LONDON — The recently released details of the secret debate among China’s leaders before they crushed the prodemocracy protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 don’t just tell us about China’s past. They also tell us a lot about its present, and even about its likely future.

What comes through clearly in the documents leaked to the New York-based journal Foreign Affairs is the extent of the generational split in the Chinese Communist leadership 11 years ago. That same split also explains why the “Tiananmen papers” have been leaked now — and why China will probably get democracy, in the end, without having to go through all that again.

It was always clear who decided to open fire on the students and citizens of Beijing on June 4, 1989, killing at least several hundred of them. The nine Communist Party “elders” who made that choice, most of them semi-retired men in their 80s and 90s, were the original revolutionary generation who had been spent their lives ordering the deaths of any Chinese who opposed them.

They were outraged at this challenge to Communist Party rule by “those goddamn bastards” on Tiananmen Square, as Wang Zhen put it on June 2, according to the leaked documents. “These kids don’t know how good they’ve got it. When we were their age, we lived in a forest of rifles and a rain of bullets. . . . We’ve got to (use force) or the common people will rebel. Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial.”

It’s no surprise, either, that the “senior leaders” imposed the policy of massacre by removing those among the younger generation (i.e., those in their 60s and 70s) who opposed it. Their key move was the illegal replacement of General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who is still under house arrest in Beijing, with the current leader, Jiang Zemin.

What is surprising is how far the thinking of some “junior leaders” had moved even 11 years ago. Listen to Zhao Ziyang on May 13, 1989, urging paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to “use the methods of democracy and law to solve actual problems. When we allow some democracy, things may look chaotic on the surface, but these little troubles are normal in a democratic and legal framework.”

This generational argument is still going on in China, and will determine whether the world’s biggest country becomes a democracy or remains the great exception to the historical trend. If you combine the internal evidence in the “Tiananmen papers” with the actual experiences of ruling communist parties elsewhere, there is considerable cause for hope.

First of all, only the revolutionary old guard, the octogenarians who had been wading through blood since their teens, were willing to order the killing in Beijing in 1989. Most of the younger men would not have done it, and some of them had to be removed before it could be done.

When other demonstrators were demanding democracy from a different communist regime six months later in East Germany, they were terrified that East Berlin would end up like Beijing, but they understood the key difference.

There was no senior generation of lifelong killers in East Germany’s Communist Party, just bureaucrats who had come up through the ranks. The nonviolent protesters calculated that they wouldn’t have the stomach to start killing in cold blood, even if their own jobs were at stake — and so it proved, in East Germany and all the way to the Soviet Union itself.

That original revolutionary generation is now gone in China, too. There is huge resistance to change from the leaders who got blood all over their hands in 1989, but it will probably be overcome by the larger changes that are happening in the party — for the one lesson that Eastern Europe taught us time and again is that communist parties eventually hollow out.

It’s the inevitable consequence of the fact that the party requires anybody who wants to rise beyond a certain rank — not government bureaucrats, but military officers, journalists and even hospital administrators — to become a party member. So they join, but that doesn’t mean they become believers. Eventually, the great majority of party members are secretly noncommunists.

In China, many of them have also got rich through their party positions. They are not convinced that communist power is secure in the long run, and the last thing they want is some postcommunist regime asking where their money came from — so maybe their best option is a managed shift to democracy that leaves them on top.

It could be done. Free the press, allow the formation of rival political parties (as many as possible), and go to free elections six months’ time, and the communists would probably get 70 percent of the votes. Most Chinese still live in villages, and it would be decades before any party other than the communists could have a party organization in every one of them.

A democratic safety valve and a freer society, plus continuing communist power and the lucrative opportunities that party membership brings: it’s an attractive option to the rising generation of party leaders. But first these “tactical” democrats must defeat the not-one-step-backward faction — which includes those who ordered the Tiananmen Square massacre.

That is why these documents on that critical event have now been leaked. It also suggests that the struggle between the factions is approaching end-game. China could embark on real democratic changes much sooner than we think.

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