When is the price of freedom too high?

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WHEN it comes to the question of democracy, are you a fundamentalist, a pragmatist or a lip- server? Or are you against? Do you look forward, for instance, to a resurgence of the democratic movement in China or do you instinctively feel that the Chinese democrats are rocking a dangerous boat? Do you long for the smack of firm government in Russia? Or do you long for democracy in Russia? And could you, by any chance, be bought off, or warned off?

On Friday, on these pages, Conor Cruise O'Brien made a frank comparison between events in Moscow and the massacre in Tiananmen Square: both, he thought, had given a message to the peoples of their respective empires that there was a strong emperor who could not be defied with impunity, and on both occasions this message would have been received by millions with 'sombre satisfaction'.

O'Brien is interested in the comparison between Tiananmen and the storming of the White House because he believes, as he has argued before, that there is wisdom in the current Chinese approach, which is described as economic reform first, political liberty later.

The Chinese have learnt from studying the Russian example that, in the words of one Chinese scholar, 'only after a nation achieves a relatively high level of economic prosperity can it afford the fruit and peril of democracy'.

But have the Chinese learnt the right lesson? Have they been looking in the right direction? After all, democracy was installed in Japan at a time when its economy was in ruins. Has it proved such a disaster?

There are three main Asian democracies: Japan, India and the Philippines. Relative wealth, in other words, does not seem to be an issue here. In favour of India it may be said that the openness of the society - the freedom of press and communications - makes it better equipped than many a poor non-democracy to anticipate and avoid famine.

Of the Philippines it may certainly be said that the 'peril' (armed uprisings, the slide into poverty, famine and anarchy) was closely associated with the years in which democracy was suspended. The current relative stability has been achieved during a time of recession. The road to that stability went through democratic revolution, freedom of the press, all kinds of amnesties for left and right, culminating in the legalisation of the Communist Party. Democracy was not sought after an appropriate level of wealth had been reached. It was sought because dictatorship was beggaring the country.

South Korea offers an example of the way the pursuit of democracy and economic advancement go hand in hand. Obviously it was appropriate that the country should trade with China. That meant an end to the old way of thinking of the military elite. Democracy was seen by the business community as an element of modernisation - it was in favour of it for economic reasons.

Is it a matter of coincidence that the economic successes of modern China tend to be taking place as far away from Peking as possible - beyond the emperor's immediate reach? And is there any hard distinction between these economic reforms and political reforms? Surely the Chinese economy is a deeply politicised affair?

The Chinese model (prosperity first, then freedom) suffers from a further disadvantage - it has not been on the road all that long. Who is to say how long it will continue to make sense, either to those who promulgate it or to those who live under it? While it may well be true that 'millions' received news of the Tiananmen massacre with 'grim satisfaction', there are many millions in China, and it may be that many other millions had quite other thoughts.

It is one thing to recognise a general level of disillusionment within what used to be the Communist bloc, quite another to speculate, as did O'Brien, 'glasnost is out of the window, probably unmourned by most Russians'. People may well say, or mutter, that glasnost was a mistake, that perestroika was where the rot set in, but doing so is rather like scrawling up in East Germany the slogan: 'Give us back our Wall.' A demonstration of anger, yes, but not the best evidence of effective thought.

A part of glasnost was the willingness to recognise that things were changing whether you liked it or not. That is what Gorbachev tried to signal to the East German elite: that the current system could not be sustained. Yet even after the wall had come down there were people who could not face up to what had happened, people who could not see the inevitablity of reunification, so deep was the division in their minds.

And it had been widely argued, right up to the last moment, that the East German system was the least likely of all to collapse - it was the strongest and most prosperous of the regimes. But it vanished like smoke.

A few years ago nobody had the faintest idea what would replace a Stalinist regime, because there was no precedent to go on. Today we have a few precedents, but we are still in the middle of the story and it is hard to produce a general theory. Poland had the longest, most vigorously political struggle of the Eastern European block, and was impoverished in the process. Politics came first, if you like, but the economic recovery was such as to defy predictions.

To say 'watch out before you seek 'freedom', or you may find yourself in a post-Yugoslavian mess', or 'hold on to your Communism for the moment, or you might end up with fascism' is to suppose that the autocratic regime of the moment can be held on to indefinitely. It is hardly helpful to say with O'Brien that life was more agreeable under Tito if Tito happens to have been mortal.

'Fear anarchy' - yes, we all must fear anarchy. But it seems that there is a kind of frozen anarchy that some systems maintain. If I was a North Korean, I would fear what is about to happen when the current regime collapses. I believe there will be utter chaos in North Korea - the evidence leaking out shows that there is chaos already. So what political option could I have? I would want to say: throw open the windows, let in some light, let us see what the problems are. Stop the regime of lies and propaganda.

But this sounds just like glasnost, doesn't it? Poor old discredited glasnost. How stupid of me - I can't seem to see the alternative.