The Long Wait for China to Honor the Heroes of Tiananmen, 1989

Chinese President Xi Jinping in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2017. (Denis Balibouse/ Pool via AP)

Someday, China will build a monument in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to honor its citizens who took part in the 1989 uprising we remember under the name of Tiananmen. Perhaps that monument will look like the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, built by demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to hold high in both hands a torch of liberty — facing off against the huge portrait of Mao. Perhaps it will look very different. Whatever the monument might look like, and whenever that day comes, we will at long last be able to read in the free press of a free country the thoughts of a free people on what happened in China during that sleepless spring in Beijing, and why it matters.


But that day remains far off. It is 29 years since the Tiananmen uprising. The Goddess of Democracy has been reduced to souvenir desktop replicas, still sold with admirable daring in Hong Kong. The lone Chinese man facing down a column of tanks in Beijing has become an iconic figure around much of the globe, but in China the man himself has disappeared. China has no free speech; no free and open political process with which to chart a worthy course into the 21st century as a truly great world power. Instead, it now has a president for life, a communist party that continues to maintain its monopoly grip on power, and — along with its economic rise — a strategic and despotic blueprint for growing dominance abroad that could lead to war.

Inside China, the Communist Party has labored for more than a generation to erase the memory of Tiananmen. Officially, the anniversary of June 4, 1989, when the Chinese army shot its way into the square, is marked chiefly by even tighter security measures than usual. It’s been decades since China’s regime paved over the ruts left by tank treads in the streets of Beijing, and repaired the stone steps of Tiananmen’s Monument to the People’s Heroes, which were cracked and crushed by armored personnel carriers when the army evicted the demonstrators who during the pre-dawn hours of June 4 chose that monument as the place to make their last stand.


Outside China, in places where people are free to speak about Tiananmen, we must remember and honor that 1989 uprising. Among the reporters who were there — and I was, working at the time for the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal — I think there is a compelling urge every year, on this June 4 anniversary, to say something. The instinct is to find something new, something as yet unreported after all these years. And, in dredging through old notebooks, poring over stories that have stacked up over almost three decades, and surveying the current rise of China as an increasingly militarized and predatory state, there is plenty to say — especially regarding Beijing’s growing threat to the genuine democracy of the Republic of China, on Taiwan.

But I will default today to the bottom-line reason the Tiananmen uprising was so important. It was haunting for the courage displayed by millions of oppressed people — not only students in Beijing, but the many others who joined and supported the massive demonstrations in such cities across China as Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou — who knew all too well what kind of brutal regime they were defying, but did it anyway. They put their livelihoods, their own security and in some cases their lives on the line to demand a say in their own government, and the liberty that is the right of all people. It was inspiring in its sweep, and heartbreaking in its denouement.


Except it is not over. Above all, since the founding in 1949 of China’s “People’s Republic,” those fleeting weeks of the Tiananmen uprising brought China’s people the only serious chance they have had to speak freely, with each other and to the world. They seized it. They asked for democracy. They built a statue of liberty. And, as I have written so many times over the past 29 years, in that doomed sprint for freeedom, in the spring of 1989, they called out to the world, over and over: “Tell the world what we want. Tell the truth about China.”

And that was the last time, in 29 years, that China’s people have had any serious chance to tell each other, and the world, what they really want. Today, China’s 1.4 billion people are instructed by their dictator, Xi Jinping, and by the long-ruling Chinese Communist Party, in what they are supposed to want, and regard as truth. In the name of making China a great nation, they are supposed to eagerly study “Xi Jinping thought,” which, as this Wall Street Journal report describes, is a 14-point theory that emphasizes the party’s “supreme leadership over everything in China.”

Yesterday the U.S. State Department released a statement by Secretary Mike Pompeo, remembering “the violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989,” urging the Chinese government “to make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing” and calling for the release of those “jailed for striving to keep the memory of Tiananmen Square alive.” Pompeo further urged China’s government to “respect the universal rights and fundamental freedoms of all citizens.”


This is an excellent message, as far as it goes. But there’s an implied subtext that could use some spelling out:

Until China’s government respects its own people enough to allow them to speak and debate freely, and choose their own leaders, China simply cannot become a great, modern nation. Xi and his ruling party can pour resources into China’s military buildup, bully their neighbors, hack, spy, subvert and plot global dominance. They will still preside over a hollow house, ruling without the free consent of their own citizens.

The only decent resolution to this lies in the direction of fulfilling that basic human desire for freedom which in 1989 erupted in peaceful mass protests centered in Tiananmen Square. How long any such transformation might take, or what agonies both China and the world at large might suffer before Beijing finally arrives at government of, by and for the people, is a tough and increasingly troubling question. But that day must come, and in the meantime, along with the U.S. and its cohorts urging China’s government to respect human rights, it would be fitting to ask Beijing the question, again and again, with every year that ticks by:

When — please tell us when — will China at long last dignify itself, and honor its own people, by building a monument in Tiananmen Square to the heroes who died for freedom in 1989?



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