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Freedom's flame

By John Hughes / December 26, 1986



ONCE again, this time in China, we are seeing the powerful lure of freedom to people who have never known it at first hand. Thousands of Chinese students who have been born and reared in a communist society have been demonstrating for broader democratic rights.

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In part, this may be stimulated by contact with the West and Westerners. As China has perceived the need to industrialize and modernize, many students have been sent abroad to countries such as the United States. Often they have learned more than technology.

Take, for instance, the son of a Chinese Cabinet minister who spent a couple of years studying journalism at Columbia University. At the end of his college term, he bought a secondhand car for $500, drove it across the country to see America at first hand, then sold it on the West Coast for $800. After such immersion in American society, it seems inconceivable to me that he returns to China unchanged. Something of the American experience will rub off.

Then there is the young Chinese woman who interpreted for me on a trip to China. She spoke excellent English, with an accent I could not place. I asked her whether she had learned her English in Britain.

``No,'' she said, ``I spent three years in Australia.'' Remarking upon the engaging openness of Australia and Australians, I asked her whether she hadn't found a contrast when returning to her own country. I expected the routine evasion that I had found to be standard on previous visits to China. I was startled when she said that coming home to China had been a difficult adjustment. She went on to list areas of inflexibility and resistance to change in her country. She talked of the generation gap between older Chinese bureaucrats and the new generation. Finally, I could contain myself no longer. ``Is this not an extraordinary conversation we are having?'' I asked her. ``Surely we could not have had such a frank conversation a few years ago?'' She agreed, and I chalked up another example of remarkable change in China that I had not expected to see so soon.

But though some of this change may be due to foreign exposure, in China and in other lands one of the great historical movements I sense is this understanding and embracing of freedom by millions who have never known freedom.

I saw this dramatically in Indonesia in the 1960s. The military played a key role in ousting President Sukarno, the leader who had held that country in bondage for two decades. But the driving force came from the students, 17 and 18 years old, who swarmed out upon the streets and ultimately forced change. They had been cut off from Western democratic thought since birth. But in their restricted isolation, they somehow knew the meaning and import of freedom. For a time when I was in government, I served as director of the Voice of America. This is the shortwave radio broadcasting operation that beams news of America around the world, particularly to countries like the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, where the free flow of information is restricted. One of the most moving aspects of that job was to receive letters, sometimes months in their circuitous arrival, from listeners in lands unfree, pleading that we keep the flame of freedom flickering for them. Sometimes they would tell of marching out into the snow-covered birch forests to listen to the distant signal bringing truth to their land.

We have seen this reaching out for freedom at work this year in the Philippines and rumbling away in such countries as South Korea and Pakistan. We have seen it changing the map of Latin America. We know that the attempt to stifle it in South Africa has built up dangerous pressures. We know that in Cambodia and Afghanistan and Nicaragua, peasant soldiers are prepared to die, perhaps not in behalf of Jeffersonian democracy, but at least in opposition to those who seek to hobble their freedom.

It is a powerful, powerful force, this hunger of mankind for freedom, and the string of dictators who unsuccessfully sought to thwart it is growing longer.