What an impressive picture that was in Thursday's paper. It showed rank upon serried rank of goose-stepping troops in front of Tiananmen Gate in Beijing, formerly Peking. There were also drone missiles and amphibious assault vehicles and the kind of mass formations the most populous power on Earth can arrange for special occasions, or even ordinary ones.
The grand parade was being staged in honor of the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, which of course is neither the people's nor a republic. Nor, lest we forget, does it represent all of China not so long as freedom reigns just offshore on Taiwan.
Was this display of military might a dark vision of the future out of "1984"? Or just a holdover from a fading past that cannot let go?
Shades of the great May Day parades once held in Moscow's Red Square. How much has changed in Moscow since those grim days. And how much has not. Certainly much has changed in Beijing since the miraculous year 1989, when freedom was springing up all over the world, including Tiananmen Square. The lone figure holding his ground against a long row of tanks, the bodies of student protesters being removed under cover of night ... all that is but a memory now. Democracy would be stillborn.
And yet hope still flickers, as the spirit of freedom always does in the heart of man. One day a Solzhenitsyn will arise in China, too. Perhaps he already has, but his words have been drowned out. For now. But the time will come when the marching feet of whole armies will be unable to stamp out a single human voice, and on that day Communism, even in its now weakened form, will be gone.
The misnamed, misbegotten People's Republic of China now has lasted 60 years and celebrates itself. So? The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics lasted 70 years, yet now it is as yesterday when it is gone.
It is not how long a regime lasts that matters but whether it accords with truth, with honor, with an idea of the human being as something more than a slave, whether to a class, an ideology, or some Big Brother.
The rulers in Beijing now appear strong, indomitable, as invincible as Stalin once did, as Mao once did, as every tyrant does at the height of his tyranny. But listen carefully. Can you hear the beams of the structure creak, the foundation beginning to crack, the groans of the people waiting to rise up in a mighty chorus?
If you gaze at the photo in the paper long enough, you may see the great square not just as it is now, but in the fullness of the unofficial, unexpurgated past. You will be aware of the ghostly presence of the martyrs of Tiananmen, and beyond them the millions of victims of Mao's "agrarian reforms," from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. The dead speak, too.
Once upon a different time in a different country, watching the tanks roll through Red Square as Stalin and bloody company looked on from on high, you could sense the immensity of the Gulag stretching out far beyond the little men atop Red Square. Even then a number of them must have been living in fear of the next Great Purge, and wondering how long before their images, too, would be airbrushed out of the pictures in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia.
I once saw a picture book devoted to the vanishing commissars who were here one year, gone the next. And always, waiting for their fall, were the people in their vast multitudes from the Baltics to the Pacific, from the Arctic to the steppes, listening for the first sound of the great thaw that would bring freedom. A sound like ice cracking and rivers beginning to roar out of their banks in the Siberian spring.
One day, who knows how another generation will look back on this picture out of a cleaned-up Tiananmen Square on October 1, 2009? Will it be seen as another glorious sign of China's might, or as just another empty show designed to stave off a new birth of freedom? It may all depend on whether those looking at this picture are yet free.
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