Hu Yaobang

Lessons from June 4

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 June, 1993, 12:00am


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AS people in Hongkong last night commemorated the terrible events of June 4, 1989, many would have reflected on how much more readily they were able to express their anger and emotion than were people in Beijing. The tens of thousands of demonstratorswho marched on Tiananmen Square four years ago, after the death of former party chairman Hu Yaobang - and stayed until the tanks began to roll - are now nowhere to be seen. This year the tiny number of students who smashed a few bottles at Beijing university are considered among the most daring of their generation. The rest have been intimidated into silence or have found it safer to be apolitical.

The lesson of those turbulent weeks has been imprinted as powerfully on the memories of millions of Chinese. Any challenge to the authority of the Communist Party would bring out the leadership's repressive instincts. The crackdown was all the more chilling because it shattered many people's belief that the decline of Marxist ideology might lead to short-term political reform. Pragmatism and liberalism are not to be confused.

That authoritarian mindset is reflected in China's opposition to the swifter development of democracy in Hongkong. It is clear, too, in its view that the Western concept of human rights is alien to Asia. Yet when there is enough at stake, China is prepared to show a different face. Recent releases of such political prisoners as Democracy Wall activist Xu Wenli and Underground Church leader Pei Ronggui show the leadership understands the Western idea of human rights sufficiently to exploit it to retain China's Most Favoured Nation status or to enhance Beijing's bid for the 2000 Olympics.

President Bill Clinton's decision to impose human rights conditions on MFN renewal next year is a warning that a few token releases will not do. Beijing must learn the more general lesson that the West values human rights highly. Until it does, China's politically motivated gestures will be met as much distrust as with hope.

But the West must not assume China has failed to learn its own lessons from 1989. Beijing will not willingly repeat the barbarity of Tiananmen Square. Prosperity as well as fear can help keep demonstrators off the streets. China is trying to avoid imposing economic measures as harsh as those of 1988, now widely recognised as the root of the unrest and disaffection in which the democracy movement was founded. China's history of repression shows the killings were no aberration. However, they were a sign of panic, which did great harm to the country's reputation abroad and to its economy.

The West's condemnation of Tiananmen and the threat of limited sanctions have made China aware of the international community's standards - and, therefore, the cost of brutality. We should all hope that China now will build on that understanding to develop a deeper comprehension of the notion of human rights.

Such an understanding would be reflected in changes in China: the abolition of the ''crime'' of counter-revolution; the release of all those imprisoned for it; the end of long-term detention without trial. In an ideal world, China would sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forms the basis of Hongkong's recent Bill of Rights, and give the guarantees of its own much-ignored constitution real weight in the courts. It also would recognise that universal human rights are a restriction on the state's right to make repressive laws, rather than what is left over for the citizen after bad laws have been made.

All that would be meaningless without an independent judiciary and a commitment to the rule of law, neither of which are much in evidence. In commerce, however, China is discovering the necessity of the application of the rule of law. We can hope that a growing pool of trained practitioners, working within an increasingly sophisticated body of commercial law, will eventually extend an ethical influence on other parts of the legal system.

In the law, as in so much else, change will come slowly. It would be unrealistic to expect China to be converted in a flash to the rights of the individual. But there is room for hope that with continued world interest in its human rights record and the pressures of doing business internationally, with the continued growth of its economy and the development of a middle class, Beijing eventually will have to allow some reform.