From the Republic of China on Taiwan, freely elected President Tsai Ing-wen tells the People’s Republic of China that democracy is nothing to fear: “Democracy is a good and fine thing.”
In Beijing, the authorities tighten security and carry out arrests. When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a visit to Canada, is questioned by a reporter about China’s human rights record, he rejects the question as “irresponsible.” He says, “We welcome goodwill suggestions but we reject groundless or unwarranted accusations.”
And so we arrive at the 27th anniversary of Tiananmen: June 4, 1989, when China’s Communist Party rulers turned the guns of the People’s Liberation Army against their own people, to end China’s 1989 democratic uprising.
Does it still matter? On many counts, 27 years is a long time. In Beijing, a generation has more than come of age with no firsthand memory of the gunfire, or of the ruts in the streets in the summer of 1989, made by the treads of tanks. Whatever China’s one-party rulers could pave over of that uprising, they have long since paved. Outside China, we now read articles such as an anonymously authored piece, published June 3, and apparently written from inside China: “China’s Youth Think Tiananmen Was So 1989.”
The implication is that Tiananmen, June 4, 1989, will fade away, officially erased inside China and antiquated abroad — a relic of the past century. The suggestion is that beyond fodder for professional historians, there will be little left except the photo of the lone man facing down a column of tanks — a symbol of heroic, peaceful defiance, adopted by the world, but increasingly detached from today’s China.
Except that’s wrong. Tiananmen has not gone away. It haunts China still. It haunts us all. It was too big to just disappear.
Tiananmen was not solely a student protest, though the students occupying Beijing’s vast Tiananmen Square were the epicenter. It was a mass uprising, spreading through the major cities of China — of students, workers, ordinary people desperate for justice. It was an uprising in which the murderously repressive apparatus of the world’s most populous communist state lost control of its country’s capital for two full weeks.
It is important to understand just how big that was, and what determination and courage it took on the part of China’s people to defy their government. The Soviet-engendered communist experiment of the 20th century, responsible for the deaths of scores of millions, was starting to crack up. But in the spring of 1989, that had not happened yet. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen; the Ceausescus still ruled Romania; the Soviet Union still stood. In Burma, beggared by decades of the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” the military regime just a year earlier, in 1988, had put down mass protests by killing thousands.
China’s uprising, in 1989, was the leading edge of a desperate bid by people living under the brutal constraints of communism to break free. Materially, they were far more deprived than are most of China’s more than 1.3 billion people today. But their chief demands were not for more food, or lucre, or any of the things that the children of the free West are currently demanding under the rubric of “free stuff.” What they demanded was democracy, accountable government, freedom of speech and assembly. They wanted liberty.
At the time, I was covering China for the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and witnessed both the weeks of protests and the June 4 showdown in Tiananmen Square. The Journal has made available online the story I filed on June 4 from Beijing, “The Party Pulls the Trigger,” which gives an hour-by-hour account of what happened in Tiananmen on the night of June 3-4. I also tried in that story to include the larger context, some of which I am excerpting here:
Student calls for democracy that began with the April 15 death of a disgraced moderate former party chief, Hu Yaobang, bloomed into a national movement in which millions of people across China demonstrated for freedom. Students came from all over the country to join the mass protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and for a few brave weeks they occupied the square’s Monument to China’s Revolutionary Heroes, broadcasting their call for democracy. This weekend the party ended its secret deliberations over how to handle this affront to its imperial powers. Tanks and troops now occupy the square, leaving no doubt who owns this site once dedicated by Mao Tse-tung to the building of a People’s Republic.
and the final paragraph:
The white Goddess of Liberty statue in Tiananmen Square was gone by daybreak Sunday. No doubt when the Chinese government has finished dealing with its people, the tidy square will be presented again as a suitable site for tourists, visiting dignitaries and the Chinese public to come honor the heroes of China’s glorious revolution. It will be important then to remember the heroes of 1989, the people who cried out so many times these past six weeks, “Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China.”
Today, what is that truth about China?
The truth is that in all the 67-year history of China’s People’s Republic, the Tiananmen uprising of 1989 was, for China’s people, their finest hour. In the spring of 1989, a series of events converged to create a narrow opening for them to defy the ruling Party, to speak out without being immediately crushed. At great risk, China’s people seized the chance. For a brief spell, they were able to speak publicly, uncensored, with each other and to the world. What they said was that they wanted a government accountable to the people. They wanted an end to the official lies. They wanted freedom.
