Lies About China

HAVING assaulted its own people with tanks and machine guns, the Chinese government has now taken aim at the truth. Sound trucks blare ``The Army loves the people''; TV ``news'' footage shows the confessions of penitent ``counterrevolutionaries.'' The goal is to drive out all independent thinking - the kind of thinking that generated the students' democracy movement. The basic tools are fear and ignorance. The chances of success are, in the short term, good.

Most of China's 1.1 billion people - 80 percent of whom live in the countryside - knew little about happenings in Beijing. The government's torrent of lies - and its effort to pinch off other sources of information, like Voice of America - leaves only the official version of events. Those with another version are being terrorized into silence. And millions, like people elsewhere, will be predisposed to stand by their government.

True to form, government propagandists are laying the unrest at the feet of foreigners. The US warrants particular scorn for its sheltering of dissident Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian. Washington is rightly determined to brave this storm. In present circumstances, a stand for democratic and humanitarian principles overrides concerns about relations with the Chinese government.

That government, under the profoundly ironic leadership of Deng Xiaoping - himself a victim of Cultural Revolution repression and the architect of economic reform - has shifted into reverse. The simple act of talking to the leaders of the student movement might have tempered popular demonstrations and kept the doors to progress open. But the old revolutionaries, leery of anything that could even seem to modify communist supremacy, recoiled - all the way to armed crackdown, mass arrests, and a campaign of lies.

China's immediate future is murky. The old ways of communist ideo-babble and xenophobia are reasserting themselves. But the new ideas of democratic participation and individual enterprise are far from dead. The effects of a decade of economic liberalization and thousands of contacts with intellectuals and business people from abroad can't be instantly erased.

The road to some form of more representative government in China could be long and rocky, but, ultimately, it will be traveled.

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