China: Tiananmen Square, 20 years later

After the protests in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, the Chinese government loosened its hold on economy, but more economic growth did not lead to more liberty.

“It was an intoxicating moment that didn’t last long,” said Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune. Twenty years ago, Chinese citizens took to the streets in hundreds of cities, demanding that their Communist rulers grant them a measure of freedom and end rampant corruption. With a true people’s revolution brewing, some 200,000 troops and dozens of tanks were called in to crush the student demonstration in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that symbolized the nation’s mounting discontent. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed, and just like that, “the Beijing spring was over.” On the crackdown’s 20th anniversary last week, Beijing was eerily quiet, said Ariana Eunjung Cha in The Washington Post. That’s because the capital was “on virtual lockdown, key foreign news websites were blocked, dissidents were placed under house arrest, and police blanketed the vast square.” Censors had even banned the phrase “June 4” from the Internet.

So “what happened to that bold yearning for democracy?” asked Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times. It’s been transformed into a giant, national obsession with making money. After Tiananmen, the government loosened its grip on the economy, and over two decades of dizzying growth, the standard of living in this nation of 1.3 billion soared. “People in Beijing may not have the vote,” but they do have TVs and refrigerators and even, in some cases, cars. Chinese children get an education “incomparably better than in earlier generations.” But make no mistake, said former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan in the Los Angeles Times, economic growth “has not led to liberty, a free press, or democracy.” Anyone who challenges the Communist Party is subject to exile (in my case), censorship, imprisonment, or worse. But in private, the people still speak hungrily of liberty, and as long as we do, China will be haunted by “the ghosts of Tiananmen.”

Sadly, true liberty may never come, said Charles Foran in the Toronto Globe and Mail. “After a little post-Tiananmen wrist-slapping,” the U.S. and the rest of the West decided it wouldn’t be “prudent” to make too big an issue out of China’s horrid human-rights record. China has become a major—indeed, critical—player in the global economy, and we desperately need its investments, loans, and cheap consumer products. So the West has pragmatically dropped its insistence that China live up to “universal standards” of human rights. “China, we have concluded, is different.” What’s a few jailed dissidents and censored websites between friends?

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