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Freedoms are slowly coming to China

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Nine years after it crushed the democracy movement at Tiananmen Square, China's government still wields a heavy hand to silence dissent.

But these days it also is allowing ordinary people more personal freedom.To see the changes, it's necessary to look beyond Tiananmen, the heavily guarded concrete expanse in the heart of Beijing that demonstrators were vanquished from by troops who shot their way through the city nearly a decade ago.

Although the government continues to slap down any broad challenge to its rule, it interferes less in the daily lives of the vast majority of people who avoid political opposition. Economic growth also has brought more choices in how people live.

Democracy activist Xu Wenli, who was imprisoned from 1981 to 1993, mostly in solitary confinement, sees an increased understanding of basic rights and a new willingness to speak up about them.

"Security guards at supermarkets often unreasonably accuse shoppers of stealing and treat them rudely," Xu said. "In the past, people would be scared of anybody in a security uniform. Now they say, `You're violating my human rights!' "

Police still follow Xu and occasionally detain him for interrogation.

"People around me who don't have the slightest connection to politics say, `They're violating your rights,' " Xu said with a chuckle. "In the past, they didn't dare show sympathy, much less use those words."

People speak more freely these days in part because the government is less involved in their lives now than it has been since the Communists took power in 1949.

Urban workers used to depend on government offices and factories for jobs, housing, medical care and services and even had to request their employers' permission to marry or travel abroad.

In 1989, work units still distributed the prized tickets that allowed workers to buy meat, eggs and rice at subsidized prices, and markets in winter sold little more than cabbage and shriveled apples. Today, grocery stores and markets brim with foreign and Chinese foods of all kinds.

Today, with economic reforms eliminating many state jobs and most cradle-to-grave benefits, the rapidly growing private sector is providing the work. Many decisions are being made by the market rather than by government officials.

"Now the market basically controls more than 90 percent of people's lives, and that's a very big change. I feel that now it's much freer," said Jia Qingguo, a professor in the School of International Studies at Beijing University.

The development of a legal system, crucial for the growth of the economy, has enabled Chinese to hire lawyers and file lawsuits to seek protection of their rights.

The most pervasive changes are the most visible. In 1989, glossy shopping malls were virtually nonexistent; now they're everywhere.

Restaurants used to close early, and the only nightclubs were in hotels for foreigners. Now bars, discos, bowling alleys and cafes are filled with Chinese customers.

The average per-capita income in cities increased from the equivalent of $150 in 1989 to $625 in 1997.

"Of course life has changed in 10 years. People have money now," said a middle-aged woman out for an afternoon of shopping at an outdoor market near the American Embassy.

"Everybody has a lot more choice in what to eat," said the shopper, who gave her name as Mrs. Wang. "And look around at how well people dress these days. Some are even starting to buy cars."

Video compact disc players are common equipment in ordinary homes, bringing access to movies from around the world. Government-run bookstores sell books like "Crossed Swords," which calls for freer thinking that would allow for political reforms.

Political dissent, on the other hand, hasn't seen any loosening. While Chinese can and do ridicule their political leaders in private settings, public dissent remains dangerous. Police detained at least four dissidents last week and warned others not to travel or try to commemorate the Tiananmen anniversary on Thursday.