This week marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when thousands of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing were slaughtered by government soldiers using tanks and heavy machine guns. In a year in which democratic revolutions brought down Communist regimes across Eastern Europe, the Chinese Communist Party used brutal force against their own people to maintain their iron grip on power.
For days before the massacre, the protesters had appealed to the soldiers to disobey their orders to clear Tiananmen Square and instead join with the protesters in creating a new, free China. One wonders how different the history of the last two decades might have been had the army had the courage to do so. Could China have been started on the road to democracy? We will never known, because rather than join with the protesters, the army obeyed the orders of its masters and butchered the people.
The demonstrators were ordinary people, students and workers, old and young, male and female. In a way, they were quite similar to the ordinary citizens in the American colonies who held protest meetings after the British passed the Stamp Act in 1765, except that the repression under which the Chinese people lived was orders of magnitude greater than anything experienced by the contemporaries of Thomas Jefferson. It still is.
Jefferson and his contemporaries (with the notable exception of Alexander Hamilton) believed that the American Revolution was about much more than simply securing the independence of the United States. They thought that it would be a beacon to all oppressed peoples throughout the world, inspiring them to rise up and overthrow tyranny in their own lands. The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 seemed to verify this belief. And it is true that, throughout most of its history, the United States has been seen as a model of freedom to be emulated (although it must be said that this image has been damaged by the actions of President George W. Bush).
The Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square wanted to reform their country, to achieve freedom of speech and freedom of the press, to have some say in how their own country was run. They wanted, in other words, to have the freedoms enjoyed by the people of the United States. The leaders of the Communist Party wanted to maintain their control over the lives of the Chinese people. It was a clash between what Martin Luther King called "physical force and soul force." In this case, tragically, physical force won.
In the years since the massacre, China has liberalized its economy, with truly massive consequences both for its own people and for the larger global stage. China in 2009 is a completely different country than it was in 1989, with economic growth bringing uncounted millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class. But politically, the Chinese Communist Party maintains its iron grip and shows no sign of releasing it. The ordinary people in China may be materially better off than they were two decades ago, but they still have absolutely no say in how their country is run or what its policies may be. Prosperity without liberty holds little value. Besides which, rapid economic growth is bringing its own problems, as China struggles to deal with the social unrest common to industrializing societies.
As the Chinese people labor to produce the cheap consumer goods that fill the shelves of American Wal-Marts and Targets, and use their new-found prosperity to become consumers themselves, one wonders what they are thinking. The pressures that lead to the protests of 1989 are not as intense now as they were then, since economic liberalism provides a steam valve, precisely as the Chinese Communist Party intended. But the human impulse for freedom is not so easily extinguished, and only time will tell how long the Chinese people will remain oppressed, prosperity or no prosperity.
Watch this extraordinary 2006 documentary by South African filmmaker Antony Thomas, entitled The Tank Man. As well as providing an absorbing retelling of the story of the Tiananmen Square Massacre and its long-term implications for China, it explores the mystery surrounding the now-legendary unknown person who stood in the path of a column of Chinese tanks the morning after the massacre, whose photograph came to symbolize the entire incident and, indeed, the longing of the Chinese people for freedom.
I think American citizens should pay particular attention to the last portion of this remarkable movie, which examines the role played by American corporations, including Google, Yahoo, Cisco Systems and Microsoft, in assisting the Chinese government in the oppression of the Chinese people. Many Chinese pro-democracy activists have been arrested, and some doubtless killed, because of information provided by these American companies to the Chinese authorities.
As citizens, what attitude should 21st Century Jeffersonians adopt towards China? The economy of the United States is so closely bound up with that of China's that we are locked in a mutual embrace, so we could not cut our ties to the country without causing massive economic dislocation. Considering China's rapidly expanding military power and its nuclear capability, it would be unwise in the extreme to wish to provoke them. But can we morally adopt a friendly attitude to the Chinese government, considering the oppression they inflict upon their population?
Jefferson believed in honest commerce with all nations and the avoidance of unnecessary entanglements with any of them. He believed that America should stand as an example of what a people might achieve if they embraced representative democracy and the ideals of the Enlightenment. He would have opposed any blatant American interference in the internal affairs of China, but he would also have given unstinting support to the Chinese people if and when they made the decision to rise up on their own. Such support would necessarily have been limited by the need to ensure the security of the United States, but within those bounds he would have called on us to do all we can to help the pro-democracy elements within China.
One day, I hope, Tiananmen Square will again be filled with pro-democracy demonstrators, and this time they will succeed in toppling the Communist regime and replacing it with a democratic government. When that happens, if it ever does, I would hope that the spirit of Thomas Jefferson will be part of what inspires these brave people.