THE slaughter of innocent Chinese citizens that commenced on Beijing's Avenue of Eternal Peace June 4 is fraught with tragic irony. It simultaneously reaffirms how bound China is to its past while altering substantially its future and that of the rest of the world. Although few in China or beyond foresaw the extent of the government's murderous suppression, neither the attitudes of those involved on all sides nor the forces that have shaped those attitudes should come as any surprise. Deng Xiaoping has consistently tried to foster economic modernization while stifling political change - as demonstrated by his prominent role in attacking intellectuals in the late 1950s and early '60s, in deciding to put dissident Wei Jingsheng on trial in the '70s, and in overseeing the slaying of Tibetan nationalists in the 1980s.
Nor are such attitudes peculiar to Mr. Deng. The hope that the leadership might deal with the students through moderation and even the perception that Saturday's slaughter represents but the wrath of a few aged oligarchs ignores both the contradictions of communism and the lessons of Chinese history. Having obtained and retained power undemocratically, the Chinese Communist Party is sharply constricted in the degree of liberalization it can tolerate before calling into question its own legitimacy. Consequently, it could not simply wait out or otherwise appease the students without emboldening others to call for further change and causing the leadership and military to lose additional ``face.''
But China's problems, alas, are not merely limited to Deng or even the Communist Party. The Middle Kingdom's long history overflows with such tragic events. In AD 756, for example, Chinese troops massacred civilians in the very capital city, Changan, after which the Avenue of Eternal Peace is named. And in this century, forces under Chiang Kai-shek gunned down hundreds of unarmed workers in Shanghai in 1927 and were responsible for the death of some 10,000 Taiwanese intellectuals and leaders in 1948.
The sad, simple truth is that Chinese political culture does not abide pluralism and lacks a means for peacefully making democratic change. Nor is the current democratic movement, as awful as this may sound, given its heroism, exempt from this failing. Witness its inability to articulate an alternative to corrupted authoritarian leadership, its unwillingness to include workers and peasants within its definition of an electorate, and its earlier indifference to the rights of Tibetans, Africans living in China, and Chinese women.
The events of the past weekend mark the end of China's efforts at reform after the Cultural Revolution. It is hard to imagine the Chinese government not retaliating blindly against intellectuals, both within and beyond the party, without whom economic modernization is impossible. Even those spared are unlikely to do anything that would appear to support the present leadership or to evidence personal initiative - if, indeed, they do not more actively endeavor to resist their government.
China's external relations are also certain to change. The long- term goal of peacefully reintegrating Hong Kong and Taiwan and enlisting their highly educated and industrious populaces in China's modernization has been severely set back, if not shattered. Western and Japanese businesses, already exasperated by the difficulties of doing business in China, are unlikely to invest in or transfer advanced technology in the face of China's instability. And China's diplomatic partners can hardly trust a government that incinerates the corpses of civilians shot by its Army in a sickening and futile effort to hide the truth.
FOR the United States, it is clear that present policy must change. Far from being assets, President Bush's self-proclaimed expertise on China and friendship with Deng have proved major liabilities. His timid reluctance even to raise the issue of human rights during his February visit to China confirmed the belief of Chinese leaders that he cares far more for the strategic elements of our bilateral relationship than for the rights of China's 1.1 billion people - a belief further affirmed by the White House's hesitancy to take a forceful position until blood had been shed.
Neither a recognition of China's sensitivity to foreign intervention in the century and a half since the Opium War nor the hope of working with the Chinese people when they are able to commence the painful task of reconstructing their society requires such passivity on the part of the US. Its failure to demonstrate its reaction more meaningfully and to do what it can to persuade the Chinese government to refrain from further retaliation against its citizens will have a deep pragmatic, as well as moral, cost. Additional strong steps may well not have much immediate effect, but we must not be afraid to take them - including leading our allies in calling for United Nations Security Council consideration, stating our willingness to suspend all high-technology exports, indicating we will reconsider our support for China's efforts to resume its position in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, permitting Chinese nationals here to remain in the US until such time as sustained stability is restored. If we fail to adopt such measures, we betray our commitment to democracy and alienate the increasing number of Chinese who are risking their futures to call for democracy.
Looking beyond the present crisis in China, the US government must work to envision and address related problems before they reach the boiling point. President Bush's skepticism about the feasibility of reform in the Soviet Union is warranted, but it ought not to justify a condoning of Chinese brutality in the illusory expectation of maintaining a ``China card.'' Attention must be paid to the future of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan - each of which has warranted shockingly little attention in the US in recent years.
RESPONSIBILITY for enlightening the public about these and other concerns lies in important measure with the press. The courage of individual American journalists in Beijing notwithstanding, our news media's coverage of China has been deplorable. One need not have been a student of Chinese affairs to have seen the superficiality of years of stories heralding China's conversion to capitalism and democracy and portraying Deng sympathetically. Nor does one need any perspicacity to realize both how soon editors will tire of China stories and the consequences for the Chinese and for our understanding of them as attention shifts away from that 23 percent of humanity.
If the media are serious in their protestations of concern about the martyred youth of China, they must resolve in the future to report, not only the bloodshed, but also the fundamental and enduring social, political, and economic conditions that have spawned China's student movement and the government's bloody suppression of it. Those conditions are certain to continue regardless of who prevails in the current power struggle.