The recent events in Peking call irresistibly to mind Bertolt Brecht's famous epigram: "The people have lost the confidence of the Government; the Government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one."

Whatever may be the immediate outcome of the demonstrations—and I fear it will be grim—one thing is already certain: May 1989 will remain as one of the most momentous periods in the history of 20th century China, and as a landmark in the Long March of mankind toward democracy and away from totalitarianism.

The demonstrations may have appeared confused, vague, and muddled in some respects—this was an inevitable price for their spontaneity. Nevertheless, they have achieved one gigantic and decisive result: they exploded once and for all the fiction that was summarized in the very name "People's Republic" of China. Following the Orwellian convention that generally requires that cannibal kings be called "Wise Leaders," that gangs of thugs be known as "Liberation Fronts," and that every murderous despotism should always carry the title of "Democratic Republic," the Chinese Communist regime used to affix "People's" labels upon virtually every institution and organ of the state, as if better to indicate that the real people were to be effectively evacuated from the entire political system. With all other avenues of expression barred to them, in a spontaneous move, they finally gathered in the open, under the sky, on Tiananmen Square, and there they showed to the world that the Communist government, having alienated the whole nation, is now willing to declare war on its own citizens.

The location they chose has a rich historical significance. Virtually on the same spot, 70 years ago (May 4, 1919), modern China was truly born, with a demonstration of students denouncing an oppressive and corrupt government, and demanding democracy and modernization. Ever since, the spirit of the May Fourth Movement has remained an inspiration for all that is young and alive in China. The quest for democracy is the essential threat that pervades the entire history of China in our century; even Mao Zedong, in order to secure national support before grabbing power, had to masquerade as a democrat in the May Fourth tradition. The Maoist promise was promptly and cruelly betrayed, but the dream always remained fiercely alive—witness the demonstrations of April 5, 1976, on Tiananmen, denouncing Mao's tyranny shortly before his death, and the heroic "Peking Spring" of 1979, with its "Democracy Wall" and its martyrs (Wei Jingsheng and many others who were swallowed into the Chinese Gulag, never to be heard of again).

Forty years ago, the Maoist regime destroyed the old heart of Peking to make room for a huge, flat desert of bitumen in front of the Imperial Palace. The idea was to create a gigantic stage that could accommodate the state liturgies and ritual ceremonies in which the masses are mobilized to celebrate the cult of the Supreme Leader. Now, by an ironic paradox, the very space that had been planned for the ultimate atomization of the hapless subjects and for the greatest glory of the Despot is being used in a way that defeats magnificently its original purpose. Never before was direct democracy afforded an opportunity to be displayed on such a scale.

That a crowd of one million could gather spontaneously and peacefully for so long, and could demonstrate with so much restraint, is nothing short of miraculous. By contrast, the incapacity of the government to handle what were essentially sensible and moderate requests (to fight corruption, to implement some basic constitutional rights—freedom of speech and freedom of the press—and simply to enter into a dialogue with the demonstrators) appears all the more brutally obtuse. As history has repeatedly shown, what a revolution requires in order to succeed is not necessarily great intelligence on the revolutionary side, but sufficient stupidity on the side of the government. In this respect, the Communist leaders have ensured the victory of ten revolutions— they have sealed their fate. Yet how could one have expected anything else from notorious Stalinist bureaucrats such as Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng? For them, "the masses" have always been, by very definition, mute and monotonous lines of supernumeraries and walk-ons that can be moved and shifted from one corner of the stage to the other, as a sort of human backdrop, at the whims of the commissars. That "the masses" should now speak on their own initiative is more than shocking and scandalous—it is downright aberrant. How would a ventriloquist feel, should his dummy suddenly address him?

An eminent Polish intellectual observed some time ago that the worst nightmare of all Communist leaders is that, one day, the Western world might come to perceive— however dimly—the extraordinary hollowness and fragility of these monolithic repressive regimes. Actually, I don't think they need ever have such nightmares; not that their bankrupt systems are not fragile— their brittleness is extreme—but simply that whenever their utter vulnerability is exposed to us, in all its nakedness, we modestly avert our eyes to spare them any embarrassment. Many of our democratic statesmen, instead of being touched by the Chinese people's ardent plea for democracy, seem mostly worried at the idea that a billion people might be cast adrift, free from the rigid safety of their totalitarian fetters.

The Chinese democrats may be on their own, but they are many, and they have made a giant step from which there can be no return. The political transformation, thanks to them, is already much more advanced in China than in the Soviet Union—and this is why Gorbachev's glasnost quickly found its limits when it had to report the Chinese demonstrations: such a sight might have given dangerous ideas to the Soviet public. In the Soviet Union, the political reforms are being initiated from the top, and thus they can be called off at any time. In China, the demand comes from the people, and this generates an irrepressible force for change. Shortly after the death of Mao, a leading Soviet dissenter characterized very aptly the Chinese political advance: the great misfortune of the Soviet Union, he said, was that it had won the war, whereas the good fortune of China was that it had lost the Cultural Revolution. Its victory over Nazi Germany vested Stalinist Russia with a self-righteousness and complacency that precluded for a long time any idea of reform and comforted the regime in its worst errors. In China, on the contrary, the horrifying catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution brought irreparable discredit upon the Communist regime; it demonstrated its political and moral bankruptcy, and simultaneously created a new breed of citizen, bold and aggressive—a people whom the leaders would never again be able to coerce into blind obedience.

I am glad I am not a "China Watcher" or a "Pekinologist." To have to speculate on the respective policies and personalities of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, or of Hu Yaobang (requiescat in pace) and Zhao Ziyang, seems a singularly vacuous and sterile exercise. Merely two points should be noted: (1) The hatred for the government is such that, in the eyes of the people, whoever is in disgrace must be a hero, and whoever is in power must be a scoundrel (which naturally entails the possibility for the same person to be successively a scoundrel, a hero, and then a scoundrel again, following the vicissitudes of his political career). (2) The immediate outcome of the struggle between the Party leaders and the people can only benefit the military, and more specially, the security organs.

The heart of the crisis, I believe, is that the Chinese Communist regime is actually dead—and has been dead for several years already. Yet it might still take a while before it is finally buried. When Qin Shihuang, the founder of the first Chinese empire, died during a voyage in the provinces in 210 B.C., the members of his entourage were so afraid that the empire might immediately disintegrate that they did not dare to disclose the news of his death. Business was carried on as usual; but as it was summer, they loaded a cargo of rotting fish in the imperial chariot, to cover up the smell of decaying body.

What amount of smelly luggage will be needed now to enable Chinese communism to continue much further on its aimless journey?

Simon Leys is the author of The Burning Forest.

By Simon Leys