History seems to be repeating in Russia, China

Vincent Yu | AP
Vincent Yu | AP
Policemen in riot gear stand on a street as they confront protesters in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is calling for a peaceful solution to the unrest in Hong Kong amid fears China could use force to quell pro-democracy protests.
How many times can we say it? Those who can't remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it.
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It’s beginning to feel like 1980s news tape showing America’s despotic enemies running amok.

In Russia, a mysterious fatal explosion a few days ago in one of the country’s 10 secret cities where nuclear research takes place has caused an uptick in radiation and raised alarm around the world.

It also raises memories of the 1986 meltdown at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant Chernobyl, which Russia tried desperately to hush up, lying repeatedly about how serious it was. An estimated 4,000 people died; new cancers are still appearing. It could be 20,000 years before the site is safe.

In Hong Kong, a huge Chinese military presence is threatening to put down the pro-democracy movement, bringing to mind the 1989 slaughter at Tiananmen Square in Beijing when military tanks fired on and rolled over students, killing and injuring thousands.

As a reporter I covered aspects of both stories and eventually went to both sites. The silence at Chernobyl was chilling; abandoned toys strewn around in evidence that normal life was over. Radiation from the meltdown spread around the globe.

In Beijing the absolute lack of any indication of what had happened in Tiananmen was equally horrifying. People were terrified to talk about what they had seen.

The current incident in Russia apparently involved a disaster over Vladimir Putin’s promise to his people that he would build a cruise missile with a conventional warhead powered by an onboard nuclear reactor with a range that easily could take it to the United States. It’s called Skyfall. Whatever the project, five Russian nuclear scientists reportedly died, possibly thrown into the White Sea. Two other state employees were also killed.

Doctors who treated the victims of the explosion were themselves taken to Moscow to be treated for radiation exposure. The people who live near the explosion have been given one conflicting story after another. All they know for certain is that radiation levels spiked at least 16 times higher than normal right after the explosion.

In Hong Kong, long a British protectorate now controlled by China, demands by protesters for democratic reforms, including dismantling a new law that permits Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to and prosecuted by mainland China, are being met with full-blown police violence.

“I hope it works out for everybody, China included,” said the U.S. president, Donald Trump, noncomittally, after tweeting that China is massing troops at the border. He did not echo the State Department’s statement endorsing the freedom of protesters to assemble.

Actually, we have no idea what Trump’s policy is on China. He has started a trade war that is slowly choking U.S. farmers and costing the average American family about $700 more a year for everyday goods. He says he and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a great relationship, but there is no agreement on how to resolve the trade dispute.

We also don’t know what Trump’s real policy is toward Russia. He has not sympathized with pro-democracy protesters challenging Putin in Moscow. He has dismantled decades of arms control agreements with Russia. He has held private meetings with Putin without permitting U.S. officials in the room. He laughed when he sarcastically answered a reporter’s query by saying, oh yeah, Vladimir, don’t interfere in U.S. elections again.

Currently, Trump seems to have no words of wisdom for Russia as it continues to obfuscate and tries to contain the damage, literally and figuratively, from its latest nuclear explosion.

How many times can we say it? Those who can’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service.


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