National leaders occasionally decide that some of their country's citizens must die so that the nation may live. This is true whether the citizens are soldiers sent off to war, murderers hung from the gallows or dissidents shot in the street.

In June 1989, thousands of Chinese protestors gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to demand the reform or removal of their government. Drawing their slogans from Mao and their symbols from the Statue of Liberty, they nearly succeeded. But then the People's Liberation Army arrived, murdering hundreds or perhaps thousands in the crowd.

The most famous image of the uprising showed a man facing down a tank. Who was this man? Who were the soldiers and leaders who wanted him dead, and why? A new novel, <B>Sons of Heaven</B> by Terrence Cheng, provides some answers, if only fictional ones. It tells three stories: that of the tank-defying dissident Xiao-Di; the rebellion-quashing soldier Lu; and China's chain-smoking leader Deng Xao Ping. Xiao-Di and Lu are brothers, and Deng was once a dissident himself. Thus Cheng debunks the simplistic, good-versus-evil treatment the event often receives.

Xiao-Di studies at Cornell University, where he is given an addictive whiff of freedom and wealth, while Lu stays behind, bound by duty and country. Xiao-Di returns to China to find fear and poverty, but also a wariness of foreign influence. Deng is sympathetic toward the students but is justly skeptical of their ability to rule. Xiao-Di's rabble-rousing endangers his family's life; Lu's obedience challenges filial bonds; and Deng's decision haunts his dreams.

Because Terrence Cheng was born in Taiwan and is a long-term resident of New York, the reaction to the novel on both sides of the Pacific will probably follow the usual doctrinaire lines. Perhaps the <I>China People's Daily</I> will label it subversive, while <I>The New York Times</I> will label it an indictment of totalitarianism. <B>Sons of Heaven</B> is neither, and that is its virtue. It is a story of three men doing what each thinks is right in the context of their personal and world history. As Marx once said, Man makes his history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth. Man makes democracy, but he does not make it overnight. <I>Kenneth Champeon is a writer living in Thailand.</I>

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