Tiananmen at 27, and the China Dream

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.