Keeping Faith With Tiananmen

It's 28 years since the Tiananmen uprising, in which China's people peacefully took away control of their huge capital from China's ruling Communist party, and asked for liberty, democracy, justice. And it was 28 years ago today -- on June 4, 1989 --that the Communist Party of China took back control, sending in the People's Liberation Army, with guns, armored personnel carriers and tanks, to retake Tiananmen Square, symbolic heart of the protests. China's rulers followed up, nationwide, with arrests, executions, imprisonments, surveillance and censorship that continues to this day.

During the uprising, demonstrators propped a big poster against the Monument to the People's Heroes in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. In Chinese characters, it said: "1989, a year China will remember."

I was there, reporting in Beijing for The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, and in a story I filed for the May 22 Asian edition, on "The Creed at Tiananmen Square," the message on that poster figured in the lead. One of my editors, Seth Lipsky -- who now runs The New York Sun -- added a line that comes to mind today: "What's happening in China right now is something the world will remember."

We must remember. It is a matter not only of keeping faith with the heroes of Tiananmen, but with our own creed that liberty is an unalienable right. It is a matter of understanding something vital about the undercurrents in China, something that Beijing's rulers would prefer we forget.

In the 28 years since June 4, 1989, China's ruling Communist Party has done everything in its power to obliterate inside China the memory of the Tiananmen uprising. As far as China's government alludes to it at all, Tiananmen's haunting cry for freedom is recast as a "disturbance," caused by a rabble. The lone man who on June 5 stopped a column of tanks has become an inspiring symbol abroad, but in China he has literally disappeared. It is by now routine to find in the news, on each anniversary of the June 4 slaughter in Beijing, articles such as today's dispatch in the Financial Times, headlined "Support grows in China for 1989 Tiananmen crackdown." The FT reports:

"The bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square nearly three decades ago saved China from a Russia-style meltdown, according to a strongly held view among the generation that will enjoy unprecedented international clout as it takes up the baton of power in Beijing.

...many in China's political and economic elite and among the broader middle class believe the country's recent economic success could never have been achieved if the ruling Communist party had not called in the army 28 years ago to maintain its monopoly on power."

We in the Free World would do well to ask a basic question: Do the people of China have any real choice but to toe that official line?  They live under a ruling party that wields its monopoly on power to stifle, isolate, immiserate and imprison those who pursue democratic dissent. They live under a ruling party that in 1989 demonstrated its willingness to kill China's own people in the streets. This is a government that today keeps its country's Nobel Peace laureate, democratic dissident Liu Xiaobo, in jail, and his wife under house arrest.