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Noble Crowd

Even in torpid Washington the terrible events in Beijing have their echoes. On Sunday, a few hours after the horror had begun on the other side of the world, a stream of perhaps 2,000 people flowed up Connecticut Avenue. They were almost all Chinese and they were almost all young, students demonstrating in sorrow and anger against the murder of their brothers and sisters in Tiananmen Square. They were solemn and orderly, stopping for the D.C'. cops directing traffic at each corner, but they were not silent. "Freedom!" they chanted. "China! Freedom! China!" Call and response.

The marchers carried cloth banners with the names of the universities where they study calculus and chemistry: Vanderbilt, George Washington,, Penn State, Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins. They carried signs lettered by hand on cardboard and computer paper. Most were in Chinese. The ones in English were moving in their unidiomatic simplicity: "Against Brutality,"' "Chinese People Are Bleeding," "We Are Also Crying," "Long Live the Noble Crowd!"

At the Chinese Embassy, which is housed in a boxy converted hotel next to Rock Creek Park, the chants grew louder, and now they were in Chinese. This group of students—this tiny, exiled sliver of Tiananmen's noble crowd—was at once angry and gentle. In the many demonstrations I've attended in Washington, one pattern is always same: when the marchers arrive at the focal point (the Pentagon, the Capitol, the White House), there is a surging, potentially dangerous crush at the front. Not so this time. I could walk easily through this crowd, right up to the police barricade in front of the embassy. 1 asked a young man what the chant meant. He replied, "We arc saying, 'You are Chinese too! Come down!' " His intelligent face, like many of the faces in that crowd, was wet with tears.

The demonstrators have left now, but a vigil remains. There are usually a dozen or more Chinese students on the sidewalk. They have stayed put even through the thunderstorms of the past few days. Passing motorists honk their horns to show support. The chorus of honking goes on all day and far into the night.

Those rain-bedraggled students and the drivers leaning on their horns arc not as ineffectual as they may seem. They represent part of the immense price the Chinese Communist authorities will have to pay if they continue down the path of murder and repression. The program of economic reform that has brought China unprecedented if uneven prosperity is based on openness to the outside world. Some 20,000 mainland Chinese are studying in the United States, and perhaps ten times that many are here for other purposes. Without a change in the regime many, perhaps most, will not return. And the vast array of contacts and exchanges that has been funneling new technology into China's economy will end.

Even more important is the investment that has poured into China from abroad. This is at the core of what the Chinese government was trying, with some success, to achieve. There have been two main sources of investment, both of which will now begin to dry up. The largest is the overseas Chinese, all over the world hut mainly in Hong Kong. Singapore, and Taiwan—the bank accounts of millions of diligent people whose tacit support had been gradually earned by the mainland government during the past decade. That support has been forfeited, and the money will follow it out of China. The second largest source of investment has been the United States. That too will stop, not only because the "business climate" will be seen as too risky but also because American companies will not wish to incur the wrath of the American people.

The student-worker revolt has for the moment been literally crushed—bone, blood, and bicycles under the treads of 40-ion tanks. But keeping it crushed will require sustained and systematic terror. That would mean an end not only to the students' dreams of democracy but also to the bureaucrats' dreams of "neo-authoritarian" prosperity on the South Korean or Taiwanese model. Whatever comes next—state terror, civil war, or compromise and retreat — the crisis of legitimacy that has engulfed the entire Communist world is sure to continue. That crisis is being played out in wildly different ways in different countries. The only thing the varying responses have in common is that they are all unprecedented.

In Poland, 40 years of unanimous unfree elections have culminated in a (nearly) unanimous free election. The election was free though its result, a Communist majority in the lower house, was rigged in advance by agreement between the Communist Party, representing the fading fear of Soviet intervention, and Solidarity, representing the people. In a staggering reversal of past Communist practice, the Communist Party now beseeches the legal opposition party (on whose sufferance it rules) to share power (and responsibility for austerity) in a coalition government. The opposition declines ministries but offers issue-by-issue cooperation. The explicit goal of this astounding partnership is full-scale parliamentary democracy, which is to say the end of Communist rule.

In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev charges into an unknown future, gathering power unto himself for the apparent purpose of using it to build institutions of law and normality. His method is frantic, scat-of-the-pants improvisation, carried out under the eyes of the world. His quasi-freely-elected Congress of People's Deputies, originally scheduled to meet for two days, has been in session for two weeks. Every second of its deliberations has been carried live by Soviet television.

And in China: catastrophe, crime, betrayal. What the Chinese students and their worker allies wanted, what they meant by "democracy," was accountability. The economic opening-up of Chinese society had brought inequality and corruption in its wake. The protesters were demanding not an end to the market experiment but a rudimentary political counterweight to its abuses. It would have been easy to satisfy them with a bit of respectful attention and a loosening of the reins on the press. Instead the gerontocracy chose darkness and death.

In China, 40 years of Communist propaganda have had an unintended effect. In the "People's Republic." everything was the people's this and the people's that. Every horror (and every gain) was carried out in the name of the people. What the Communists hoped was what George Orwell feared: that the words would change their meaning, that the language itself would become the slave of the state. But the words did not change their meaning. What happened instead—and this is crucial—was the destruction of any basis for legitimacy other than popular sovereignty. The noble words gave birth to the noble crowd. The words the party-state used to buttress its authority have become, thanks to its own actions, its mortal enemy: and the party-state has nothing to substitute for those words. That is why, even beyond the economic consequences of their brutality, China's shadowy rulers will ultimately prove to have destroyed themselves.

By Hendrik Hertzberg