. Deng belongs to the mountain category.

More critical supplements have pictures of the troops in Tiananmen Square, or quote Deng's congratulations to the armed forces after they `quelled the rebellion'.

A couple of small publications, apparently edited by former Red Guards, have capitalized on material from the Cultural Revolution, when the Communist Party's archives were ransacked. They feature Deng's abject letter to Mao in 1972, praising him for his brilliance in exposing the `counter-revolutionary plots' of enemies such as Liu Shaoqi (the ex-head of state and Deng's close colleague).

Another magazine reveals some `little-known facts' about Deng, including a visit to Hong Kong disguised as a businessman in 1931, while on the run from Chiang Kai-shek's police. The story says he stood next to the tallest building in Central District and joked: `If people see me against this big chap, they'll really think I'm short!'

Deng's large family network also comes in for close scrutiny, with names, charts and pictures of the `princelings' for whom connection to China's most famous leader has been no hindrance. A chart lists the Hong Kong companies in which Deng's family has invested money.

Hong Kong's appropriation of his name will continue in other ways. There is a good chance of the colony's new airport being named the Deng Xiaoping airport. The chairman of the colony's main pro-Beijing Party has urged Deng's widow to spare a few of his ashes to be scattered on the historic day of the handover.

Everyone acknowledges the huge significance of Deng's intervention in the Hong Kong negotiations with Britain, which led to the formula of `one nation, two systems'. But there is less detail than might be expected on his involvement in Hong Kong policy, which continued for nearly a decade after the 1984 agreement was signed. This included Deng's insistence that the Chinese army should be stationed in Hong Kong.

Yet without Deng, the pivotal formula guaranteeing Hong Kong's autonomy - even if it now looks less secure than it did in 1984 - would not have been reached. Deng's reputation slumped in Hong Kong after the Beijing massacre, though it was partly redeemed by his later success in revitalizing the Chinese economy - to the colony's financial advantage.

More than 20,000 people paid their respects before Deng's portrait at the New China News Agency in the first three days. But most of Hong Kong is more interested in looking to the future than the past. As an editorial in the independent Ming Pao says, China's new leaders will have to `go beyond' Deng to tackle many new problems.

Hong Kong will also have to find out whether the wide range of opinions on mainland affairs which is now available on the news-stands will continue to be tolerated after 30 June.

25 February, Shenzhen

The city which Deng Xiaoping has made the richest in China said a modest goodbye to him yesterday: it was not enough to stop the traffic. Sellers of yellow chrysanthemums did good business around the huge billboard from which Deng's portrait surveys Shenzhen's modern skyline. Office workers from the new banks and businesses laid flowers and a few wreaths before his image.

There were no tears or visible grief. It was something to be done for history, and to be recorded for the family album - though plainclothes police harassed many of those who stopped to pose. Some mourners took calls on their mobile phones as they filed past the creator of post-Mao economic reforms - Deng would have approved of their entrepreneurial commitment.

Their respect for Deng appeared genuine, but was expressed briefly, in conventional terms: he had been a world leader, he was the great architect of China's new enterprise - phrases from headlines in the Shenzhen Economic Zone Daily.

The hour of 10 a.m., when all over China people stopped to mark the beginning of the funeral service in Beijing and sound whistles and horns, attracted less attention in Shenzhen A few cars and buses did sound their horns on time at the busy junction next to the billboard memorial. But they were hooted at when they tried to remain stationary after the lights changed. Some stores relayed the Beijing memorial service on television, but the Shenzhen government had ordered that there should be no official ceremony.

There was rather more solemnity across the border in Hong Kong, where nothing is being taken for granted as the handover approaches. Ferry-boats sounded their sirens, solemn music was played in the underground, schools stood to attention, and the work stopped briefly at the container terminals.

