Thoughts on Tiananmen Square

The progress of history is rarely neat and never unambiguous. And major advances invariably involve the shedding of blood. Wipe away the sanitizing effect of time and the lead up to American Revolution becomes a violent series of government crackdowns on protestors. Nor were the sides always clear: a great many Americans, especially at first, opposed the idea of breaking away from the mother country. But in the end the radicals won out and formed a new nation. Yet only five years later, that new government launched a bloody crackdown on farmers protesting taxing of the whiskey they had been producing for generations. Since then the US government has, like every other government, periodically clamped down on protests of all sorts from the Bonus Army march on Washington in 1932 that was broken up by the US Army under General Douglas MacArthur to the anti-Vietnam War protests at Kent State University where four students were shot and killed by National Guard troops. More recently, even the singularly lame and non-threatening Occupy Wall Street protests were violently suppressed by state and local police across the country. If this is the norm in the United States, how can we pass judgment on the actions of other, arguably less citizen-oriented, governments?

Which brings us to Tiananmen Square. At the remove of twenty-five years it is easy to forget the scale of those protests and the very real threat they posed to the Chinese government. Not only were there as many as one million protestors in Tiananmen Square itself, but there were large demonstrations in more than 400 other cities across the country. It was, in fact, the largest mass uprising since the 1968 near-revolution in France. To put the protests in Tiananmen Square alone into an American perspective, they were roughly the size, per capita, as the largest of the anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, DC. Setting aside the matter of whether or not the protestors were right, the fact is that they had put the authorities in a no-win situation. The military crackdown that ended the occupation of the square was brutal by US standards perhaps, but really not much out of the ordinary in other countries. For example, the protests in Cairo that brought down the Mubarak government in 2011 were comparable in relative size and at least as bad in relative number of dead.

Looking back at the events of June 4, 1989, it is hard not see that as a seminal moment in Chinese history. The legacy of Tiananmen Square is striking: in 1989, the per capita GDP of China was $403 and growing at 2.5%; in 2012, it was $6091 growing at 7.2%. And while still repressive by Western standards, China today is arguably the most free it has been in its entire 2000+ year history. I suspect that the Chinese government was, in its own way, as shocked by the events of that day as were the protestors and observers around the world. Clearly, the Chinese authorities did some serious soul-searching in the aftermath of the protests and the violence that ended them. So my inclination on this day is to remember those who lost their lives and to note that history will show that, in the end, they won.


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