Blood red;The big picture

29th October 1999 at 01:00
(Photograph) - Photograph by Jean-Pierre Laffont.

Eed flags flying, marching in perfect formation, uniforms immaculate down to the white gloves, these schoolchildren are the model of patriotic, disciplined communist youth. March pasts like this one in Beijing in 1984 were part of life in communist countries. Children felt it was an honour to be selected and hoped to catch a glimpse of the nation's leaders.

Yet within five years China was thrown into turmoil when students rallied in protest, demanding an end to corruption and nepotism, freedom of speech and a free press. "We want democracy," they told me earnestly (I was a "Daily Telegraph" reporter there), although most hardly knew what democracy meant. They camped for weeks in their thousands in Tiananmen square in Beijing in May and June 1989, calling for their leaders to answer their demands, and listening to western radio stations.

The communist leaders did not want their absolute authority to be challenged. The students were mowed down by the military with tanks and machine guns. Many were killed. Others were jailed and some fled to the West. But their bravery had a crucial impact on the fall of communism in other parts of the world.

Just weeks after the Tiananmen massacre, in East Germany youngsters were also taking to the streets, day after day in large numbers. They too demanded freedom, including the right to travel to the west. The East German leadership, afraid it could not contain the protests, wanted to avoid a Beijing-style bloodbath.

"The Chinese solution was discussed at the highest levels of the military," said Joachim Goldbach, a top East German general, now jailed for his role in border guard shootings of East Germans trying to escape to the west. "But we saw it as negative." So they relaxed restrictions at the border-posts, believing people would go west, take a look and then return. But once breached, the Berlin Wall fell - 10 years ago next week. Germany reunified and the Soviet empire collapsed.

Meanwhile, China, celebrating 50 years as a republic this month, is the only major communist power still intact.

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