China's Communist rulers remain firmly in power five years after they ordered the army to crush mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square for more freedom.
But to pick up a phone, turn on a TV or enter a computer store is to appreciate how technological advances since then have shaken the party's grip on Chinese minds.Armies of police have thrown a tight security net over the capital to curb outbreaks of dissent on the fifth anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown. A small group of political activists has been harassed into temporary silence.
Out-of-town trucks are being stopped this week at late-night checkpoints so loads can be examined and taxi passengers are checked at random for valid residence permits.
State-run television, radio and newspapers, still closely controlled by the Communist Party, brim with good news about the booming econ-omy, rising incomes, bumper harvests and enlightened, selfless leaders.
But much as Beijing would like to paint a picture of harmonious economic development and support for the government, millions of Chinese know better - thanks largely to the information explosion.
"China is a deeply unstable place, a seething cauldron of discontent, and the rapid development of communications is very much a part of this," a Western diplomat said.
"The leadership is still effective at keeping people off the streets, but they can no longer stop them from keeping (ideas) alive and spreading ideas."
Despite major efforts, he said, Beijing had failed to curb three major destabilizing factors - persistent inflation, rising crime and pervasive official corruption. These were the grievances that sent millions into the streets in 1989.
But unlike 1989, when primitive telecommunications made ideas easier to control, nonofficial information now travels swiftly within and outside China's boundaries.
Analysts say that if a Tiananmen-style crackdown took place today, plugged-in urban residents would know better than to simply accept Beijing's explanation - that merciful troops summoned by an adoring public quelled a counterrevolution led by a "tiny handful" of bloodthirsty rioters.
Chinese who once got foreign news over static-filled, often-jammed shortwave broadcasts from the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corp. now pull down clear foreign television signals on home satellite dishes.
A ban on satellite TV reception has been largely ignored.
The information explosion is due mainly to huge state spending on telecommunications, which Beijing regards as essential to greater economic development.
Where long-distance phone calls in 1989 required advance booking, giving secret police time to install wiretaps, China now has near-universal direct-dial service over a digital phone network whose capacity has expanded many times.
Residential phones, virtually unknown in 1989, now stand beside color televisions and other home electronics in as many as a third of urban homes.
Armed with these essential tools of electronic publishing, dissidents find disseminating ideas between cities far easier than in 1989.