June 4, 2013 | Forbes

The Tiananmen Reckoning

It’s 24 years since China’s government crushed the mass uprising we remember by the name of Tiananmen Square. I was there, reporting then for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page. Having witnessed the events of the bloody night leading to the grim dawn of June 4, 1989, in and around Tiananmen, I raced back to my hotel room to phone my editor in New York and file the story. When I had finished detailing what I had seen — the burning barricades, the soldiers firing into the crowds, the armored personnel carriers and tanks rolling into Tiananmen — he asked the big question: What does it mean?

That question haunts us today, not least as President Obama prepares for a summit later this week in California with China’s new president, Xi Jinping. Coming within days of the Tiananmen anniversary, this meeting offers Obama a prime opening to pressure China’s regime over its abysmal human rights record. It also offers Xi a fat opportunity to dismiss Tiananmen and its implications as just a bit of ancient history, and no obstacle to doing business as equals, one-on-one, with the American president.

Already, some jockeying has begun. Just last Friday, the U.S. State Department renewed its annual call for the Chinese government to protect human rights, stop harassing those who took part in the Tiananmen protests, and “fully account for those killed, detained, or missing.” A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry dismissed America’s accusations as “groundless,” and warned the U.S. government to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs so as not to sabotage China-U.S. relations.”

All of which makes this a good moment to review what Tiananmen really meant.

The Tiananmen uprising meant, above all, that China’s people wanted liberty. By 1989, their country had spent 40 years in the grip of Mao Tse-tung’s communist revolution, with its pervasive apparatus of repression. There had been protests before, but these were swiftly rolled up by the authorities.

That spring, a series of official events in Beijing translated into opportunities for protests that spilled beyond the government’s control. First came the funeral of a former communist party chief, Hu Yaobang; then a big meeting of the Asian Development Bank; then a historic visit by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. China’s authorities were apparently caught off guard by the growing protests, and reluctant to crack down while under the world spotlight. While they hesitated, demonstrators occupied Tiananmen Square –the center of Beijing and the symbolic heart of Mao’s communist republic. Inspired by their example, millions of people rallied, not only in Beijing, but in cities across China, from Shanghai to Guangzhou to Chengdu. They wanted freedom, and they wanted it badly enough to risk their livelihoods and their lives. Some still unknown number of them died for it.

It was an extraordinary spring, not only for the courage with which China’s people stood up, but because in the entire 64-year history to date of the People’s Republic of China, it was the only time that the people themselves — unchoreographed by their rulers — have had the chance to speak freely, to the world, and to each other. Uncensored, emboldened by their own numbers, they asked for truth, justice and democracy. In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square they built their own statue of liberty, facing the portrait of Mao.

The Chinese government’s murderous response to this uprising also meant something. It meant that China’s ruling Communist Party would rather stifle, imprison or even kill its own people than defer to their demands for liberty. With guns, tanks and an ensuing wave of arrests, prison sentences and executions, China’s government cleared Tiananmen, shut down the protests nation-wide, and lowered a curtain on one of the most dramatic revolts of modern times, declaring it a transient bit of turmoil. Since 1989, especially around the June 4 anniversary, the Beijing regime has ensured that Tiananmen Square is locked down under tight security, as are any Chinese likely to raise a dissenting voice.

In the debates of the West, the Tiananmen uprising is increasingly viewed as a moment of poignant but tragically impractical desires. There is skepticism that anything good might have come of it, had the Chinese government submitted to the demands of the millions of demonstrators, and opened China to multi-party politics, free elections and free speech.

Could China in 1989 have managed such a transition without descending into chaos? If the Tiananmen protesters had prevailed, would the Chinese economy still have taken off as it did? Was there, in that revolt, even the wisp of a chance that China by now could have been glorying in the achievement of a peaceful, prosperous democracy, potentially a major U.S. ally in Asia?