Though there was not a single poster of Deng on the streets of Shenzhen, his `southern expedition' five years ago is well remembered. He used the visit to revive economic reforms which had stalled after the Beijing massacre. He surveyed a Shenzhen already much changed since a previous visit when, he recalled, it was a small town with ponds, mud paths and cottages.

From the 49th floor of the International Trade Centre, he praised the `wide boulevards and high buildings' below. Photographs show him, already frail, peering at the sights with almost child-like enthusiasm. The Shenzhen Museum behind the Deng billboard is staging an exhibition to celebrate Deng's the `modern miracle', which has raised Shenzhen incomes to eight times the national average.

 

(c) HONG KONG TO BEIJING

June 1997, Shenzhen

OF ALL the projects to mark the return of Hong Kong to China, none is greater than the one that starts here. A new railway has been completed from Beijing to the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ) - 1,500 miles of track which open up a swath of eastern and southern China and join the line into Hong Kong.

`Greet the return of Hong Kong by promoting railway safety', a huge banner proclaims at the just-completed station of Jinggangshan, high in the mountains of Jiangxi, where Mao Zedong founded the Red Army in 1927. The Jing-jiu (Beijing-Kowloon) line is the latest addition to a transport and communications grid that now knits Hong Kong to the mainland interior. A network of motorways in the Pearl River delta was expanded this month with the opening of a bridge across the river at Humen, cutting travelling time from Hong Kong to the western side of the delta by up to six hours. It will also provide the link for a new southern highway the length of Guangdong province.

Travellers on the Jing-jiu, and its branch line in Guangdong, will encounter unusual treatment by Chinese standards. Stewardesses introduce themselves by name and can be summoned by a bell. As the train leaves each station, they stand to attention and salute. Lavatory paper is available, and is actually replenished during the journey. And instead of a surly sweeper cleaning the floor, there are litter bins, described in the promotional literature as a modern innovation.

At present the through train from Beijing terminates short of Hong Kong at the Shenzhen border, but before long it will complete the journey into Kowloon. The Jing-jiu opens up the eastern provinces of Anhui and Jiangxi. There was fierce competition to become a `railway town', and several have already attracted foreign investment, including Jinggangshan. Its real name is Taihe: Jinggangshan, it turns out, is still sixty miles from the station. Passengers arriving at night bed down in the local police station, which makes a useful income from the service. The line into Guangdong alternates between tunnels and viaducts of equally impressive length, passing through a jumbled mountain plateau where seventy years ago communist guerrillas struggled for survival.

The growth of infrastructure between Hong Kong and the mainland has transformed travelling, and it more subtly reinforces the sense that Hong Kong is an integral part of China. More than two dozen bus services, starting in central Hong Kong, cross the border for towns all over Guangdong, reaching most destinations in three or four hours by the new super-highways. A new western crossing is planned. Entry from the mainland to Shenzhen - and to Hong Kong - will continue to be regulated, but experts predict that post-handover traffic will rapidly increase.

The Jing-jiu railway has been an almost unnoticed engineering feat. Most of the work was completed within four years. More than 200,000 labourers worked on the project, which cost three billion pounds. It has reached a population of 200 million - one-sixth of all mainland Chinese - previously far from a railway. It has been financed from a variety of sources, such as bonds and bank loans, previously unknown in China. The branch line to the Special Economic Zone of Shantou, in eastern Guangdong, is run by an independent corporation.

In spite of these innovations, some features of the new transport grid reveal an uncertain transition. The new motorways are under-used because toll fees have been set too high. And local services on the new railway still use battered rolling stock, smoking restrictions are ignored, the average speed is less than twenty-five miles an hour - and the lavatories quickly run out of water, let alone the unheard of luxury of paper.

 

 

(d) HOW DEMOCRACY CAME TOO LATE

June 1997, Hong Kong

Mao Zedong saved Hong Kong for the British in 1949. Struggling to rebuild the country, his new government shelved plans for regaining Hong Kong - which historians believe a strong Chiang Kai-shek regime would have pursued vigorously. ut Mao's successors made absolutely sure that Hong Kong should return to the motherland: British hopes that some form of new arrangement - perhaps even a new lease on the New Territories - could maintain its control beyond 1949 were a foolish delusion.