To interview them today and conclude that this yearning has vanished is to miss one of the prime methods of dictatorship; a method at which the communist parties of the 20th century were adept, and so, it appears, are their heirs: the Big Lie. The Big Lie tells people that the Party knows best, and anyone who questions this is “irresponsible.” For a reporter in Canada, that Lie amounts to an insult; for a citizen in the People’s Republic of China, it can mean fear, harassment, arrest, or consignment to the gulag — the laogai.
China is no longer strictly communist. Its rulers chose a course of reform that has delivered greater freedom of choice on the economic front, and, as a result, greater material wealth. But an integral part of free choice is political freedom — the rights chiefly demanded in Tiananmen, 1989. These, the Party does not permit.
Under the Party regime, currently headed by China’s President Xi Jinping — who is also the Party’s general secretary, and chairman of China’s Central Military Commission — it is perilous to speak freely, or engage in the free exchange of ideas. The Party test is whether the discourse and ideas are pleasing to the Party.
The effects of such rule are to entice and compel, from those who live under it — and especially from the intellectual elite — a kind of double think. For survival, for success, for a place in the prevailing order, the realities of individual instinct and experience must be subordinated to the dictates of the Big Lie. This syndrome is adroitly explored in a book titled “The Captive Mind,” published more than 60 years ago by a poet from Eastern Europe, Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote in the preface: “I try to explain how the human mind functions in the people’s democracies.”
In the Tiananmen uprising of 1989, those constraints — those trammels of the captive mind — briefly fell away. The Party restored those constraints with the barrels of its guns. First with the carnage in the streets. Then with backroom arrests, punishments and executions, reimposing the system of control which in truth still grows from the barrel of a gun, and prevails to this day.
No one can predict with certainty what might happen when the shackles next come loose. But there is a good chance that whenever that day finally comes, one of the first things the Chinese people will reclaim is the real history of Tiananmen. It may yet shape their future. It was a moment, however fleeting, in which millions across the People’s Republic of China claimed for themselves the rights and the pride of free men.
Current events, unfortunately, require a warning. China’s ruling party continues to grapple with its problem of how to control and direct the energy and desires of the huge population that last spoke out freely in 1989. That entails a lot more than patrolling Tiananmen. The Party has also poured its energies into the high-wire act of selectively easing its strictures — not so far as to lose its monopoly on control, but far enough to allow the economic rise of China.
And, in the classic maneuver of tyrants seeking a cause to rally the loyalties of their subjects, China’s ruling Party is also channeling plenty of resources into a campaign of aggressive nationalism, including the growth and modernization of the firepower and reach of China’s military. The Pentagon, in its most recent annual report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” describes the Chinese Communist Party’s sweeping “reforms” meant to strengthen the Party’s control over the military, “enhance the PLA’s ability to conduct joint operations, and improve its ability to fight short-duration, high-intensity conflicts at greater distances from the mainland.”
The Pentagon report continues:
Chinese leaders have characterized modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as essential to achieving great power status and what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation.
This official China “dream” of great power status, to be achieved by way of great firepower, in service of China’s dictators, puts me in mind of an essay, heroically written and openly signed in 1978 — more than a decade before Tiananmen — by Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng. Wei then spent more than 18 years in China’s prisons, before being expelled into exile.
Wei’s essay was titled “The Fifth Modernization,” and in it, he argued that for all China’s campaigns of modernization and quest for greatness, the vital modernization and missing element, was democracy. Without that modernization, wrote Wei, all the others “are merely another promise.”
For Americans who might be wondering what, if anything, we might do in the face of China’s continuing repression and rising military threat that proposes to export this system abroad, the answer is two-fold. America can far more decisively challenge this rise; America can stop gutting its own military and retreating from its own longtime role as leader of the free world — a great power status built not on despotic promises, but out of capitalism and freedom. And Americans can keep alive the memory of Tiananmen — not only the slaughter of June 4, but the uprising in which China’s people declared their desire for a seat at the high table of the world’s truly great powers: the world’s democracies.