Bringing Down The House

BEIJING

BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE


MELINDA LIU IN BEIJING

Chinese officials are trying to head off a Tiananmen-style confrontation. A major party meeting is scheduled for mid-October in Beijing, and the fear is that the plenum will spark public protests against a whole range of government abuses--especially the high-rise construction projects that have destroyed thousands of homes with little notice or compensation. Last week a Beijing resident named Wang Baoguang set himself on fire as a demolition crew began wrecking his home. He was hospitalized with burns on more than 50 percent of his body. As many as 2,000 of his neighbors spent the next few hours in a furious standoff with district police. Since late August, four people have attempted suicide in Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai trying to save their homes.

Last week the party's powerful Propaganda Department warned local journalists to quit reporting on antidemolition protests. Still, as many as 1,000 demonstrators and grass-roots organizers from across China have already converged on the capital. One Beijing activist, Liu Anjun, says they hope thousands will deliver a joint petition against "official corruption and illegal demolitions" during the plenum. It's a tough spot for President Hu Jintao, who has cultivated an image as a populist since taking office in March. He needs to stop the unrest peacefully--and soon. He won't survive if the party's hard liners think he's weak. But a crackdown would undoubtedly provoke even bigger public protests. The question is whether the lessons of Tiananmen can prevent an-other one.

Copyright 2003 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.

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