Margaret Thatcher's attempt to argue this case got the 1982 negotiations off to a bad start, nourishing Chinese suspicions of British perfidy which have never been entirely dispelled. But after two years of tough negotiations, the 1984 Joint Sino-British Declaration seemed to many Hong Kongers to offer reasonable prospect for the handback in 1997. But it was a hostage to history, both past and future.

The Beijing Massacre in June 1989 shattered Hong Kong confidence: how could the Chinese Communist Party be given any longer the benefit of the doubt? Popular support from Hong Kong for the student protesters in Tiananmen Square encouraged paranoia among the Party elders in Beijing that the territory would become a base for `subversion'. But the most significant result of the massacre was to force the British government to respond to public opinion - against its own inclination - by toughening the commitment to make Hong Kong more democratic by the time of the handback. And here the past history of British colonial neglect for democratic reform caught up with Hong Kong.

In 1946 the first postwar governor proposed giving Hong Kongers `a more responsible share' in local government. The next governor proposed elections for more than half the `unofficial' members of the Legislative Council (Legco). The scheme was even approved by the British cabinet in 1952 - but then shelved. The Korean war and the refugee crisis in Hong Kong diverted attention, and there were fears that elections would lead to conflict between local communists and nationalists - which could then antagonize Beijing.

But at heart the British administration and the Anglo-Chinese business establishment were happy to have an alibi for opposing democratic reform. They fostered the image of a Hong Kong economic miracle, guided by enlightened paternalism, which offered every immigrant the chance of making good. China made clear its opposition to any changes which might lead to self-rule. They insisted that Hong Kong was not a colony which might one day gain independence but a piece of their own territory temporarily under foreign control. But the real issue was not granting dominion status to Hong Kong - an obvious non-starter - but making a start in giving Hong Kong people a voice in their own affairs. Foreign Office papers for 1966, only released this year, show FO officials conducting a desperate search to find mainland statements indicating that Beijing would object to greater democracy.

Political parties continued to be banned in the 1970s. New `pressure groups' for social and political reform were reluctantly licensed and kept under surveillance by Hong Kong Special Branch. Senior government officials spoke of them contemptuously, and mocked their efforts to raise serious issues. The minority of civil servants who favoured democratic reform, according to John Walden, who was director of home affairs from 1975-80, `were regarded as disloyal or even dangerous'. The government also argued that the local population was easily `stirred up' by agitators, citing the 1967 riots, though these had occurred in the abnormal context of the Cultural Revolution.

The mood changed dramatically after negotiations with Beijing began in 1982: British politicians talked publicly about the need for `representative government' - though the Hong Kong elite on the Executive and Legislative Councils was still lukewarm. The argument from London was unashamed: democracy had been irrelevant under enlightened British rule but was now essential to preserve Hong Kong's `way of life'.

China agreed at the last moment that the future legislature should be `constituted by elections'. Within two months of the Joint Declaration, a White Paper suggested indirect elections by 1985 for two-fifths of Legco. Crucially, it also proposed `a very small number of directly elected members in 1988 building up to a significant number . . . by 1997'. But Britain backed down under Chinese pressure after carrying out a consultation exercize widely regarded in Hong Kong as bogus: the first element of direct elections was postponed till 1991. The then governor, David Wilson, has defended the postponement arguing (a) that Hong Kong opinion was divided, and (b) that `we had a real issue in terms of China's concerns'. But his financial secretary, Piers Jacobs, believes that if Hong Kong `had gone straight to direct elections after the Joint Declaration' the issue would not have become so contentious later.

