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An open letter to Beijing's rebellious students:

Dear Friends of Freedom,Your powerful acts of peaceful defiance have thrilled the world, dramatizing (for those who take its gifts lightly) the unextinguishable flames of liberty. But if your brave revolt is not to fade alongside such earlier, once-hopeful embers as those in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, you'll have to start focusing more clearly on what has so far been the conspicuous missing link of your movement: the unavoidable connection between political and economic freedom.

As an old Asia hand, who traveled the continent as a foreign correspondent for 21/2 years a quarter century ago, I have been struck not just by the differences between that era and this one - but by some still-troubling similarities.

The differences are on every front page and television screen. Who would have thought that the Chinese leader of the day, even one so inept as Li Peng, would be challenged so openly and so successfully, not only by university students but by other key segments of the national society?

Yet the extraordinarily superficial nature of much of the on-scene American coverage of these events has left the impression that this effort was a combination of our own Revolution, our own civil-rights movement and a jolly Fourth of July picnic to boot. Meanwhile, many central questions go unanswered.

"What do the students actually want?" we ask. "Democracy!" comes the resounding answer, and all applaud. And why not? "Democracy" is like "truth," "peace" and "motherhood." No known politician admits to opposing any of them. Lest we forget, most of the communist countries of the world have long had "Democratic" as part of their official names.

But what else? We who make our living in the media naturally smile when you ask for a freer press (at least to the extent of covering your own points of view more fully), but your other demands, closely studied, soon break down into intellectual confusion. What are we to make of a "movement for democracy" whose battle hymn appears to be the "Internationale," the Communist anthem whose notes have invariably been followed by the death of anything resembling genuine democracy?

What are we to make of a "movement for democracy," many of whose leaders speak reverentially of Mao Zedong, in part (we're told) because, like the "Internationale," it's the only tune they know - but also because they advocate a "strong" and "incorruptible" leader? Such advocacy has historically led more often to a new dictator than to a new democracy.

Taking the tyrant Mao as your democratic ideal makes about as much sense as another reported student demand, making the Chinese economy more like that of the Soviet Union - which is like saying you want to build your automobiles more like the Edsel. One would have hoped for something at least slightly more profound from the "students" of Tiananmen Square.

This would not be the first time we Americans have overstated a change in China. When Richard Nixon became this century's most improbable Marco Polo, our press was full of tales about mainland "miracles" - and business executives absolutely salivated at the prospect of getting even $1 apiece from a billion Chinese consumers.

Only years later did many come to understand that the authentic miracles were those wrought not on the mainland but by "overseas" Chinese, operating with world-class success in free-market environments like Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. As one Beijing official ultimately confessed, "We have to start wondering why, if we're so smart and we're so energetic, we're still so poor."

The answer lies not in wall posters but in wealth production, not in the "Internationale" but in multinationals, not in vague calls for "democracy" but in precise demands for private property, private enterprise and private competition. When the Chinese mainland fully awakes to these realities, its true revolution will finally be at hand. Until then, the inseparable unity of economic and political liberty may seem as confusing to many brave students as the continuing economic stagnation of the mainland must seem to the peculiar ghosts of Mao.

Best of luck in your quest for all kinds of freedom,

Louis Rukeyser