New China Syndrome


THE speaker was an advocate for shutting down the Seabrook nuclear plant in New Hampshire. She was talking about the ``will of the people.'' ``They are doing it in China,'' she said. ``And if they can do it in China, we can do it here!''

Suddenly the symbol of the world's struggle for democracy is the People's Republic of China. Free speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press - long embodied in the United States Constitution and chartered by other Western democracies - has been exported to the communist world and almost as quickly re-imported to the West as a shining example of the quest for individual liberty.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese have been chanting for the reinstatement of Qin Benli, the editor of the World Economic Herald, who was dismissed by Shanghai's municipal authorities for refusing to delete certain controversial articles from his publication. At the same time, American students are still reeling from the effects of a US Supreme Court ruling last year (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) which allowed high school officials to censor stories about teen pregnancy and divorce in student newspapers.

The desire for democratic reform in China didn't suddenly drop from the sky on Tiananmen Square any more than it spontaneously burst through Sather Gate in Berkeley, Calif., two decades ago and spread through US campuses.

A human need for justice bubbles below the surface of injustice. Sometimes it seethes for years and then it explodes.

Berkeley and Beijing are far from being the same. American students enjoy basic rights. They may have been hassled by the police for their long hair and unkempt ways. But their basic frustration was that many felt they had little control over their own lives, over government policies that offended them, over a peacetime draft that would conscript them for a war they didn't understand or believe in.

By contrast, Chinese students have endured hardships for decades. Student dissent has been building since Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms in the late 1970s. A challenge came with the Democracy Wall movement, when protesters penned posters complaining of social evils and tacked them to a wall in western Beijing.

This brings to mind People's Park, a Berkeley free-speech area that was the site of violent clashes between squatting students and then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan two decades ago. Now a haven for the homeless, it is still in the center of social upheaval.

US student protests hit a lull in the 1970s. The Vietnam war was no longer an explosive issue. Spiraling college tuitions forced many youths to hit the books rather than the bricks.

Today racist incidents on college campuses and concern about university investment in South Africa have mobilized student activism from Stanford to Michigan.

Black students in the US feel that academicians are unresponsive to the needs of minorities. And white liberal youths are sympathetic to the plight of minorities, but they are a breed born after the civil rights clashes of the '60s. Martin Luther King and Selma, Ala., have little direct meaning to them.

Who or what does? Maybe Qin Benli?

Or perhaps the Soviet Supreme Court, which struck a clear note for freedom of expression last week when it decreed that Soviet citizens may not be thrown in jail for expressing ``truthful criticisms'' of officials - thus limiting the scope of a Presidium order making it illegal to discredit officials and government bodies.

The high court instructed lower tribunals that the decree touched only ``intentional public distribution of slanderous inventions'' that undermine faith in officials. Not exactly in the best tradition of US Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall - but a start. This ruling was apparently an effort to see that a controversial edict is applied with some consistency and in line with President Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Soviet society.

It seems highly unlikely that the West will glean its equality and democracy from the communist giants. The students in Tiananmen Square remind us, however, that the quest for justice is universal and that the burning desire for individual freedom and dignity knows no national boundaries or ideological barriers.

The new China syndrome is no meltdown, but a beacon call.

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