Instead, the move towards direct elections began in a far worse atmosphere after Tiananmen Square. Agreement was eventually reached on allowing one-third of the Legco (twenty members) to be directly elected in 1995. The remaining two-thirds were to be elected indirectly - thirty by `functional constituencies' and ten picked by an `election committee', but crucially there was no decision on how these procedures should work. Enter Chris Patten in 1992, to announce a cunning new plan: to tinker with the `indirect' procedures so as to involve millions of electors instead of the few thousands envisaged by Beijing. And though he emphasized it was only a proposal, he had not consulted the Chinese first.

Some British officials barely bother to conceal their view that Mr Patten bungled it. `China had notice (of the Patten plan) but no negotiations,' says one very senior figure. The result was that from the moment he made it public, Mr Patten was `substantially in baulk and not on the bridge'. Talks in 1993 ended in failure, and China announced that it would repudiate the 1995 elections, making it impossible for the Legislative Council elected then to continue after 1997. The famous `through train' would have to stop at the frontier on 30 June, and all the passengers dismount.

Britain's reluctance to introduce democracy earlier turns out to have been a fatal error - an opinion now held at the highest level as well as by deocracy campaigners. `Of course, if one had known that those things (the 1984 handback agreement and Tiananmen Square) were going to happen, a decision would probably gave been taken much earlier to move more quickly down the road towrds greater democracy'. That is the view of Anson Chan, who as Chris Patten's chief secretary has managed to hold her job and, like millions of Hong Kongers, will be adjusting to a new age. Those who have to make the transition will remember Britain`s colonial rule more critically than those who pack their bags on the night of June 30th.

 

(e) JUST ANOTHER RED BEAN DAY

1 July 1997, Hong Kong

Hong Kong was a city of different worlds yesterday: some areas buzzed with excitement; in others the great event hardly seemed to matter. In affluent central Hong Kong, Tony Blair and Chris Patten were mobbed by a cheerful crowd in Pacific Place. This is the all-glass multi-storey development where young Hong Kongers love to shop: it is almost New Labour.

There were admiring Cantonese cries of wa! wa! as Mr Blair worked his way down the line on the marble floor. It looked like Downing Street after the election all over again. Some of the spectators probably had been in Downing Street: many of them were tourists or Hong Kong expatriates, home for a big Party. The Prime Minister signed one autograph and was besieged by hopefuls offering baseball hats, banknotes and shopping leaflets.These may become treasured items - or valuable commodities in the current mania for handover collectabilia. The Pattens enjoyed genuine affection. Lavender Patten was applauded when she hugged a baby, her husband when someone hugged him.

The Blair Party moved slowly past McDonald's and Marathon Sports, while ingenious members of the crowd photographed their reflections in the shiny underside of an escalator. They then took the escalator past the Body Shop's ingratiating display of Chinese flags (they did not pause for pictures), and on upwards and out of sight.

Two subway stops away, on Possession Street in the Western District, there are no boutiques or canned music.The name commemorates the spot where Captain Charles Elliot planted the British flag in 1841. The shopkeepers selling dried mushrooms and other traditional goods take their history calmly. `I shall watch it on TV - I've got a twenty-nine-inch screen', said the manager of a shop selling nothing but one brand of rice wine. `China? I liked the Great Wall. But as to what happens, I'll wait and see.' The manager of the Number One Tea Shop, which offers a choice of ginseng tea and sour plum drink, comes from China herself. `I don't know,' she said slowly. `Of course China has improved, but . . . I don't know.'

Not everyone had the street's historic significance entirely clear. `Yes, it's famous', said the local baker. `There used to be a lot of foreign prostitutes around here.' But he wasn't going to take the day off: there were red bean buns to be made. Next door the customers and owners of a hardware shop agreed on one thing: `We don't have any opinion. We'll just let it come.'

