TWO ROADS DIVERGED in the course of human liberty, and seven years ago next week, history took them both.
On June 3, 1989, Europe's eastern half was still locked in the deep freeze of communism. There was a hint of a thaw only in Hungary, where barbed wire along the Austrian border was coming down; and in Poland, where the Communist Party was letting some seats in Parliament be contested by Lech Walesa's Solidarity. But Hungary's Communist rulers were not about to loosen their grip on power, and no matter what happened at the polls, it seemed highly doubtful that Poland's would, either.
One continent away, however, freedom seemed poised for a climactic victory. For weeks, China had thrilled to an intense outpouring of pro-democracy fervor. In Beijing and 80 other cities, millions of Chinese had taken to the streets in a dazzling plea for liberty and political reform. The protests had begun in mid-April, when thousands of students thronged Tiananmen Square, calling for "minzhu" -- democracy -- and an end to censorship. To show that self-rule and freedom are worth suffering for, thousands embarked on a hunger strike. Across the nation, citizens from every walk of life -- mechanics and teachers, railway workers and civil servants, policemen and journalists, high school kids and old men -- rallied to the students' support. In the heart of the square rose a 30-foot-high "Goddess of Democracy," a handmade papier-mache version of America's matchless beacon of freedom and enlightenment. The world watched, with astonishment and awe, the greatest demonstration in Chinese history. And when convoys of People's Liberation Army troops moved on Beijing on the morning of June 3, only to be driven back, it appeared that communist rule in Asia was about to implode.
Twenty-four hours later, everything changed.
On June 4, 1989, Poland voted. It was the first free election in more than half a century, and the Communists lost every contested seat. No one knew it, but a wrecker's ball had crashed into the Iron Curtain. Within two months, a leading Solidarity activist had become Poland's prime minister. By autumn, Hungary's Communist Party was dismantling itself, East Germans were holding weekly protest vigils, and the Soviet-occupied Baltic states were aflame with secessionist fever. At year's end, Berlin was one city, Vaclav Havel was Czechoslovakia's president, and the Butcher of Bucharest, Nicolae Ceausescu, was a corpse. Europe's Communist nightmare was over.
China's had resumed.
By midnight on the morning of June 4, tanks and armored personnel carriers were making their way down Changan Avenue -- the Avenue of Eternal Peace -- toward Tiananmen Square. This time, they didn't turn back. Troops fired into the crowds that gathered at every intersection. Unarmed demonstrators -- men, women, teen-agers -- were cut down by the hundreds. As Western journalists rolled tape, the People's Liberation Army aimed automatic weapons into the knots of protesters and pulled their triggers. "There were pools and smears of blood up and down the avenue as well as bodies of the dead," one American reporter wrote. "Most of the wounds were in the chest and stomach."
In a deeply moving documentary airing next Tuesday on PBS, filmmakers Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon recapture the naked brutality of that day. What makes "The Gate of Heavenly Peace" so powerful is not what it says -- Hinton and Gordon dwell on the students' internal squabbles and even fault them for not backing down -- but what it shows. From the opening shot of that unknown hero who stared down a column of tanks, the film is filled with scenes of aching emotion: The very first protesters, petitioning for reform on their knees at the Great Hall of the People. The young hunger strikers, fainting with heat and exhaustion. The Goddess of Democracy being toppled amid the blood and smoke of the Square before dawn on June 4.
The meaning of such moments, as the film notes, "was clear: Here was human hope and courage challenging the remorseless machinery of state power." When the tanks rolled and the guns fired in Beijing, human hope and courage died -- only to be rekindled throughout Eastern Europe. Soon the tanks would roll and the guns would fire in Bucharest and Vilnius and Timisoara, and the people would rally on. Then it would be the dictators, not their abused and wretched subjects, who would have reason to be afraid.
We take our liberty for granted, we Americans, not having had to bleed for it since 1776. The men and women of June 1989 took nothing for granted -- except the moral authority to call an evil government to account. No act is more fraught with danger. No act is more brave.
Seven years ago next week, two roads diverged and history took them both. In Eastern Europe, the doors of freedom were forced ajar. In China, they were nailed shut. The enduring meaning of June 4 is that tanks and guns cannot keep despots in power forever. The Goddess of Democracy may be rubble today, but so is the Berlin Wall. The Goddess will rise again.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)