While the world focuses its attention on the Persian Gulf war, the aged Communist reactionaries who rule China are closing the books on the democracy movement they suppressed so brutally in June 1989.
Some 30 leaders of the Tiananmen Square agitation that held the world's attention have finally been tried over the past five weeks, most of them after 20 months of captivity. The trials were secret. The press could not attend. Seven human rights observers were let into the country from the West, then kicked out.
Clearly the regime is trying to wrap up and put this episode behind it. Most of the "crimes" charged are "counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement," with sentences ranging from a few years to 13-year jail terms handed out Tuesday to two unrepentant pro-democracy leaders.
It is a sad business. Beijing hopes it will pass unnoticed. The gulf war is a handy distraction which, China's leaders must hope, has pre-empted the world supply of indignation. The trials were held suddenly, a good six months after the law required.
China will not quickly recover from the wounds self-inflicted in the brutal crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Trade, investment and tourism continue to suffer.
But Western business will pay for its reticence to move back onto the mainland. Japanese and Taiwanese capital investors are less squeamish about human-rights abuses in China, and lead the way back without competition.
China is too great, cultured and diverse for this. The top leaders will soon die out and the middle-aged managers will then disappear. The forces of protest and diverse opinion, now held in check, will come forth again. Most of the defendants in these secret trials are young. They are -- still, even in prison -- the future of China.