Tiananmen Square Victims Monument in Wroclaw, Poland. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Masur.
Chinese culture has accumulated considerable wisdom across several millennia, but it is the American writer Maya Angelou who advised: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
Exactly 30 years ago today, in the middle of Beijing, China’s leaders showed the world exactly who they are. Hardly anyone believed them. Despite the soundness of Angelou’s advice, most of the time most people believe only what they choose to believe.
Rumblings of change were growing louder in many parts of the world in the first half of 1989. Cracks emerged in the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. As early as November 1988, the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic had declared itself sovereign, beginning the multiyear breakup of the USSR. Hungary adopted a “democracy package” of legislation in January 1989. By May, it had begun dismantling barriers along its border with noncommunist Austria, providing an escape route for citizens of many Warsaw Pact countries, notably East Germany.
On June 4, the Polish anti-communist trade union Solidarity won sweeping victories in the first relatively free elections to take place in the Soviet bloc since the immediate aftermath of World War II. But hardly anyone outside Poland recalls what happened there on June 4, 1989 because of the events that happened a continent away, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Thousands of demonstrators had filled the square daily since April. After a decade of economic liberalization following the Maoist years, China’s wealth and living standards had begun to rise. Educated urban citizens – still a small minority in a poor and rural country – expected their space for personal and political expression to increase commensurately.
They were sorely disappointed. A split in the nation’s leadership resolved with Communist Party chief Deng Xiaoping ordering the People’s Liberation Army to move against the demonstrators. China’s government still says nobody died in Tiananmen Square that day. Outsider estimates put the possible toll above 10,000 when including violence in nearby neighborhoods. We may never know the details. For 30 years, China has suppressed the truth about what happened in Tiananmen Square that day.
Truths are forcibly suppressed with regularity in China. Many of those truths, such as the recent confinement of at least 1 million Uighur Muslims, are widely known abroad. But those truths have also been widely ignored in global commerce and politics. In China, greater political freedom has not accompanied greater economic freedom, as it did throughout Eastern Europe – and, for a time, in the Soviet Union itself – in 1989 and the decade that followed. China’s leaders never saw rising prosperity as an opportunity to devolve power to their people, or even to meaningfully share it. Instead, the accumulation of economic power was simply an opportunity to apply more pressure at home and abroad, in order to secure yet more power.
Most of us have refused to believe what the Chinese government told and showed us about itself in Tiananmen Square in 1989, not to mention everywhere else at all times since. China continues to work to crush student activism, and indeed activism of all kinds. Growing economic clout has meant more opportunities to force Western businesses to hand over intellectual property in exchange for access to China’s markets. Information that businesses did not hand over willingly has often been the target of aggressive copying and outright theft. Chinese military and civilian hackers operate freely across the globe from behind their nation’s Great Firewall, which blocks foreign information sources as much as it protects domestic e-commerce from foreign competitors. Whatever we may think of the current U.S. administration’s methods, it is doing far more to respond to these realities than did any of its predecessors. But that response is very late.
China’s leaders told us plainly by their actions 30 years ago that they had no intention of making their nation a good global citizen as we understand the term. Instead, they showed that they would behave tactically as well as strategically, making deals when possible but using force when necessary, all in the interest of reinforcing their own personal power through the growing power of their state. The Chinese are wise enough to know that while the lives of people span a handful of decades, a nation determines its fortunes over centuries. They behave accordingly by playing a Machiavellian long game of geostrategic politics.
The events of Tiananmen Square still reverberate around the world, though rarely acknowledged as such. Without Tiananmen Square showing how to roll back and repress democratic progress, would Russia have Vladimir Putin today? Without China and Putin, would Venezuela and Cuba be the miserable places they are now, led by those who made them so miserable in the first place? Without Tiananmen Square, would Huawei be Huawei – and would we need to worry about it if it were?
We may never know the answer to those questions, just as we may never know exactly what happened that June day in 1989. What we do know is this: We chose not to believe what China’s government showed us about itself 30 years ago – not then and not for a very long time thereafter. We are not nearly finished paying the price of that mistake.