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Why It's Smart to Remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre even If the Chinese Don't Want to

A quarter of a century has now passed since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989. In each successive year, the world has commemorated the heinous event with lighted-candle ceremonies, protests, political rallies, scholarly studies, and media reports on 4 June. After a flurry of annual remembrances, the massive military assault ordered by the government of China on unarmed protesters is all but forgotten until the following year. Why? Not only has Beijing sanitized its violent and repressive record against its own citizens but foreign policy elites in the United States have minimized and trivialized the legacy of Tiananmen to pursue an international strategy detrimental to human rights and global security. In becoming a willing collaborator to China’s dictatorship over the past four decades for the ostensible purpose of achieving “stability,” the United States has created a powerful arch-rival to democracy and ultimately corrupted and destabilized the world order. Hence, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre marks two tragedies: the loss of innocent lives in a movement for democracy in Beijing - and a disgraceful embrace of Machiavellian statecraft by Washington.

Before Tiananmen: A Revolution in the Making

Rather than a reflexive response to spontaneous protests, the dynamics behind the violent crackdown on the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 were rooted in the global dynamics of the late twentieth century. Twelve years after the Sino-Soviet split of 1960, President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to Beijing from 21-28 February 1972. Although a staunch anti-communist, Nixon was also a pragmatic realist. In cultivating relations with China, he sought to drive a larger wedge between the rival communist nations to balance the power of the Soviet Union. Four years later, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), who founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949, died. As more than seventy million Chinese had lost their lives from the machinations of his state, his death was welcomed by millions inside and outside of China as a potential opportunity for reform. In 1978, organized dissent surfaced publicly with the hanging of anti-Mao posters on Xidan Street in the capital and elsewhere in the country. As the collectively-known Democracy Wall Movement gained momentum, the United States continued its Cold War divide and conquer strategy toward the Soviet Union and dispatched National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to Beijing. After agreeing to a clandestine transfer of American technology to the repressive post-Mao regime, Brzezinski and his counterparts discussed the prospect of establishing state-to-state relations. At the end of the year, Beijing was not only granted normalized diplomatic status but also recognized as the official government of China. In de-recognizing Taipei (Taiwan), ignoring the aspirations of the Democracy Wall Movement, and legitimizing a despotic regime with an unparalleled record of human rights abuses, President Jimmy Carter naïvely overestimated the capacity of American diplomacy to exert influence over Beijing.

A Breath of Democracy: The World and China, 1980-1989

By the mid-1980s, the old post-World War II order began to crumble under the pressure of rising discontent in the communist world. Polish workers, who bravely challenged their Soviet satellite government in Warsaw by organizing the union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980, inspired mobilized dissent throughout the Eastern Bloc. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched a joint-program of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) in an attempt to modernize the USSR in 1986, his ambitious reform agenda energized a younger generation born after the Second World War and influenced a wave of student protests in China at the end of the year. Similar to the Democracy Wall Movement nearly a decade earlier, the regime was denounced by a range of critical slogans. From Beijing to Shanghai, students marched together, chanted for reform, and carried signs reading “Long live democracy, down with autocracy” and “We’ll fight for democracy, We’ll fight for freedom, We’ll fight for freedom of the press.” In response, China’s hardliners in the government undercut the aspirations of the activists by forcing the student-sympathetic, General Secretary of the Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, into virtual retirement.

A period of relative political quiescence followed over the next two years in China. The calm, however, was deceptive. When Hu Yaobang died on 15 April 1989, students gathered in Tiananmen Square to pay tribute to their reformist ally. A few hours became a few days, and the Square was soon flooded with students and people of all ages. By the time of Hu’s funeral a week later, the memorial had turned into a mass demonstration against the government. When a number of students decided to go on a hunger strike on 13 May - two days prior to the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev for a state visit, their act of determination created a groundswell of support. On 30 May, art students in Tiananmen Square constructed “Goddess of Democracy” - a ten meter statue resembling the American Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As May turned into June, the flame of democratic revolution had spread to Guangzhou, Harbin, Lanzhou, Shanghai, Wuhan and other cities across China.

