Fri, Jun 04, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Tiananmen was not a defeat, but a victory

By NICHOLAS KRISTOF  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

It will be 15 years ago today that I stood at the northeast corner of Tiananmen Square and watched China go mad.

The Communist Party was answering the demands of millions of protesters who had made Tiananmen Square the focus of their seven-week democracy movement. The protesters included students, Communist Party members, peasants, diplomats, laborers -- even thieves, who signed a pledge to halt their "work" during the demonstrations.

I was in my Beijing apartment when I heard that troops had opened fire and were trying to force their way to Tiananmen. So I raced to the scene on my bicycle, dodging tank traps that protesters had erected.

The night was filled with gunfire -- and with Chinese standing their ground to block the troops. I parked my bike at Tiananmen, and the People's Liberation Army soon arrived from the other direction. The troops fired volley after volley at the crowd on the Avenue of Eternal Peace.

The Communist Party signed its own death warrant that night. As Lu Xun (魯迅), the great leftist writer beloved by Mao, wrote after a massacre in 1926: "This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning. Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood."

So 15 years after Tiananmen, we can see the Communist dynasty fraying. The aging leaders of 1989 who ordered the crackdown won the battle but lost the war: China today is no longer a Communist nation in any meaningful sense.

Political pluralism has not arrived yet, but economic, social and cultural pluralism have. The struggle for China's soul is over, for China today is not the earnest socialist redoubt sought by hard-liners, but the modernizing market economy sought by Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the leader ousted in 1989. The reformers lost their jobs, but they captured China's future.

In retrospect, the Communist hard-liners were right about one thing: They warned passionately that it would be impossible to grab only Western investment and keep out Western poisons like capitalism and dreams of "bourgeois freedom." They knew that after the Chinese could watch Eddie Murphy, wear tight pink dresses and struggle over what to order at Starbucks, the revolution was finished. No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot.

So Communism is fading, in part because of Western engagement with China -- trade, investment, Avon ladies, MBAs, Michael Jordan and Vogue magazine have triumphed over Marx. That's one reason we should bolster free trade and exchanges with China, rather than retreating to the protectionist barricades, as some are urging.

The same forces would also help transform Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Myanmar. We are doing a favor to the dictators in those countries by isolating and sanctioning them. If we want to topple them, we need to unleash our most potent weapons of mass destruction, like pot-bellied business executives and bare-bellied Britney Spears.

When will political change come to China? I don't have a clue, but it could come any time. While it might come in the form of a military coup or dissolution into civil war or chaos, the most likely outcome is a combination of demands from below (perhaps related to labor unrest) and concessions from the top, in roughly the same way that democracy infiltrated South Korea and Taiwan.

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