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The San Diego Union-Tribune

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on April 15th, 2001

No one joins the army to kill their own people -- not in the United States, not in Russia, not in China. But 12 years ago in China the People's Liberation Army did kill their own people, hundreds or thousands depending upon the count you believe -- and that fact lies at the root of the domestic struggles in China that two weeks ago spilled over into a botched mid-air interception and the detention of an American Navy EP-3E crew in China.

How exactly? The army was understandably rewarded with big budget increases and a lot more official prestige by the communist government it had saved. But that was not enough to wipe away the shame of killing defenseless civilians. That the military has tried to do by unloading any future repression on a newly created organization to quell civil unrest, the People's Armed Police, and by defining its own mission as national defense and the patriotic recovery of territories Beijing claims but does not control, such as Taiwan and the many reefs and islets of the South China Sea, over which our EP-3E was flying.

This Beijing government has also embraced this nationalistic mission, and for the same reasons. Jiang Zemin, the current leader, was installed in power in Beijing as the democracy movement was being crushed in 1989. Within months of its arrival in power his administration was sponsoring "patriotic" (read: anti-foreign) education in all schools, and a cult of the nation that drew far more on Soviet or fascist examples than on anything found in China's rich cultural tradition.

Relentless propaganda has taught students that foreigners have always attacked and cheated China, with America as a primary offender. One would never guess, from that propaganda, that Americans and Chinese had fought and died side by side against the Japanese in World War II, or that the United States had been a major defender of China in international forums from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Twelve years of such ugly and false propaganda help explain why China would authorize ever more dangerous challenges to China's neighbors, and the United States. Japanese have been aware over the past year of many more Chinese incursions into their territorial waters than before; the Philippines have repeatedly confronted hostile Chinese in the disputed South China Sea; Chinese pilots fly ever closer to the center line in the Taiwan Strait -- and of course Wang Wei, the Chinese pilot, was evidently acting on orders when he recklessly and repeatedly buzzed American planes in international air space, so closely that a collision in the last of three passes under the EP-3E cost him his life.

One hopes a lesson has been learned and that the Chinese military will recognize the risks associated with confronting and provoking their neighbors beyond China's territorial limits. But why should the international community have to teach that lesson? Why isn't Beijing restraining its over-enthusiastic military?

Part of the answer is that the present Beijing government needs the military and cannot afford to offend it. Power was transferred many times in twentieth century China but never once peacefully, never once in accordance with written or constitutional rules. With power about to be transferred again, within the next two years, China's leadership is in turmoil.

Not only that, the current leadership faces the same problems the military does, because it is as complicit in the Tiananmen massacre as the military -- perhaps more so, because the party ordered the army to fire, not the other way around.

That delicate problem has been dealt with in China by denial. No official mention has been made of the massacre for 12 years; no images are permitted, no accounting is to be expected. Certainly most foreigners have forgotten about it and the hope is that Chinese will too -- rather the hope was, because they are about to be reminded of it again.

The Tiananmen Papers is a collection of top secret documents, smuggled out of China by brave officials near the top of the regime, that reveals how the party made the decision in 1989 to call in the army. It is about to appear in Chinese. Its publication will grievously compromise the reputations not only of current leaders such as Jiang Zemin, but those of Deng Xiaoping and other departed elders as well.

The issues suppressed with force a dozen years ago will once again take center stage: What about democracy? What about freedom? What about law? What about corruption? The current leaders know that this debate, once engaged, can only turn against them. This is not just because of the facts. It is also because a new generation of leaders is about to come to power in China who will find it popular to re-examine the events of a decade ago.

But the new generation cannot be stopped, for the simple reason that the current generation cannot live forever. Whatever happens in China, the transition of the next few years will mark the extinction within the leadership of anyone associated with Mao's conquest of China in the 1940s, or even with early communist rule in the 1950s.

Beyond that, we cannot say much with certainty. Communism is already dead nearly everywhere else in the world and it cannot last much longer in China. It may prove impossible for the current leaders even to ensure a succession. Change may begin that soon. If they do, it is a good bet that the coming transfer will mark the last time that power in China is passed on by a self-perpetuating, non-elected politburo whose proceedings are entirely secret and which does not answer to the Chinese people.

China is becoming too modern for communism. Its people are already well qualified to be citizens and electors: they are better educated than ever before, better informed, more affluent. Sooner or later, they must begin to participate in the civic life and the ruling of their own country.

How exactly the change will occur, or where it will lead, is impossible to say. History affords few if any examples of a smooth transition from autocracy to democracy. Usually there is contention and chaos.

Where things have gone well, one can usually name someone who planned and led -- Juan Carlos and Franco in Spain, Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan, Mandela and De Klerk in South Africa. Certainly no one in China looks to be playing that role.

So we must be ready for turbulence. Like a car in which many hands struggle for the wheel, the People's Republic of China is already beginning to move erratically, even dangerously. Right now the struggle is limited to members of the post-1989 communist ruling elite. As other groups and opinions become involved -- the liberalizers now imprisoned, for example -- things may well become worse.

The military may try to install an authoritarian but noncommunist government, though only freedom will really save China. That aspiration for freedom began more than a century ago. Only when it is satisfied will China truly become peaceful.

Such is the big China story. Most American commentators missed it completely in their coverage of last week's hostage incident. They focused on events in Washington and ignored China, manifesting the too common inside-the-Beltway approach, which treats foreign countries as if they had no autonomy, and that whatever they do is somehow a reaction to something Washington has done.

In fact Washington has very little influence over China. The reckless interception of the American plane had nothing to do with Washington and everything to do with China -- a China whose internal turbulence occasionally spills outward, with worrying consequences.

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