The American Response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre

The world watched and waited anxiously. Would Beijing engage in a dialogue and diffuse the standoff? On the night of 3-4 June, an answer came from the government. Columns of soldiers and tanks mercilessly attacked the unarmed protesters in the Square, and the subsequent reign of terror resulted in thousands of casualties (killed or injured) and arrests. Instead of denouncing the regime, immediately cutting off diplomatic relations, and seeking to isolate China through the United Nations and the World Court, Washington issued a faint public condemnation and imposed a series of superficial economic and diplomatic sanctions. Behind the scenes, an extraordinary effort was made by the George H.W. Bush administration to avoid a rupture with the Chinese leadership. One month after the crackdown, the White House secretly dispatched veteran policymaker Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to Beijing. On a second visit in December, the two American envoys raised their glasses and offered a candlelight toast to their counterparts “as friends to resume our important dialogue.” Rather than champion the rights of the oppressed and the victims of oppression, the United States government instead celebrated its relationship with tyrants guilty of murder. Although largely forgotten by the American public and the world, the Scowcroft-Eagleburger missions to Beijing in the weeks and months after the Tiananmen Square Massacre ought to be remembered as days of infamy in the history of American foreign policy and the nation. In reviving nineteenth century realpolitik - statecraft based on power rather than principle - Washington exchanged the American ideals of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the cynical, zero-sum diplomacy of its ideological opponent in the Chinese capital.

The Domestic & Global Consequences of the American Response to Tiananmen

Since the massacre in Tiananmen Square, trade between China, the United States, and the world has increased exponentially, and nearly 700 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. When China supplants the United States as the world’s leading economy by the end of 2014, it will, however, symbolize the success of the ruling elite more than the burgeoning middle class. From the revenue collected off windfall profits, the regime has made sustained investments in the infrastructure of dictatorship. Currently, two million Chinese citizens are employed by the government to censor the internet and monitor expressions of dissent on blogs and microblogs including Sina Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Beyond its control over the media, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has increasingly restricted access to the international press and denied the entry of investigative reporters. Pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 and received the award in absentia from jail, remains a political prisoner along with thousands of other dissidents.

In terms of international relations, Beijing has aggressively courted pariah states for the purpose of gaining access to oil, minerals, and precious metals essential for its economy. Aside from concluding oil-for-infrastructure agreements with strongman Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and propping up the ruthless dictatorship of Kim Jong-un in North Korea, China maintains an alliance with President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. Rather than break relations with a head of state complicit in the genocidal murder of up to 400,000 civilians in Darfur (2003-2006), Beijing instead used its vote in the UN Security Council to shield both Bashir and its oil interests in southern Sudan (now South Sudan). In the past decade, China has dramatically increased defense spending (including a 12.2% increase in 2014), conducted joint-military exercises with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and joined Moscow in supplying Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with diplomatic cover and armaments. In a word, Beijing has successfully co-opted the international community to bolster its dictatorship at home while violating international law abroad with relative impunity.


A replica of a memorial in Wrocław, Poland.  The original was destroyed by Polish security forces.

On 27 October 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appeared at the Southern Commercial Congress in Mobile, Alabama. In an address designed to redirect American foreign policy, Wilson declared “Human rights, national integrity, and opportunity as against material interests—that, ladies and gentlemen, is the issue which we now have to face.” Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre, economic expediency has trumped human rights in America’s relationship with China. In failing to compel Beijing to account for its murderous actions on the night of 3-4 June 1989 and rewarding the regime with substantive American investments for the past twenty-five years, the United States has significantly damaged its credibility as a worthy arbiter in international affairs. Unless Washington changes course and makes principle rather than power the cornerstone of its foreign policy, the twenty-first century will be shaped by China and defined by dictatorship. Pursuing democracy and human rights for China - ladies and gentlemen - is the issue America and world now has to face.