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We Thought the Tiananmen Square Protests Meant the End of Communism. We Were Wrong

AP Photo/Jeff Widener

This is finals week in China, so here’s an essay question:

Corazon Aquino, Mohandas Gandhi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Patrick Henry, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, Henry David Thoreau, Voltaire. The names on this alphabetical list have something important in common. Discuss.

That would’ve been a tough one until about six weeks ago, but for any self-respecting sophomore at Beijing U. it would now be a cinch. The answer, of course, is that all of these illustrious figures have been specifically and repeatedly cited by the students in Tiananmen Square, as inspiration for their astounding, audacious deeds.

It’s a wildly eclectic pantheon, yet it makes perfect sense in the context of what has become arguably the largest spontaneous movement of civic protest in the history of the world. The names make a stirring procession: Voltaire the skeptical enemy of intolerance; Henry the firebrand of insurrectionary sacrifice (GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH was inscribed on more than one student banner); Thoreau the inventor of civil disobedience; Marx the bookish prophet of revolution; Lincoln the democratic emancipator; Mao the founder of the People’s Republic; Gandhi the practitioner of nonviolent mass resistance to tyranny, and King his American disciple and fellow martyr; Aquino the icon of Asian “people power”; and Gorbachev the champion of political liberalization and embattled dismantler of bureaucratic totalitarianism. I might quibble that Mao does not belong in the company of so many friends of freedom. But it’s not my list, it’s the students’; and for them the Great Helmsman is an emblem of Chinese patriotism. They carry his picture not only as a badge of national pride but also as an earnest of their determination to reform the system rather than overthrow it. Turning Mao Zedong into a symbol of gradualist democratization is only the least of the miracles they have performed.

In the dizzying cascade of events in China every day is a month, every week a year. It took just five days for an acorn to become a forest, as 2,000 hunger-striking students grew to a rapturous throng of a million citizens of Beijing. Throughout the country at least ten million people, maybe 20 million, took to the streets, all without the slightest trace of violence. Three days ago as I write, army units were headed for Beijing, and it seemed inevitable that the protest would end in gunfire and blood. Now it seems equally inevitable that it will end in some sort of victory—at a minimum, the fall of Prime Minister Li Peng, who, by declaring martial law and calling out the army just as the students were about to end their hunger strike, galvanized the opposition anew, spilt the ruling elites, and delegitimized himself beyond repair.

The events in China are the culmination—one of many culminations—of an extraordinary, decade-long game of leapfrog between the world’s two Communist giants. Deng Xiaoping’s sweeping economic reforms, starting in 1979, brought fast-growing if uneven prosperity to China, throwing the Soviet Union’s economic failures into sharper relief. Inspired in part by Deng’s example, Gorbachev launched his own program of reform, first in the economic sphere and then, far more boldly, in the political sphere. Glasnost in the Soviet Union—especially the wholesale expansion of freedom of speech and the press, the unprecedented spectacle of contested and consequential elections, and the beginnings of representative institutions and the rule of law—has in turn inspired the Chinese. Totalitarianism may be dead and Leninism may be dying, but the dialectic of history has never been in better working order.

On a less abstract level, it was Gorbachev’s visit to China that enabled the students—whose demonstrations, some of them as large as 150,000 people, had been going on for a month—to turn their movement into a colossal popular uprising. “I come to Beijing and you have a revolution!” Gorbachev boisterously jested to his opposite number, President Yang Shangkun—who, we may assume, smiled wanly. (Yang is one of Li’s hardline allies.) In the presence of the hero of glasnost, and under the eyes of 1,200 foreign journalists he brought in his train, the Chinese authorities could not afford to clamp down. “Some activities on the agenda of the Sino-Soviet summit that attracted worldwide attention had to be canceled, greatly damaging China’s international image and prestige,” said Li in his speech announcing martial law two days after Gorbachev’s departure. He was exactly wrong, of course. Though the prestige of Li’s government has been destroyed, that of the people of China has never been higher. Bliss it is in this dawn to be alive, but to be Chinese must be very heaven.

The tide rolling out of China should sweep away what remains of the notion that ordinary people in poor countries with limited democratic traditions do not care about civil liberties. This idea has been proved false almost everywhere it has been tested. The laboratories include societies as diverse as India, South Korea, Spain, Portugal, and, in recent months, Panama, the Soviet Union, and now China. Soviet voters took every change they were offered to elect candidates who stood for freedom of thought and conscience, with the result that Andrei Sakharov, Roy Medvedev, and Vitaly Korotich, the editor of Ogyonok magazine, all have seats in the new Soviet legislature that begins meeting this week. “Democracy” has been the cry of the Chinese students. What they mean by this is less clear than what they don’t mean, but their one persistent demand (apart from an end to corruption) has been for freedom of the press.

Another tattered axiom is that Gandhian nonviolence cannot work in Communist dictatorships backed by guns and tanks. Poland is one refutation of that; China, wholly different in scale and tradition, is now another. But the workability of nonviolence in such places seems to be conditioned on the abandonment of systematic state terror and the passing from the scene of the founding Great Leader. It’s beginning to look like a pretty safe bet that post-Castro Cuba, for example, will plunge briskly into democratization.

For the Communist world 1989 is a historic year of liberation and euphoric upheaval, the way 1968 was in the West (and in part of the East, too—glasnost and Tiananmen Square are the fulfillment of Dubcek’s promise, broken by Russian tanks and still denied to his fellow Czechs). In Washington, by dismal contrast, this is just another year in an era of positively Brezhnevian stagnation. President Bush—that decent, empty, cautious apparatchik—is pathetically unable to rise to the grandeur of the moment. His press secretary’s answer to glasnost is to pout that Gorbachev is a “drugstore cowboy” who engages in “public relations.” A million Chinese carry a model of the Statue of Liberty through the streets of Beijing, and the American secretary of state issues a call for “stability.” Bush himself has belatedly made some of the right noises, but without eloquence, without imagination, without passion. As Vice President Quayle said the other day, by way of mangling the slogan of the United Negro College Fund: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind.” Or much of a heart either.