In a cramped Beijing bookstore filled with noisy chatter, cigarette smoke and the smell of tea, 120 people are having a heated discussion about their country's future. The place is supposed to be a readers' club. But many participants come to make emotional speeches about where they think China should be heading, without paying much attention to the book or writer supposedly under consideration. The audience is a mix of teachers, students, professors, officials and journalists. The Sanwei Readers' Club, which meets each Saturday afternoon at the Sanwei Bookstore near the thriving Xidan shopping district, has grown from a handful of members in just four months since it started. It is more proof that, despite state crackdowns on dissent, China still enjoys much open debate about basic policies and future choices. Within broad guidelines, people still can voice their opinions out loud and challenge government policy and each other. At the bookstore, the agenda is serious. The first meeting considered The Documentary of Clinton's First Visit to China, a book by the official Xinhua Publication Company. This weekend, members will discuss The Deng Xiaoping Era, by veteran journalist Yang Jicheng. In previous weeks they discussed books on education reform and bankruptcy in state enterprises. Members argue for hours about such sensitive issues as human rights, political reform, bailing out state enterprises, social instability and democracy. The discourse is free, but it makes many participants thirsty enough to sip refreshing cups of tea which the bookstore sells for 10 to 20 yuan (HK$9.30 to HK$18.60) each. Other bookstores in the capital - such as Hanlinge, Guolinfeng, Fengrusong and Chishu - also have readers' clubs, but most meet irregularly, often for commercial or publicity reasons to boost sales of new books. Beijing has been tightening political surveillance to ensure stability in a year which includes the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic and the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown. Some active dissidents have been given long jail terms, while many books touching on political reform have recently been banned. Zhong Dajun, organiser of the Sanwei club, said: 'It is not that in Beijing we cannot discuss books on political reform. It all depends how the discussions are conducted. The reality is there are corruption and problems in the Government's work and we are just encouraging people to discuss these issues in a rational and non-confrontational manner.' Liu Junning, a young scholar who often attends the meetings, said: 'We discuss some topics that are sensitive, some that are not sensitive. We have a good balance of different issues.' They say that, so far, they have not faced any official restrictions. 'The bookstore is run by a private entrepreneur and this is a purely commercial activity aimed at attracting more readers,' Mr Zhong said. Store owner Liu Yuansheng has been highly praised for adding spice to Beijing's intellectual life. But for Mr Zhong, today's intellectual discussion did not have the emotional pitch of 1989's pro-democracy movement. He has tried hard to draw a line between the readers' club and salons of the late 1980s. 'The emotions of participants are very different,' he said. 'Participants at salons of the late 1980s were strongly influenced by revolutionary passions and they sometimes would let such emotions explode at salon discussions. Our discussions are more detached, academic and rational.' Salons were closed-door forums which restricted participants and focused on discussing political matters, said Mr Liu. The readers' clubs of today were open to anyone who wanted to talk and sip tea.