China's Hollow Promise

Rehabilitate '89 protesters - or students abroad won't come home

THE recent arrest of Shen Tong, a former student dissident, revealed once again the Chinese government's true colors in dealing with Chinese protesters.

On several occasions Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng have expressed their hope that thousands of Chinese students abroad would return: "They will be given fair treatment." The People's Daily, communist China's party mouthpiece, published a front-page commentary on March 19, 1992, calling on Chinese students living abroad to return home "regardless of their past political attitudes."

These leaders also promise no retribution as students return. However, without concrete actions taken by the National People's Congress or the Party Central Committee, the fear of Chinese students overseas will not disappear. The latest pronouncements are simply rhetoric - an insincere gesture designed to improve Beijing's image in the West.

Here is why:

First, the Chinese leadership can't offer meaningful assurances to students that everything is back on track while ordinary citizens in China still live in fear. If students overseas are "forgiven" for their "past political attitudes," are citizens inside China "forgiven" for their political involvement as well?

Apparently not. Those active in the 1989 student movement at Tiananmen Square continue to be detained and prosecuted. The only way for the Chinese leadership to close the ugly chapter on the bloody military crackdown in June 1989, and its aftermath, is to permit the rehabilitation of those involved in the democracy movement and to disclose the events that led to the crackdown. Without these steps, the government's assurances must be seen as false, political maneuvering.

Second, "forgiving" overseas Chinese students for their political involvement while continuing to hold Chinese citizens at home liable would create two classes of citizens. This policy would simply prove impossible to implement.

Third, the government must prepare itself to face challenges by some of the overseas students who are not willing to adhere to the party line upon their return. There is no greater joy than the freedom of expression, and the Chinese students studying overseas have experienced just that. As the Chinese saying goes, "It's easy to go from rags to riches, but not vice versa."

Losing one's freedom is more painful than not ever having enjoyed it. Hence, the question: Is the Chinese government ready to hear sincere, constructive, yet probably unpleasant truths uttered publicly? Is it willing to tolerate political dissent?

At the session of the Seventh National People's Congress last March, Mr. Peng said China "must dare to and know how to" draw on advanced Western technology and management techniques "to serve the construction of socialist modernization."

I am sure we will be hearing similar rhetoric at the 14th Party Congress this fall. But those who have had experience with Western technology and management techniques also know that they go hand-in-hand with basic democratic values. The logical next question is: Is the government ready to allow these students to "dare to and know how to" draw on the merits of Western democratic values to "serve the construction of socialist modernization"?

Along with many Chinese compatriots both at home and abroad, I hail the new breeze of economic reform that seems once again to be blowing in China. Among the nearly 500 motions presented by the deputies to the last National People's Congress, most of the motions are about deepening the economic reform and accelerating openness. So the final question is: Is the government ready to fully realize that it was the economic reform of the 1980s that contributed to the liberalization of the Chinese people's thin king and the prodemocracy, pro-political reform demonstrations?

I am proud of the bravery demonstrated by the students and other ordinary Chinese citizens in 1989, and I am confident that they will continue their efforts to bring about democratization regardless of the actions of the Chinese government. Although achieving democracy is a long process, "a journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step." The first step for the Chinese government at this junction is to permit the rehabilitation of the 1989 democracy movement participants and to set the historical

record straight.

Then, and only then, will overseas students believe the government's rhetoric that students and other Chinese citizens overseas are "valuable national treasures." Then, and only then, will they believe there is fundamental political change in China. Then, and only then, are overseas students likely to feel safe to return, like those who returned as a result of the political change in the former Soviet Union and central European countries.

Without a move in the direction of rehabilitation, the Chinese government's offer is nothing but a hollow promise.

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