In 1989, two defining moments in modern history occurred. Both involved democratic protests for greater freedom, but they turned out very differently.
The first was the peaceful fall of the Berlin Wall, which started a chain reaction that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The second was the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests.
The Tiananmen Square protests continue to capture the imagination of freedom-loving people everywhere because of what the protests stood for and how the Chinese government responded to them, then and now.
Fundamentally, the protests stood for freedom and democracy.
For nearly two months, protesters pushed for democratic reforms to the Chinese political system. They sought to curb corruption in the Communist Party, expand freedom of speech and press, and have their basic human rights respected. And they took inspiration from the most potent symbols of American democracy.
For instance, students from the Central Art Institute constructed a 33-foot statue of the Goddess of Democracy. The Goddess, which resembled the Statue of Liberty, symbolized “a consciousness of democracy” that had been “awakened among the Chinese people,” according to the students. “The people’s Goddess stands tall,” they proclaimed. “The new era has begun!”
Likewise, students read translations of the Declaration of Independence to the crowd. This was the first time that many Chinese had heard Jefferson’s famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thirty years later, there is less freedom in China. The Communist Party maintains its inhumane grip on power. It has placed millions of people, from religious minorities to political dissidents, in concentration camps. It is developing a “social credit system” to regulate the conduct of its citizens through electronic tracking. And it maintains the so-called “Great Firewall,” a sophisticated system of censorship designed to clamp down on political discussion that might call the legitimacy of the regime into question.
Unsurprisingly, discussion of the Tiananmen Square protests are a prime target of Chinese censors. In The People’s Republic of Amnesia, author Louisa Lam explains why: “a single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state’s carefully constructed edifice of accepted history.”
The United States must be resolute and unified in our stance against Chinese human rights abuses. There should be no question on where we stand as a nation against these heinous actions; we must condemn them whenever they arise.
But it should not just be America. The world should watch what is happening in China today. It is long past time for a public discussion of what transpired 30 years ago and where the world is going in the future.