Thousands did come out in the evening to watch the fireworks after the British farewell ceremony. The Star Ferry, which otherwise only stops for a typhoon, came to a halt. There were more choruses of wa and huge applause for a show so brilliant that the rain did not matter. A student of engineering and his girlfriend studying accountancy said that no previous fireworks display had contained so many varieties. As for Hong Kong going back to China, they, too, had no opinion: they just want to graduate.

Many people in Hong Kong ended up doing what they always do on a public holiday - having a big evening meal in a restaurant. But in the north Kowloon housing estate of Wong Tai Sin, the dinner organized by a patriotic association had some special features. The chairman made a speech saying that, with the return of Hong Kong to China, the wishes of the legendary Yellow Emperor (circa 3,000 BC) had been fulfilled. And in the large dimsum restaurant they had hired, exactly ninety-seven tables were laid to make the obvious point.

 

(f) NEW HOPES OF REFORM

May 1998, Wuhan

A new debate on the Chinese reforms which is now sweeping the country has raised issues barely mentioned in public since the upheaval of 1989. The events which led to the Beijing Massacre on 3-4 June nine years ago still cannot be referred to directly. But new books and articles are attacking the Maoist diehards in the Communist Party who backed the suppression of the students.

More liberal-minded Party leaders have encouraged a new generation of intellectuals to take a hard look at the darker side of China's economic and social revolution. Criticisms include the claim that 70 per cent of Chinese state assets have now been `siphoned off into private pockets'. The new critics also warn that the `leftist' forces in the Party are preparing for another battle. This time, they say, it will be fought over the `reform of political structures' which the diehards fear could lead to more democracy.

The biggest hit on the booklists is Crossing Swords written by two journalists on the official People's Daily newspaper. It has already sold 300,000 copies and can be found on railway bookstalls here in Wuhan and in small-town bookshops all over the country.

One of the authors, Ma Licheng, recently had a well-publicized meeting with former Vice-Premier Wan Li, who congratulated him for exposing the `bad ideas' of the leftists. Nine years ago the students in Tiananmen Square had high hopes of Mr Wan's support when he returned from travelling abroad, but he was prevented by the hard-liners from coming to Beijing.

Crossing Swords warns that recent documents issued by the `left' have the same dogmatic ring as Maoist diatribes in the Cultural Revolution 30 years ago. The book avoids saying what happened in 1989, only referring elliptically to `various reasons' which led to a harsher political climate in the early 1990s. But it denounces the hardliners for taking advantage of the crackdown to call for a renewal of `class struggle' and to oppose Deng Xiaoping's efforts to revive the faltering economic reforms.

Another best-seller - `The trap of modernization' by a young economist He Qinglian - provides a detailed account of the climate of corruption and widening gap between rich and poor. Ms He provides a list of twelve different types of illegal operations in the `black economy'. They range from drugs and prostitution to currency fraud, insider trading, illegal sale of planning permits, producing counterfeit goods, and wholesale traffic in false invoices.

She lists the sex and pornography business as `one of the main areas of black income'. She also cites statistics showing that up to four of every five cars imported from Japan have escaped paying customs duty.

The popularity of these books reflects a new spirit of debate in a previously numb intellectual climate, but it does not yet amount as some optimists have suggested - to a new `springtime' of liberal thought in China. The authors avoid delicate topics such as the treatment of dissidents or the kind of democratic change now needed. This is not just because of political inhibitions: they also strongly believe that the only secure route towards liberalization is through continued economic reform. They back the current supreme Party leader Jiang Zemin and hope to stiffen his resolve by presenting a strong case for pushing ahead.

But in describing the struggle between the dogmatic `left' and the enlightened supporters of reform, they throw important light on the darkest episodes of recent history, and suggest that the struggle is still continuing. Crossing Swords has been attacked at seminars organized by academic journals in the hands of orthodox Party intellectuals. They complain that its arguments are undermining ` the Party's basic line.'

The book was rejected by a dozen publishers who feared it might `cause difficulties' for them, before being accepted by a new popular series called China's Problems - the title appears in the current fashion both in English and Chinese.