All we know for sure is what China became instead. On the basis of that information, any true reckoning of the cost of June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square should go well beyond a full account of the dead, detained and missing. In Tiananmen, a huge national movement for a freer and more accountable polity was crushed. The demonstrators were silenced and disbanded. Their leaders were jailed, shot or driven into exile. During the more than two decades in which another generation has come of age, China’s most visionary democrats have had to content themselves with such options as silence, house arrest, or prison; or such activities as testifying, in exile, to congressional panels in Washington.

Since Tiananmen, the Chinese government has honed its skills at permitting China’s people enough economic latitude for rising wealth, while depriving them of such basic rights as free speech, or the freedom to choose, in open competition, who governs their country, and how. The result is a desperately skewed system that serves first and foremost the authoritarian Communist Party, which hands down the rules, collects the tolls, and dispenses its own brand of judgment about how that works out. As former Tiananmen activist and exiled Chinese dissident Yang Jianli testified before a congressional panel on Monday, the first imperative for anyone wishing to do business in China is to find a partner in government; “There is no free market there.”

Instead, there is a setup that’s low on accountability and transparency, and high on such toxic horrors as melamine in the milk, cadmium in the rice, and corruption throughout. China’s Nobel Peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, sits in a Chinese prison, serving an 11 year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” And one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests, Chai Ling, now living in exile in the U.S., spent Monday afternoon testifying to Congress about the massacre of innocents that is China’s continuing one-child policy — enforced with fines and compulsory sterilizations and abortions.

None of this is a recipe for stability. It is an explosive mix, on which China’s authorities have managed to keep a lid by pouring resources into internal “security.” Last month, Agence France Presse reported that China is estimated to have more than 180,000 protests per year, which the authorities prevent from getting out of hand by spending more than $125 billion per year on riot gear and “stability maintenance.”

Increasingly, China’s government has also been resorting to that staple maneuver of dictatorships trying to deflect discontent at home — by making trouble abroad. While engaging in a massive military buildup, and conducting cyber attacks on the U.S., China has also been crowding its Asian neighbors over territorial disputes. These include recent frictions in the East China Sea with Japan over a group of islets that the Japanese call the Senkakus and the Chinese call the Diaoyus. These are small bits of turf, but potentially big flash points because Japan has a mutual defense treaty with the U.S.

And though China does big commercial business with the U.S., its authoritarian regime has a natural affinity for an array of fellow despotisms hostile to the U.S., such as Sudan, North Korea and Iran. In various ways, this translates into a handy alignment of interests on the diplomatic and strategic fronts, plus mutual profit from traffic in oil and arms. Based on unclassified intelligence reports submitted to Congress, a 2011 report from the Congressional Research Service noted that while China has taken some steps to mollify the U.S. about its part in weapons proliferation, China has nonetheless been a “key supplier” of “nuclear and missile-related technology to Pakistan and missile-related technology to Iran.”

Two recent data points might serve to illustrate the far broader problems. Item one: The case of a Chinese businessman, Li Fangwei, sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury in 2006 and indicted by the New York County District Attorney in 2009 for using a global web of front companies to sell materials to Iran that can be used to make missiles and nuclear weapons. This past March, Reuters reported that according to unnamed international sanctions monitors, Li was still in business, making millions selling illicit missile parts to Iran (Li told Reuters he was selling only legitimate goods). Item two: This Monday, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that of the five “legally recognized” nuclear weapons states — China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. — “only China seems to be expanding its nuclear arsenal.”

This is the trajectory of the China that emerged from the jackboot suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. Maybe it would have all worked out worse, had the demonstrators won the day. We’ll never know. But we do know that this is not what China’s people were asking for during that brief spring when they felt free to speak, uncensored. They cried out for liberty, democracy and truth. What’s happened instead has been consistent with the needs of a ruling party that would rather thwart and murder its own people than give up its monopoly on power. In any full account of the meaning of Tiananmen, this is by now part of the reckoning.

Ms. Rosett is journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.

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