China's Chance to Make Amends for Tiananmen

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Last week's anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre reminds us of what remains unchanged in China's Communist government. Twenty-three years ago, millions of Chinese students, workers, peasants and professionals converged on Beijing and other cities calling for political reform to match Deng Xiaoping's economic opening.

Deng's economic policy triumph over entrenched Communist Party hardliners inspired the Chinese population to believe a new day was dawning in China just as it had in Eastern Europe. Deng was the Paramount Leader in name and in fact and the entire nation was poised to take the next historic step with him.

But when it came to accepting the idea of an alternative to Communist one-party rule, Deng grievously flinched. At Tiananmen Square, and in other cities, he ordered the People's Liberation Army to attack the Chinese people, killing thousands, and denying subsequent generations of Chinese their long-desired chance for equal citizenship in the world community.

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, power struggles within the Communist Party have converged with the efforts of brave dissidents like Nobel Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, artist Ai Wei Wei and many others, including Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who recently arrived in New York.

Chen's dramatic escape from harsh house arrest in his Shandong Province village to refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, followed by an ill-advised release back into the hands of the Chinese authorities, culminated in his negotiated exile to the U.S. It was a bittersweet victory for Chen: he and his wife and children now enjoy the blessings of freedom, but not in their own country as he had hoped when he publicly sought Premier Wen Jiabao's intervention.

Beijing's decision to allow Chen to leave did not flow from a newfound benevolence on the part of Chinese authorities. Using hired local thugs, they are taking out their anger on Chen's relatives and friends left behind.

Nor is it clear what Beijing may have extracted from Washington in letting Chen and his immediate family fly to America. During the China-U.S. security and economic talks conducted while the Chens were still confined to a Beijing hospital, U.S. officials gave the Chinese the concession they had long sought - relaxation of export controls on sensitive American technology that can be used in China's massive military buildup. Whether there was some kind of quid pro quo only history will reveal.

Yet, what Chen had asked of Premier Wen was no more than what Wen himself has urged repeatedly from his government colleagues: political reform to match and invigorate China's economic progress. Chinese leaders need only look across the Taiwan Strait for the solution to the dilemma they have created for themselves.

The Kuomintang dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, which fled to Taiwan after losing China's civil war, initially shared the Communists' lust for power and were quite willing to use brute force to crush those who sought greater freedom, including a brutal crushing of protesting civilians on February 28, 1947.

But the Taiwanese people courageously persisted in demanding their political rights. They were supported by elements within the American government and influential members of the media, especially after Washington broke diplomatic and defense ties with Taipei in 1978.

Recognizing that Taiwan's future depended on the friendship of the American people and the support of the U.S. Congress, the KMT authorities resolved to forge the bonds of shared democratic values. In 1987, Chiang Ching-kuo, head of the government and son of Generalissimo Chiang, announced the end of martial law and lifted the ban on political opposition.

Over the next decade, as China regressed into brutal repression, Taiwan moved methodically to open the political system to multi-party competition at the local, then the provincial, levels, culminating in Taiwan's first democratic presidential election in 1996. In 2000, the KMT finally lost its six-decades hold on political power through the decision of the voters, the risk that Chiang Ching-kuo willingly took in 1987.

But in true democratic fashion, Taiwan's voters returned his party to office in 2008 and again in 2012. No one died in any of those transfers of political power - which need not flow only from the barrel of a gun as Mao Zedong instructed. With their penchant for five-year plans, surely China's rulers can manage the same phased peaceful progression to vigorous democratic competition for the right to govern.

Without vision since childhood, Chen Guangcheng has never been a "normal" person in that sense. But he has long had a vision for China - that it simply become a normal country. And he has "seen" the remarkable evolution in a Chinese society 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait.

Wen Jiabao professes to share a similar vision. The Chinese people will have reason to rejoice if Hu Jintao, China's present president, and Xi Jinping, his designated successor, can muster the courage to bring that vision to reality and reverse the tragic legacy of Tiananmen for this generation of Chinese.

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