It's unfortunate that hara-kiri is a Japanese and not a Chinese tradition. It would be an appropriate way for Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and Chinese President Yang Shangkun to atone for the carnage they unleashed in Tiananmen Square. It is no consolation to observe that Deng and company have committed the political equivalent of suicide: when Deng's tanks crushed the students' "Goddess of Democracy" in the Square, they also destroyed his own lifetime monument, the economic modernization he set in motion. When his troops mowed students down by the thousands, they obliterated the loyalty that hundreds of millions of other Chinese may have felt for the regime he molded.

China's government is losing more than the respect of people all over the world. It will lose foreign investment too, and political favor. China's best young people will defect, either by remaining abroad or by becoming alienated and radicalized at home. Its workers may strike. Commerce and growth will surely be retarded. Deng may have driven his nation back into civil war after 40 years of unified rule.

And why? Apparently because authoritarian old men could not appreciate that once they set economic liberation in motion and opened their nation to the world, they would have to accede to demands for political freedom, too. Possibly Deng, who survived and then triumphed over Mao's brutal Cultural Revolution, mistook the desire of young people for democracy, non-violently expressed, as movement back toward anarchy. Possibly the idea of true popular democracy profoundly offended his Marxist-Leninist ideology. Possibly it was the remnants of Confucian authoritarianism that caused him to strike out so savagely against a challenge to the existing order. And possibly he is just a very old man, blinded by his years and his isolation.

This is an important question—why? It is important because if the roots of the Tiananmen massacre lie in modern communism itself rather than in the particular circumstances of China, we may expect much more chaos in the world: it may turn out that Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union ultimately cannot countenance political reform any more than the Chinese could. And if there is one thing worse than civil war in a country possessing nuclear weapons, it is civil war in two countries possessing nuclear weapons.