THE terrible massacre in Beijing's Tiananmen Square is an ugly reminder of an unpleasant fact. However charming, however moderate, however civilized a face an entrenched communist regime can present to the outside world, when its survival is threatened it is capable of outrageous repression against its own citizens. Since embracing communism, China has gone through some extraordinary swings and gyrations in mood and direction.
For years it was withdrawn and xenophobic, unknown to the West and feared by many for the size of its conventional Army and for its nuclear potential.
Its citizens were taught to hate Americans. The same Tiananmen Square where recently students built a Statue of Liberty was ringed with vicious anti-American banners. American presidents were burned in effigy. American flags were trampled in the gritty dust that sweeps in across Beijing from the desert north.
Anti-foreign feeling reached its peak in the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong unleashed his infamous Red Guards. Although millions of Chinese suffered at their hands, things foreign were special targets. Foreigners were humiliated and imprisoned, even some Americans who had identified with communism in China and had lived there for many years.
But after the turmoil, China began to reach out to the outside world. There came ping-pong diplomacy, and Henry Kissinger's visit to Beijing, and after what seemed an incredibly short period of time, China, under more reasonable leaders, and the United States seemed to be moving to amity, even brotherhood. By the time Ronald Reagan came to office, the longtime cold-war warrior felt comfortable about visiting China and toasting the two countries' ongoing friendship, even cutting deals for the supply of American weaponry and technology to China.
This new moderate Chinese face was in part due to China's desire for an ally against the Soviet Union, in part due to China's recognition that it needed Western technology, Western investment, Western capital, to develop its backward economy.
Now came, for Beijing's rulers, the dangerous gamble. Thousands of businessmen, academics, journalists, from the free world were permitted entry into China as China sought outside knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps more significant, thousands upon thousands of Chinese students were sent abroad to study. They discovered the free spirit of America, the carefully guarded liberty of Britain, the exuberant independence of Australia. From discussions I have had with students in China, I know that they were never the same again. They went home spreading the exciting story of freedoms their own country had never known.
The regime in China had taken a commendable decision to modernize the economy, but had opened a Pandora's box, at the bottom of which lay the urgent desire for freedom.
Thus it was brought to the confrontation in recent weeks between a Communist Party desperate to maintain power, and a student mass, supported by many workers, demanding greater liberty.
Probably in time we will learn what went on in the thinking of the innermost circles of the regime. What we do know is that this past weekend the leaders discarded negotiation and opted for maximum violence. No matter that it may jeopardize the relationship with the US. No matter that it has sent waves of revulsion rippling through foreign capitals. No matter that it has alienated foreign Chinese. No matter that it has set the British colony of Hong Kong, soon to be returned to China, on end; the stock market plunged and there were calls to abrogate the British deal with Beijing.
All this came second to China's communist rulers. First came the overriding determination to keep the regime in power at all costs, and whatever the death toll among China's own people. And so the world weeps, and my Chinese friends sob as they plead over the telephone for words that may ease the pain.
The regime may have won the battle of Tiananmen Square. Has it won the war? That remains to be seen as the extent of its inhumanity sinks in.