THE scenes from China are heartbreaking. A people's cry for freedom has been rebuffed - at least temporarily - by the tank and the machine gun. Now the forces of dictatorship are extracting vengeance from the idealistic young student leaders and others who dared to suggest that communism in China could bear a humane face. China has returned to the darkest days of communist rule. A frightening purge is under way. Student leaders who so bravely waved their red banners in Tienanmen Square a few days ago now are shown on television being frog-marched to jail by security men. Many bear the marks of brutal beatings.
The roundup is systematic and sweeping. Railroad stations are under scrutiny. Dissidents attempting to flee to the countryside from the cities are picked up. Neighbors are exhorted to turn in anybody involved in the protest movement.
Says one knowledgeable Chinese: ``It may seem irrational, but the roundup is organized and well-planned.''
Television film of student leaders shown in the West in recent weeks has been carefully collected by the Chinese secret service. Many individuals have been identified and are now being hunted. Some of the film has been rebroadcast on Chinese TV with appeals to turn in to the authorities those who spoke out critically of the government.
Along with the campaign of fear goes a massive propaganda campaign tinged with anti-Americanism. The official Chinese press and television spreads the story that the Army has put down a counter-revolutionary coup attempt. According to the official version, instead of a massacre of civilians, it was the Army that took casualties. This will have no credibility with those who were on the scene, but the regime's hope is that it may persuade some in outlying parts of China.
Foreign broadcasters have come under attack. The Voice of America, which has stepped up its broadcasting hours, is reaching Chinese listeners despite attempts by the Chinese government to jam it.
The Chinese government is sharply critical of the United States and has embarked on a confrontation with Washington over dissident spokesman Fang Li-zhi. Fearing for his safety, Mr. Fang has sought sanctuary in the US Embassy in Beijing. The Chinese authorities are demanding that the Americans give him up so that he may face disciplinary action, perhaps even execution.
But in the face of all this suppression, even amid their fears, free-thinking Chinese are getting information and passing it along. There are the foreign radio broadcasts. They are getting clippings from newspapers around the world, sent into China by facsimile machine from student communities and sympathizers in various countries. There are international phone calls in and out of China, although those inside China are increasingly cautious about what they say. And by word of mouth, and underground newspapers, and wall posters pasted up hurriedly at night, the word is passed along in China.
In consolidating its power so ruthlessly, the Chinese regime has paid a major price. Its image abroad has been badly damaged. Its plans for modernization of China's economy will suffer as Western and Japanese capital and expertise dry up.
Plans for the British colony of Hong Kong to be returned to China in 1997 are surrounded by doubt and uncertainty.
In Taiwan, events in Beijing have given comfort to right-wing forces that oppose any relaxation of confrontation with the mainland. Recently the Taiwan government has been permitting visits and exchanges and has seemed to be moving to freer contacts between Taiwan and China. These are now likely to be slowed down. People in Taiwan are shocked and angry. Taiwan government spokesmen have denied rumors suggesting Taiwanese troops have landed on the mainland. But China has apparently reinforced its troops opposite Taiwan in the unlikely event that Taiwan should try to take advantage of the situation.
For the moment, China retreats into darkness. But though it must be shielded from government view, the flame of liberty still flickers in many hidden places.