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Last Spring in China

ONE year ago this week Chinese students and workers began seven weeks of unprecedented pro-democracy marches and hunger strikes. Their courage matched that of protesters in East Germany and Romania last fall. What did these 20-year-olds want? Only what they deserved: A curb on campaigns against liberalization. A legal system that would establish freedoms of assembly, the press, and speech. And leaders, such as the honored Hu Yaobang, that they could respect.

One can argue the students lacked a coherent program, or that their passion was naive. But who else was on the street telling the truth about oppression? Events moved swiftly: On April 18, 2,000 students gathered in Tiananmen Square. On April 21, the number reached 100,000. On May 18 and 20, millions marched in China in support of student hunger strikes. The world watched in amazement - and then in horror, as it all ended in a quick and naked butchery. The June 3 massacre led to a totalitarian crackdown throughout China.

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Since then, prisons such as Qinqueng, outside Beijing, have filled with political prisoners. Dissenters are officially judged to lack ``ideological maturity.'' A deep, authoritarian freeze has settled in. China's leaders, said a Chinese source in one recent story, ``are masters of orchestrating a misery all the more insidious because it is silent and invisible.''

Yet while there may be silence in the streets of Shanghai and Beijing, the hearts and minds of millions of educated and astute Chinese are anything but silent. Too much truth is now known and seen.

The game may already be up for China's leaders. The authority of any leaders, even if legally constituted, is legitimate only so long as it is free of abuse and coercion. In China, millions no longer believe the official line. The fear tactics, propaganda, and patriotic slogans employed by the Communist Party ring hollow. The very policies of China's leaders - such as laughable attempts to invoke symbols like patriot Lei Feng - are causing new interest in democratic thinking.

China will one day be free. The impulse is buried deep in the aspirations of her people, particularly the next generation. President Bush's recent order to defer US-Chinese student deportations until 1994 supports that generation, while correctly asserting US values.

It's gratifying to see that the underground railroad protecting student dissidents has been given so much internal support. Pro-democracy Chinese students have now been battle-tested. They are smarter than last year. Their time will come.

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