BEIJING, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Has last year's leadership change produced a kinder, gentler China? The duo of President Hu Jin Tao and premier Wen Jia Bao, with their "people first" policies, is threatening to undermine traditional Chinese fear of, and obedience to, authority.
It's already a break in tradition that the leaders are referred to as "Hu and Wen." One did not speak of "Mao (Zedong) and Zhou (Enlai)" or "Deng (Xiaoping) and Li (Peng)" or even "Jiang (Zemin) and Zhu (Rongji)." A single strong figure of authority was always paramount at the center -- until now.
The term "qin min," roughly translated as "people first," describes the new leaders' populist approach, as demonstrated when Wen visited a small village over Chinese New Year, dropping in on a peasant family to share their traditional dumplings, and when Hu, on a visit to the countryside, ordered immediate payment to a farmer who complained of unpaid wages.
Most people seem to be impressed with the new approach. At the same time, they are starting to test the waters, to see just how far the official benevolence extends.
Over the past 15 years, the Chinese people have come to enjoy much economic freedom. The crackdown on the democratic movement of 1989 warned people away from politics, while relaxed economic policies diverted their attention to making money. But access to information, growing economic strength and increased exchanges with the outside world all contribute to a sense of empowerment.
China may remain on the world's human rights watch list, but freedom of expression and of action are on the rise. The wall of fear that used to restrain people's behavior is coming down, with the exception of certain sensitive political issues that still push the Communist Party's buttons.
"Access to information makes it impossible to control people's minds," media commentator Sun Lichuan told United Press International.
He believes that once Chinese taste economic freedom, they will demand more social liberty.
People in Beijing, long known as the nation's most politically active population, witness with delight the creeping decentralization of authority. Since Hu and Wen came to power last March, their efforts to right the wrongs of corrupt leadership and unfair social practices have touched the hearts of the grassroots. People are getting the message that it's OK to be critical of the government's failings, as long as they are not outright anti-government.
"This new personal approach by Hu and Wen is something to watch," Beijing writer Sheng Jie said to UPI. "We, the people, can feel the difference from previous administrations."
She said she enjoys the more-liberal environment that allows her writing to range from romantic fiction to sharp social commentary. She thinks it serves both the people and the government.
Many Chinese are now speaking their minds. Scholars are extensively quoted in the media on social issues. Ordinary people chat freely, without fear of repercussions. In a casual conversation with his passengers on a late afternoon in January, a Beijing taxi driver dared to broach a forbidden topic, the banned Falun Gong movement.
"Falun Gong?" he said, "I think the crackdown on them was because, in their own way, they made noise about government corruption."
Such statements were rare in the past.
The present environment is not entirely attributable to the new leadership; the fear of authority has gradually diminished over the past decade. But the tone in which people refer to the government has shifted, from the awe and fear in which people held Mao and Deng, through an era of irreverence toward Jiang, when jokes denigrating the government were popular, to the friendly rapport that people feel for Hu and Wen. Last spring when severe acute respiratory syndrome hit China, messages such as, "Hang in there, Brother Hu," appeared on the Internet.
How much liberalization can society sustain, however, under Communist Party rule? The new openness has bred a steady stream of intellectuals quietly but unyieldingly demanding democracy. Among Beijing's intellectual elite, for example, an unpublished book has been circulating, commemorating the late scholar Li Shenzhi, a former vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a longtime democracy advocate. Li once publicly criticized Chinese intellectuals for backing down after the crackdown on Tiananmen Square democracy activists.
Chinese are now more resilient, even in their pursuit of freedom. The last decade has seen the sharp rise of nationalism in China. The support and love of country carry a corollary: It's OK to make demands under the banner of patriotism.
"People are raising their voices to combat poverty, protect the environment, even to suggest political reforms," said Zhao Yuezhi, a graphics designer and graduate of Beijing University.
Former journalist Dai Qing, a prominent campaigner on environmental issues, chose to leave the United States for China so she could continue her fight. Cao Siyuan, an economist who has called for Communist Party reform and greater privatization, has formed his own organizations in Beijing to promote his campaigns.
Well-known dissident Liu Xiaobo makes his living in Beijing as an independent scholar and political commentator, though publishers for his work are few. Liu is an active contributor to a Chinese Web site that promotes democracy. On boxun.com, people are brave enough to post such things as their cat-and-mouse games with public security agents who tail them.
For Liu and his fellow activists, their message to the government is loud and clear: In order to become a society based on the rule of law, China has to treat its citizens fairly and equally. These dissidents openly defy the authorities, confident they are within their rights.
Last week, Liu was among a group of 100 scholars and lawyers who submitted a petition to the Supreme People's Court and the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, demanding freedom of expression, calling for clarification of the country's subversion laws, and seeking the release of imprisoned dissident Du Baobin. Du was arrested in October after posting numerous articles critical of the government on the Internet.
Of particular significance was the fact that people of social position joined open dissidents in signing the petition.
Peng Zhengzhe, a writer who converted to the Mormon Church while studying in the United States, attracted a public security tail when he began approaching publishers for a book he'd written on philosophy. He said he didn't try to hide what he was doing, and the agents never really bothered him.
"Even though it's difficult, I have to keep trying," Peng told UPI. "Things have to change here."
Peng openly attends Mormon Sunday services.
"If we don't do scary things, they leave us alone," he said.
What would be scary enough to trigger a reaction from the affable Hu and Wen? Unless Chinese history has truly turned a corner, it's likely to happen; it's just a matter of who and when.