History holds many surprises for true believers, especially for revolutionaries who find out that the causes they fought for years ago were baseless. That, at least, is the lesson to be drawn from the collapse of the Soviet Union by people who fought and even died for the communist ideology that supported and reinforced it for so many decades.

Back in 1989, many Chinese people fought for American-style freedom and democracy. American symbols and icons, the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. flag became their own symbols and icons, which they waved back and forth in front of the tanks and soldiers. Some even gave their lives for these ideals, while others have escaped to the United States to live the American dream. Even the Beijing government that trashed their revolution took steps to emulate the U.S. institutions of freedom of exchange and private property. Domestic markets opened to competition, state-owned enterprises were privatized and foreign investment and technology began to revolutionize Chinese factories and offices.

Ten years later, as Chinese people prepare to commemorate the Tiananmen uprising, they are discovering that their earlier revolution may have been founded on illusions, after all, for three reasons. First, the Asian economic crisis demonstrated and reinforced the fact that U.S.-style capitalism, with its open and unprotected markets, does not just deliver economic growth. It also delivers uncertainty that threatens the cohesion of entire national economies.

Second, in the eyes of many Chinese people, America’s recent refusal to support China’s bid to join the World Trade Organization represents a deliberate effort to keep China out of the world economic community, another attempt to revive the Cold War between the U.S. and China. Third, the bombing of their embassy in Yugoslavia and the killing of Chinese citizens there by the U.S.-dominated NATO coalition in a war that lacks U.S. congressional approval has blurred the image of a democratic U.S. To some Chinese, the U.S./NATO military intervention in Yugoslavia simply revives and confirms the old Maoist/Leninist doctrine of imperialistic hegemonism.

Unfortunately, the recent protests outside the U.S. Embassy and the burning of the U.S. flag may be a bitter confirmation of the Chinese people’s realization that their uprising 10 years ago might not have been undertaken for a sound cause after all. As U.S. President Harry Truman once put it: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

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