Paul Jacob

Late on this very night 18 years ago, after six weeks of peaceful protests calling for more democracy and greater freedom, the Chinese government rolled tanks into Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The Communist government said 200 to 300 soldiers and "ruffians" were killed. The Chinese Red Cross put the death count at between 2,000 and 3,000.

People, that is.

"All this talk about children being the flowers of the motherland, the hope of the nation, is all for show," said Ding Zilin, a woman whose son was killed. "When they feel that it is in the interest of the Party and the state, they bring on swords, machine guns and tanks."

After the massacre in the square, more citizens were arrested, imprisoned and in some cases, we are told, executed. Many fled the country.

I will never forget what happened in Tiananmen Square. How could one fail to remember the joy that was broadcast around the world for weeks? People shed their fear and spoke openly and freely about, well, freedom . . . and its importance in living a life of dignity. A self-directed and deliberate life these students had begun to experience first hand . . . in living color broadcast into our living rooms.

And who could forget that 30-foot tall papier-mâché statute, The Goddess of Democracy and Freedom, built in the square? Or that the words of our own Declaration of Independence were being echoed in Chinese?

Certainly the brutal massacre — the suppression — beginning the night of June 3 and into June 4, 1989, will long be remembered.

And there was "The Unknown Rebel" who the following day stood in front of a line of tanks, blocking their progress. After being hustled away, he was reported as "in hiding" by one source, while two others declared he was caught just days later and executed. Whatever the truth, his simple, lone act of defiance will live forever, inspiring future generations of freedom fighters.

Who can say for certain what impact the protests in Tiananmen Square had around the world?

The same day the world heard the terrible news from Beijing, Poland's Solidarity was trouncing the Communists in elections. Later in 1989, Hungary would become a multi-party state, the Berlin Wall would crumble, Czechs would pour into the streets of Prague to force out the Communists there, and Romania's Stalinist leader would be overthrown and summarily executed.

When reforms like term limits blossomed across America the next year, many wondered what had caused the movement. Beltway insiders posited that perhaps citizens had become angry due to a slow-growing US economy.

But I see a connection: America's 1990s reforms were started in the streets of Beijing — or perhaps, more aptly, on our TV screens — as we watched the protests in Beijing. At Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, we saw what freedom meant, or what not having freedom meant. We had been deeply inspired.

Furthermore, with the end of the Cold War, Americans had been given a chance, finally, to survey the domestic front, to see what our federal, state and local governments were up to after decades overshadowed by fears from abroad. Thrilled to witness freedom and democracy breaking out across the globe, we were anything but thrilled with what we saw back home.

We still aren't thrilled, by the way.

The arrogance of those in power at once became clearer, and the stranglehold that special interests had on government at all levels struck many, here, as somehow a mirror or echo of tyrannies abroad. After witnessing Tiananmen, Americans were primed to give term limits and other reforms the attention they deserved.

But the battle between citizens seeking to protect their freedom and powerful interests bent on keeping their power and privilege never ends. It is not a battle to be won or lost, but a battle always to be fought — or lost.

The battle continues in China, too, of course. In the last 18 years China has grown much richer economically, but not much freer politically. Oh, there have been a few steps. For instance, couples no longer have to get permission from their employers in order to marry. But somehow that only serves to dramatize just how unfree the Chinese really are.

And then there is China's notorious one-child policy, whereby the most basic decision about life is taken away from the individual and the family and given to the state.

It's a little frightening to consider that such a tyrannical regime is buying up our government's debt, loaning the U.S. money to continue to spend, spend, spend. But this is easily rectified, and without requiring anything of the Chinese government. We must get our own financial house in order. Only fools blame their creditors for their own debts.

Some suggest the economic growth in China, with the limited capitalism that is driving the expansion, will placate the Chinese people and allow the regime to remain in power. But I don't believe that for a second . . . and neither do the Chinese communists.

They still fear the passion for freedom expressed in Tiananmen Square. They still seek to imprison that spirit. They fear, especially, the Internet. Indeed, the Chinese government has special police Internet bureaus in 500 cities that track and regulate net usage by citizens.

Why bother? (And yes, running a totalitarian state is a huge heap of bother.) Because they know the Chinese people want freedom. Not just wealth. Freedom.

That's something to keep in mind, here in America. Some of our most precious freedoms don't fit on a spreadsheet or ledger line. And these freedoms are always precarious.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.