WHAT has happened in China is more than a struggle between students calling for democracy and a doctrinaire communist leadership. It is a further manifestation of the age-old conflict between the authoritarian leader and the intellectual. From ancient Athens, through the French Revolution, until today, wielders of power and creative thinkers have frequently been adversaries. Artists, writers, and scientists challenge conventional wisdom and ask probing questions. To those in power, intellectuals seem often to hold provocative and unacceptable ideas. In times of tension with another country, they may even seek to be objective toward an adversary. Occasionally they ridicule proud rulers.
Now, in China, party and military leaders see dangerous tendencies in the positions of the students and their intellectual compatriots. Issues of life style and possible corruption among the ruling elite are raised. As the aura surrounding their persons is penetrated by probing questions, their very authority is weakened. Their determination to suppress challenges is reinforced by their strong belief in Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Generational differences also play a part. The leaders of China are old men. Few wish to risk the opprobrium of their aging colleagues by espousing the causes of the youth. Those with a revolutionary background believe they are preserving that for which they fought in their youth, even though time may have radically changed the circumstances. In the early days of the student movement, Prime Minister Li Peng may have expressed on television his pleasure in meeting with the youthful leaders. But may he not at the same time have been contemplating their downfall? The disruption of the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev by demonstrating students must have been humiliating to the octogenarian Chinese in a country where age is to be venerated.
The Chinese students and their intellectual leaders saw opportunities for further liberalization in the Soviet reforms. They created a momentum of protest, fired by the hunger strikers and strong shows of public support in Beijing. On the basis of early experience, they believed the army would not attack them. Voices of prudence among them were probably dismissed as cowardly. The moment passed - if it ever existed - when they might have retreated or given up. Divisions in the aged leadership that might have helped them achieve success did not materialize.
At such times, the leadership finds allies to help crush the protest: bureaucrats fearful of their jobs, ambitious party functionaries, and conservatives frightened by the prospect of unrest. The soldiers, brought from distant provinces, were apparently convinced of the threat posed by the ``counter-revolutionary'' students. Those in Beijing and Shanghai who had earlier cheered the students faded into the background.
Intellectuals in the USSR are, for the moment, faring better. Mr. Gorbachev, himself of a different generation than previous Soviet leaders, saw in the intelligentsia an early ally in his program of perestroika. He has co-opted them and gained their support. But even in the USSR, it is still a question whether Gorbachev and the older party leaders will continue to tolerate the virulent criticisms of such intellectuals as Andrei Sakharov.
Intellectuals in the democratic countries of the West benefit from protective frameworks of laws that have been erected since the Age of Enlightenment. But even in these countries, including the United States, crises in recent memory have pitted students, artists, and scientists against the prevailing political opinion of the day. Sen. Joseph McCarthy rode a wave of fear of communism that engulfed many members of the American intelligentsia at the time.
Free minds in China, emboldened by what falsely seemed a point of opportunity, once more flouted authority as intellectuals have done for centuries before them. The voices of the more courageous will continue to be heard through what they write in prison, through thoughts that will be passed through friends. Those behind the tanks and the guns have often been the temporary victors. But they have never been able totally to crush the spirit of the intellectual.