BEIJING -- "Freedom" is a tricky word, malleable for some, immutable for others. Many in China today are exploring new freedoms, bolstered by the nation's two decades of strong economic growth. Although cries for democracy were silenced in the bloody crackdown on student-led protests at Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, and the Communist Party continues to hold a monopoly on power, people gingerly pick their way around sensitive political topics to sample other kinds of freedom.
Here is what freedom means to a few of them, interviewed in recent weeks.
Qi Yuting, 72
Xing Donghua, 73
Qi Yuting's earliest memories are of suffering and hunger. She remembers her mother bowing to the Japanese soldiers who occupied China starting in 1937. When she was 3, people in her village survived by eating tree bark. Her parents once bought her a corn cake, a rare treat, but before she could take a bite, someone ripped it out of her hands and ran off. Qi recalled she burst into tears.
Qi married Xing Donghua in 1960 and together they survived the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution, when one political misstep could land a person in prison or worse.
"I think these days we're very free," Xing said. "In Mao's time, you just couldn't say certain things."
Indeed, Xing fretted that perhaps there is too much freedom, especially for young people. "It doesn't matter for us old people," he said. "We won't make mistakes. But young people don't know how the world works."
In Qi's mind, the Tiananmen Square protests were a mistake that cost many lives. "That time was cruel," she said. But ever since, "our life has been good. We only have progress. We promote harmony."
Zhang Lifan, 59
former political prisoner
Speaking as a historian, Zhang Lifan described China's recent experience with freedom as lurching from one extreme to another. Before 1989, he said, "if you didn't pay attention to politics, you couldn't survive." But the tanks that rolled into Tiananmen Square to kill student protesters also killed the will to sacrifice for political freedoms. "So, people all turned to making money, seeking their individual benefits and interests."
Chinese people today, Zhang concluded, "limit their freedoms themselves" to maintain their economic gains.
Politics entered Zhang's life when he was 7. His father, Zhang Naiqi, was labeled a "rightist," or counterrevolutionary, by party Chairman Mao Zedong. Young Zhang was forced to denounce his father.
"My mother was forced to take me to a criticizing meeting," Zhang recalled. "She taught me several words and asked me to say them on the platform. I repeated the words and got enthusiastic applause."
Zhang soon attracted his own trouble. At 19, he privately griped about top government officials and, when a friend informed authorities, was arrested. He spent nine years in jail.
Zhang was in prison when Mao died. He remembered everyone was told to assemble to listen to the announcement on the radio. "Some people cried, for themselves maybe, because they thought the end of their prison life was coming. Some people worried about the unknown future, and they cried perplexedly. Some people cried because other people cried," he said. "I didn't cry."
Since that time, Zhang has lived under constant surveillance and is aware his computer and telephone are tapped. "No matter how much you spy on my life, I have nothing to hide," he said. "I'm transparent. That way, I'm still free."
Wang Heyan, 40
Wang Heyan was attending a university in Gansu province in 1989, when students in Beijing were gathering in Tiananmen Square to protest government corruption and call for democratic reforms. "I was quite excited. At that time, I felt that the blood was boiling," Wang recalled.
She saw no violence in Gansu, but protests there ended after word came that government troops had seized Tiananmen. "When I turn around and reflect on it now, I was not clear about the nature of the movement at that time. I only knew some slogans," she said.
Still, Wang said the 1989 student protests "changed the orbit of my life." She no longer believed what she read in textbooks and became "a person who doubts a lot of things now."
Wang secured a government job after graduation but soon felt stifled. Now she is a reporter who covers legal affairs. She says she is drawn to stories about injustice.
"I believe that freedom without democracy is fake freedom," Wang said. "There should be free speech, freedom to publish, a right to march, assemble and organize. Although those freedoms are in the constitution, they cannot be realized in reality."
Zong Haijiang, 35
He lives in a single room, one in a long row with whitewashed walls and concrete flooring, just large enough for a twin bed, a small worktable and a pile of industrial-size cutting boards, simple slices of tree stumps, each about four inches thick and two feet in diameter. Every morning, Zong Haijiang ties seven boards to his bicycle and pedals into downtown Beijing looking for restaurants and cafeterias that need his wares.
"Government policy right now is quite humane," Zong said, citing new freedoms that allowed him to leave the countryside, where, despite farming subsidies, the poverty rate far outstrips the relative wealth in the cities.
When Zong first came to Beijing, he was caught in a police dragnet for illegal migrants, herded into a large room with hundreds of others for several days before being sent back to his rural home. But now he works openly, and without interference.
"I feel quite free now," Zong said, citing a Chinese proverb about the joy of physical freedom: "The ocean is wide enough for fish to jump, and the sky is big enough for birds to fly."
"Freedom is to be free physically," said Zong, fingering his prized temporary residence permit for Beijing. "If you haven't experienced what I have, you don't know what freedom is."
Hao Yun, 29
Security equipment salesman
and party member
Economic and social reforms significantly shaped the life of a young man growing up in a rural village in Shaanxi province. Hao Yun's family did not have electricity until he was in sixth grade, when his father could afford to buy a generator and a television. "That's when I got to know the world," Hao said.
When the government lifted geographic restrictions on where children could go to high school and allowed top-scoring students to attend better schools outside their home villages, Hao was able to leave the hard life of a mountainside farmer.
"If you have a dream and work hard for it, you can get a good life," Hao said. "The country has become better and stronger. This cannot be separated from our individual efforts and striving."
Financial freedom is important to Hao. "Freedom means people can do whatever they want if only they don't break the law," he said. "I'm a good example. I came to Beijing from a poor village in northwest China. I bought my own apartment. I met my wife and we married. Through all that, I didn't feel restricted."
Wang Yihan, 22
College student majoring in French
"I am not very interested in democracy or something like that," said Wang Yihan, who is finishing her senior year of undergraduate study. "It's not that I disagree with democracy. It has its advantages. But I think it's unrealistic for China."
Under Communist rule, China has "already improved a lot," Wang said, including in the area of personal freedoms. "More than 10 years ago, there would have been no way for me to sit here and discuss such a topic with you."
An only child from Anhui province, Wang studied traditional Chinese painting, calligraphy, electronic organ and piano. "My parents put all their energy into me that would have been divided if they had several children," she said. Her mother calls her every day, and Wang acknowledged that she sometimes feels the pressure of their hopes for her success.
Still, Wang felt free enough to reject her parents' wishes that she attend college near home and study finance. She felt that would be too insular. Her love of French literature led her to study that language, instead. She plans one day to travel to France, perhaps to teach Chinese there. She hopes for a stable job and a stable life, she said.
"The freedom of the soul is to seek balance between what you have and what you want," Wang said. "You should try your best to pursue what you want, but you shouldn't aim too high or be unrealistic."
Li Yi, 11
Li Yi yearns for the kind of freedoms familiar to most kids. "In my eyes, freedom means that parents don't force me to do something I don't want to do," he said.
Yi loves to paint. He dreams of one day designing clothes or buildings. His parents, however, think the apparel business is too hard. There could be many years when Yi would receive no orders for his clothes. "They don't think I draw well," he confided.
Instead, his parents want him to graduate from a good university and join a big, stable company. But that doesn't interest him.
"I want them to understand what's in my mind," he said.