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 4 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.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, in its review of China for 2016, reports:
"Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, who will remain in power until 2022 and possibly beyond, the outlook for fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion remains dire."
Washington-based Freedom House, in its 2017 review of China reports:
"The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has tightened its control over the media, religious groups, and civil society associations in recent years … The state president and CCP leader, Xi Jinping, is consolidating personal power to a degree not seen in China for decades.
Freedom House also notes that China's ruling party tries to justify its despotic ways by casting Western democracies as the enemy:
"Faced with a slowing economy, the leadership continues to cultivate nationalism, including hostile anti-Western rhetoric, as a pillar of legitimacy."
Naturally, China's government would like to credit its chokehold on China's more than 1.3 billion people as a vital element in China's economic rise.
A prime retort is Taiwan — Free China — with a message summed up in a Reuters headline this weekend: "Learn from us on democracy, Taiwan tells China on Tiananmen anniversary." (Note: That was the headline as of this Saturday night; at the same link, it appears to have since been revised.) The story quotes Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen saying: "Borrowing on Taiwan's experience, I believe that China can shorten the pain of democratic reform."
The Republic of China, on Taiwan, combined a thriving market economy with democratic reforms that delivered political freedom. While Beijing in 1989, under martial law, was killing and jailing its democratic dissidents, Taiwan, having lifted martial law in 1987, was on its way to holding free elections; on its way to becoming the vibrant democracy it is today.
I'd suggest that if China's rulers had the real interests and yearnings of China's people at heart, they would highlight not the alarming example of Russia, but the inspiring example of Taiwan. They do no such thing. China's rulers have moved away from the communism of Mao, but under the deceptive label of stability they have chosen a path that puts them at odds not only with the Free World, but with their own people.
How might we know that? The answer, in a word, is Tiananmen. In the 68-year years since Mao founded the People's Republic of China, Tiananmen was the only window on an uncensored China. During the protests of 1989, China's people had a fleeting few weeks in which they were able to speak freely to the world, and — most important — to each other.
They called for freedom and democracy, they asked for justice. They did this by the millions, not only in Beijing, but in protests spreading across China — in Shanghai, in Guangzhou, in Chengdu. In Tiananmen Square, facing off against the portrait of Mao, the protesters built their own statue of liberty, the Goddess of Democracy. I watched them build that statue, and while they did so, I talked with members of the cheering crowd, among them a young Chinese doctor from a rural province. Like most of the demonstrators I talked with during those sleepless weeks in Beijing, he was under no illusions about the dangers to that statue, or to himself. Nonetheless, he said what so many previously taciturn Chinese had suddenly begun volunteering to the foreign press: "Liberty. That is the most important thing."
By daybreak on June 4, 1989, that Tiananmen statue of liberty was gone, destroyed by China's army as its troops retook the square. China's government would have us believe that there is no more appetite in China for freedom (or, more precisely, that there never was). Though the degree of repression, including the tight security around Tiananmen, especially on June 4, suggests that Xi and his circle have no desire to test the veracity of their own state propaganda.
Lack of freedom is not the salvation of modern China. It is the colossal and potentially fatal flaw, destructive to China's people and dangerous to the world. Right now, in a campaign that increasingly courts bloody conflict, China's government is funneling discontent at home into pride over aggressive moves abroad.
There is no way to be absolutely certain what China's people might say or do today, were they free of the shackles that the Beijing regime assures them — and us — are for their own good. But in weighing what lies ahead, as well as honoring the brave souls of 1989, we must remember Tiananmen. Here are the closing lines of the story I filed from Beijing on June 4, 1989, having witnessed what happened in Tiananmen Square as the Chinese army closed in. I believe these lines apply quite as thoroughly today:
"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."