Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Remembering Tiananmen Square, June 1989

Twenty-five years ago, beginning on the night of June 3, 1989, units of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) entered Beijing's Tiananmen Square to bring to an end six weeks of protests that had witnessed over a million students and workers demanding reforms that raised the possibility of an end to one-party rule and the advent of democracy in China. At the time observers speculated as to whether the PLA would side with the protesters or the government, but the lack of response from the countryside served to make clear that for many Chinese the prospect of widespread civil disorder only twenty years after the Cultural Revolution was not welcome.    

Post-Tiananmen China has become a global superpower with armed forces that are increasingly able to assert Chinese influence across South-East Asia. A hundred years ago, Theodore Roosevelt predicted a "Pacific Century" in which the United States would be the global superpower; today it seems that the twenty-first century will also be a Pacific Century.  Yet just as Vladimir Putin looks back to Peter the Great and the Romanovs for his inspiration, so the Chinese Communist Party seeks to emulate the expansionism of the Ming and the Qing dynasties, without succumbing to the Western "vice" of democracy. Will it succeed? It was hard in June 1989 to anticipate that only six months later the Berlin Wall would have fallen and the Soviet Union be in an advanced state of disintegration yet so it proved. While nationalism has proved an appealing theme for the Party to promote in recent years, the Manchus remain a potent example of how revolutions devour their own children. Twelve years after the Boxer Rebellion, the last emperor abdicated.

No one can know the consequences of democratization in China, either in 1989 or 2014, and yet, as Churchill remarked, though it may be a bad system it is better than the alternatives. We can nevertheless salute the idealists of Tiananmen Square, those who died and those who still live, for their refusal to accept the status quo. One day, God willing, they will have their memorial in the country for whose future they strove.                     

The Goddess of Democracy

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