Remembering Tiananmen

Posted June 03, 2009, at 8:48 p.m.

From the outside, American democracy looks like a messy, chaotic, feud-driven, inefficient, dysfunctional affair, with elected officials holding only the most tenuous grip on their positions of authority. Of course, it’s all true — except the last part. And nations that repress their citizens out of fear of losing control fail to understand that dissent, as long as it is not violent, actually strengthens the body politic.

China, 20 years after the tragedy of Tiananmen Square — the anniversary is today — is a vastly different country. AP reporter John Pomfret, at the 2006 Camden Conference, said China is no longer driven by Marxist thought, but rather is “part Mafia, part corporate board.” The rough and tumble dynamics of market-based capitalism, though the Chinese may loathe to describe it that way, will likely ease the government’s clampdown on citizens.

Of course, clamping down is putting it mildly. China’s record on human rights has been deplorable. The country’s constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but authorities hold the power to deny applications for public gatherings or demonstrations. Only approved organizations are permitted to exist, let alone meet or demonstrate. Religion, an independent press and other freedoms Americans take for granted are still severely constrained in China. The U.S. has ignored many of these abuses, and may continue to now that much of this nation’s debt is financed by China.

In 1989, the Soviet bloc was cracking and on its way to crumbling. The tide that wore away the foundation of totalitarianism was the earnest and idealistic demands of young adults. That same spirit was alive in Tiananmen Square in Beijing for a few days, before it was brutally extinguished.

The U.S. has had its own clash between youthful protest and authority. In 1970, National Guard troops fired 67 times into a crowd of unarmed protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four and wounding nine. But what came after is what separates open societies like the U.S. and repressive countries like China. In the U.S., the other protesters were not locked up, forced to sign confessions and imprisoned for years. Instead, five days later, 100,000 marched in Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War and the Kent State killings, and student strikes shut down hundreds of schools. President Nixon, not known for embracing dissent, resisted using a heavy hand.

On Wednesday, President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia to deliver a speech designed to engage the Muslim world. Just before the speech, Osama bin Laden issued a statement, lumping the president with former President Bush in sowing seeds of “revenge and hatred” in the Middle East. It is interesting that bin Laden, who clearly sees himself as the moral leader of the Muslim world, is threatened by the president’s overtures, even though those overtures are to a populace that is mostly hostile to the U.S.

This give and take, persuading people to embrace one vision over another, is what should happen in the public square, not the firing of guns at peaceful protesters.

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