Nearly 16 amazing years have passed since Chinese soldiers slaughtered thousands of their fellow citizens protesting corruption and misrule. The Soviet empire, wars in the Balkans and in Iraq, and a flood of dot-com billionaires and paupers have come and/or gone in that busy time.
So it came as no great surprise last autumn when Chinese officials made a quiet but insistent request to European Union leaders: You have changed. So have we. Lift the arms embargo imposed after the 1989 "events." The Chinese request seemed to be, well, another geopolitical slam-dunk.
Except suddenly it isn't. The United States and Europe have stumbled into an increasingly bruising dispute over the efforts of E.U. leaders to remove one of the few remaining symbols of international condemnation of a human rights atrocity.
Score the fact that the dispute has broken out as a good thing. It delays a decision that should not be taken lightly. But there are also dangers in the dispute being pushed too far. European governments and the Bush administration must manage their differences on this to make clear, particularly to Beijing, what has -- and has not -- changed.
The Chinese leadership has provoked exactly what it could not have wanted: renewed international attention to the meaning and legacy of the Tiananmen protests. That is the first useful purpose the U.S.-E.U. embargo tiff serves. Because China's government hides the truth about June 3 and 4, 1989 -- and the six weeks of protests that preceded the use of brute force -- those events live on in China's political present and future.
That remains true even though the E.U. arms embargo itself has long since been circumvented by China, which manufactures or imports from Russia all the arms it needs. The embargo is in many ways a tool of the past. Concentrating the debate on arms sales alone risks letting a symbolic tail wag a real dog.
That is why there is merit to the European suggestion that Washington begin a "strategic dialogue" on China. The Europeans made that proposal last month during President Bush's trip to Europe, after turning aside U.S. ideas on drawing up new joint lists that would restrict arms and technology transfers to Beijing.
The European proposal suffered from vagueness and from not according a significant place to Japan in consultations about East Asia's future.
Immediately after Bush's return from Europe and a high-level White House meeting, the administration began taking a progressively tougher line against lifting the embargo. Bush aides shifted from merely warning the Europeans of congressional retaliation to publicly voicing their own opposition to the step. The European Union has reportedly put the embargo decision on hold as a result of this harder line.
But the administration will need to do more than hold out for technology control lists, which are overly reminiscent of the Cold War. Restrictive lists cannot deal with the most complex strategic issue the world will face in the coming two decades.
That issue is the continuing emergence of China simultaneously as a global economic power and manufacturing hub, a regional military Goliath with irredentist claims, a diplomatic lightweight unwilling to lead constructively at the United Nations or elsewhere, a Leninist dictatorship that abuses the human rights of its people, and much more.
It is difficult for anyone to focus meaningfully on the totality of China's multiple but related identities. Instead of acknowledging that, we tend to pick one to explain, deny or reshuffle the others.
Business executives see the world's most impressive growth spurt, but they may miss the internal dislocation and corruption that accompany the growth -- which is managed by a communist leadership that bases its claim to rule on the statistics of prosperity. Similarly, those of us who witnessed the Tiananmen Spring of protests tend to make human rights a salient guide to China.
That is because time has not wiped away the essential truth the Chinese government continues to deny: The 1989 protests were among the greatest acts of mass valor and decency in that or any nation's history. Millions of people living in impoverished circumstances went to the streets to defend the lives and reputation of idealistic students, civil servants and workers who were seeking democratic change. The essential meaning of "Tiananmen" is one of Chinese glory and not shame, as the government's secrecy suggests.
Strategic dialogues, or arms embargoes, will not produce much change until there is a government in Beijing that sees what happened almost 16 years ago that way.