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Mending broken China; beyond the grim television images, there's hope for reform.

Mending Broken China

Blinding white television lights probing a dark night can do odd things to popular perceptions. If the cameras are there and the pictures vivid and bloody enough, sideshows may come to seem like historic turning points. If the cameras are not there, continental epochs may pass unnoticed.

No event in any totalitarian nation has ever received the international television coverage given to the Chinese army invasion of central Beijing last summer. The four American networks, particularly CNN, did remarkable work capturing a nighttime drama spreading over several square miles. Those of us who remembered the infrequent and truncated news on Beijing television a decade ago found it dizzying to return to the Chinese capital and watch reports of army shootings and beatings taking place on our hotel steps.

But those same pictures left a deeply pessimistic and flawed image of China's future. The lingering images of Tiananmen Square and the Avenue of Eternal Peace--tracer bullets winking past brick walls, Molotov cocktails exploding against tanks, bleeding bodies on pushcarts--make the situation in China seem much drearier than it is, just as memories of Soviet troops in Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968 discouraged predictions of communism collapsing in Eastern Europe.

Americans enraged by what they saw happen in Beijing have called for some visible expression of American resolve--a law protecting Chinese students, or an end to "Most Favored Nation" status for China. Such actions may make us feel better, but are likely to have little more impact than cutting off a comatose patient's credit cards. The tiny, rotting core of the Chinese leadership that sent troops into the square does not have much time left. It might be better to consider what comes next rather than wallow in nightmares of Tiananmen, a tragedy that confirmed what many urban Chinese already knew about their political system.

The yawning gap between the government's repressive desires and its fading powers is told well in two new books (*1)--one a vibrant compilation of Tiananmen eyewitness accounts in coffee-table photo book form and the other an anecdotal feast from a veteran foreign correspondent. Children of the Dragon was compiled by Human Rights in China, an association of Chinese scientists, scholars, and students founded in New York in March 1989. It uses riveting photographs, well-selected remembrances, and documents illustrating Beijing events in 1989 from April 15 through the June 3-4 massacre. The End of the Line is the work of Christopher S. Wren, one of The New York Times's best reporters. Wren mines notebooks from his 1973-77 tour in the Times's Moscow bureau and his 1981-84 tour in the Beijing bureau, plus information gathered on other reporting trips, to reveal the bureaucracy, corruption, and disenchantment that plague both communist giants.

Wisely, neither book risks a look very far into the future. But there are intriguing insights in each on the habits of the people who must reorganize the Marxist debris in some acceptable fashion.

The stories told by democracy advocates in Children of the Dragon are often moving, heroic, and astonishingly honest, but they leave the impression that the leaders of the next reformist government are unlikely to come from the ranks of those who organized the encampment last summer in front of Beijing's monument to the martyrs of the revolution. Splits in the movement were frequent, and in the view of some of those interviewed, fatal. The caution and indecision of Chinese intellectuals and their weak ties to the rest of the society are difficult to overlook. The young Chinese workers, who suffered by far the most casualties and did the most damage to tanks and troops, grew frustrated with the movement's intellectuals, the zhishi fenzi academics, who in Chinese society are even more of a distinct class than in the West. In a scene from Children of the Dragon, a young worker stops an army bus with his bicycle cart and asks students to block the other escape route, but they hesitate and the bus drives away. "You college boys are all cowards," he shouts in disgust. "How can you fight for democracy?"

Wren examines the soft spots of reform from an even more sobering angle--the point of view of Soviets and Chinese who embrace the securities of the old system but rarely speak to the Western press. "The Communist state gave Russians and Chinese national dignity and unprecedented services in health, education, and social welfare, though of uneven quality and at a cost hard to sustain," Wren writes. The cynicism that can poison any half-hearted reform surfaces in a Soviet joke: An American dog asked a Russian dog how he liked perestroika. "Now they feed you once a day instead of twice," the Russian dog said, "but the chain is three feet longer and you can bark all you want."

The people best equipped to balance these conflicting pressures already hold government posts in both China and the Soviet Union. Although they bear some of the taint of recent disasters, including Tiananmen, they, unlike many protest leaders, know governing often means choosing from unsavory alternatives.

Deng will be gone soon, and despite the half-hearted reign of terror that followed Tiananmen, the Chinese are not that far behind the Soviets in moving toward a system where popular votes will have some impact on the system. At the end of Children of the Dragon, Andrew J. Nathan, an American scholar, offers a vision of what Chinese democracy might become--very messy and constrained, but still stumbling in the direction the rest of the world is travelling: "Its prominent features are likely to include a single dominant party descended from the Communists, a fractionated opposition, a turbulent parliament, noisy elections, local political machines, competition for resources among provinces and regions, angry rhetoric, and frequent strikes and demonstrations."

That will, of course, bring students, intellectuals, and other democracy demonstrators back to Tiananmen by the millions, and leave the new government the same choice the old government had in 1989: blood or some kind of ballot. It will take leaders far more self-confident than the ones we have seen in Beijing lately to risk infecting Chinese life with another army assault on Tiananment.

(*1) Children of the Dragon: The Story of Tiananmen Square. Human Rights in China. Collier Books, $19.95.

The End of the Line. Christopher S. Wren. Simon & Schuster, $22.95.

Jay Mathews, the Los Angeles bureau chief of The Washington Post, was the paper's Beijing bureau chief during the events in China in spring 1989.
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Author:Mathews, Jay
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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