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Op-Ed Columnist

The Full China Experience

Beijing

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in China were truly historic, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of China's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The media seems too caught up in dissecting the macro-level situation to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the shirts for the cloth.

When thinking about the ongoing troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like migratory birds, so attempts to treat them as such inevitably look foolish. Migratory birds never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, China has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If ethnic conflict is China's curtain rod, then freedom is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in China last month, I was amazed by the variety of the local cuisine, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of China have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in China are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in China? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not let seemingly endless frustrations cause the people of China to doubt their chance at progress. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so poorly marked that China will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Beijing needs to come to the table.

Speaking with a young student from the large Shiite community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, respre austee, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A Deaf Husband and a Blind Wife are Always a Happy Couple."

I don't know what China will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.