Democracy and China

ONE comment by a student taking part in last week's breathtaking events in China says it all: ``We're not sure what democracy is, but we want more of it.'' How can you keep 'em down on the collective after they've seen Beijing? The answer, of course, is you can't. And we're not just talking about the remarkable outpouring of students, workers, journalists, and even soldiers who filled Tiananmen Square with joy and brave determination.

In the years since the end of the wrenching decade known as the Cultural Revolution, tens of thousands of Chinese students have come to the United States, and not just to learn more about science and technology. Some 40,000 today are studying history and political science and economics, and they're seeing firsthand the promise of democracy. They're going home changed, and they're changing China as a result.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world sees the promise of a politically open and economically vigorous Asia that includes the world's largest nation. RAND Corporation analysts predict that the Chinese economy will surpass the Soviet Union, maybe even Japan, in the next 20 years or so. Former US Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield is right when he says, ``The future lies in the Pacific Basin.''

But for that to happen, China needs more than reduced tensions and increased trade with its huge communist neighbor. It needs Western capital in the form of strictly foreign projects as well as joint ventures. To get that capital, it needs a more liberalized economy. And to improve its economy (more than the helpful but limited reforms that have occurred) it needs to root out corruption and allow for more political reform.

That's what the demonstrations have been all about.

So what does the future hold for the current generation of Chinese leaders? It's hard to say. But you know something's up - as it is for the Communist Party faithful in Moscow - when a Soviet spokesman makes a point of noting that Karl Marx doesn't have all the answers for the 20th century.

For the other major power in the Pacific - the United States - it's a time of change as well. Some argue that Sino-Soviet rapprochement gives the US less reason to maintain a muscular Seventh Fleet, bases in the Philippines, and 40,000 troops in South Korea.

That may well be - eventually. For now, the proper US role is to encourage (and in some cases participate in) the reforms that will lead to economic expansion. And to provide an active model for those Chinese men and women yearning for democracy.

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