SOME years ago, a Chinese friend of mine, influential in his government in Beijing, was visiting the United States. He talked glowingly of China's plans for economic modernization.
``You realize,'' I said to him, ``that the changes you're planning will bring all kinds of other change both good and bad in their wake. If you're to open up the system to the outside world, you'll have to deal with the drug culture, fresh new ideas, democracy.''
My friend replied: ``We know all that. But we have no alternative.''
China seems to be facing its moment of truth. Extraordinary student demonstrations are putting pressure on the leadership for political reforms, and such basic human rights as freedom of speech and assembly. Once again, a restrictive regime is facing that awesome reality of history: It is difficult to encourage economic growth and flexibility without unleashing demands for political freedom and innovation.
As China has reached out for the Western technology, it has exposed its people to concepts of liberty and democracy hitherto alien to their system.
Thousands of Chinese students have been studying at Western universities. They have been exposed to the flaws and strengths of Western society. Chinese students have been rambling around America in secondhand cars, watching American TV talk shows, reading American newspapers, arguing with not only American students, but students from around the world. It is an experience that can hardly leave them unchanged. As they have returned to the cloistered world of their Chinese homeland, these new ideas and impressions have gone with them and touched others.
Ironically, it is not only from the capitalist world that their new inspiration has come. Mikhail Gorbachev has been preaching perestroika and glasnost to comrades far and near.
It is on the eve of Mr. Gorbachev's planned visit to Beijing next month that many thousands of Chinese students have been demonstrating. Ostensibly, the demonstrations were triggered by the funeral of former party chief Hu Yaobang, a hero of the students perceived to be a supporter of reform. But in fact, preparations had long been under way for the launching of major student protests around May 4, to mark the anniversary of China's May 4 movement of 1919. Born in Chinese universities 70 years ago, that was a movement for the modernization and democratization of China that inspires students today.
So far, Chinese leaders have indicated little enthusiasm for limited political reforms based on the new Soviet model, let alone the kind of Western democracy that is still alien to the Soviets Union. Chinese leaders have expressed the view that China and the USSR are two very different kinds of communist countries, and that too-hasty democratization could destabilize China.
The leadership is strongly entrenched and the party has rebuffed students before. There are, however, several new aspects to the current student protests.
First, there is the massive character of the demonstrations. In Tian An Men Square, the heart of Beijing, up to 150,000 students at a time have been staging well-organized sit-ins. In the shadow of the Forbidden City, and at the very portals of the massive government buildings where the giants of Chinese communism have presided, this is dramatic stuff.
Second is involvement of students in cities other than Beijing. In the past, national student organization has been lacking. This time, students from outside Beijing participated in demonstrations in the capital, and there have been supporting student protests in China's bustling coastal city of Shanghai, in Changsha, and in the former imperial capital, Xian.
Third, the students seem to have gained some support from workers and members of the public egging them on.
So, as China seeks economic modernization, it is face to face with the inevitability of pressure for political liberalization.