China’s Long March to Freedom

NEW YORK – Twenty-five years ago, on June 4, 1989, China’s movement for democracy and human rights was crushed by security forces in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. At a time when democratic change was sweeping the world, some saw the bloody crackdown as only a temporary setback in the battle for human freedom; others viewed it as the end of the democratic road. A quarter-century on, neither scenario has been entirely realized; hope for change remains alive.

The year 1989 was a heady time for Europe. Democratic revolutions from Warsaw to Sofia were toppling Eastern Europe’s Communist dictatorships, symbolized in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which once divided Germany’s former and future capital. Not long before, several Asian and Latin American military dictatorships had given way to elected governments. Chile’s General Augusto Pinochet left power after losing a plebiscite intended to extend his rule. And change was on the horizon in apartheid South Africa and Namibia, following the release in 1990 of Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison. In this global environment, the crackdown in China seemed to buck the global trend.

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Of course, later realities did not always live up to the revolutionaries’ visions. Many democratic transitions of that era subsequently proved to be disappointing. Although systematic human-rights abuses may have ended, endemic corruption in many countries persists, along with government efforts to stifle opponents and stamp out criticism. And, given that further progress toward democracy and respect for human rights in much of the world now appears to have stalled, the external peer pressure on China to change its ways has also diminished.

As a result, freedom campaigners within and outside of China may have lost the momentum. Moreover, they must contend with the country’s remarkable economic success of recent decades, which is often cited to muzzle detractors, especially those who criticize the government’s human-rights record.

The Chinese Communist Party, which controls virtually all state institutions, shows no sign of relinquishing any power, or even tolerating peaceful dissent. The authorities dare not relax their vigilance, especially when it comes to policing the media and the Internet. Even some of the CCP’s own promised legal reforms are grinding to a halt, owing to its leaders’ fear of losing control. It would be sheer fantasy to expect China to embrace democratization any time soon.

Nonetheless, the situation is not entirely hopeless. The CCP and the government have not wiped out all independent thought. Many Chinese find non-confrontational ways to exchange information and ideas, and to express their views on public-policy issues that matter to them. A much smaller number even disclose information that embarrasses the authorities and make explicit demands, often at great personal risk.

Sanctions imposed on journalists, lawyers, and others who cross an invisible line often involve punitive legal action, though in many cases the authorities dispense with formalities to ensure their line is toed. But they still cannot silence all voices. Nor can the CCP prevent larger protests from erupting over environmental pollution, land seizures, corruption, and official highhandedness.

This highlights the fact that the main impetus for democratic change and respect for human rights does not always come from ideologically motivated activists. Although it is difficult to say how contemporary pressures will eventually manifest themselves, Tiananmen Square-style protests are unlikely. But, one way or another, the struggle for democracy and human rights will continue; it certainly did not end a quarter-century ago.

To be sure, the authorities may point to undoubted successes of their own over the past 25 years in support of continued one-party rule. China is recognized everywhere as a great power. Its economy is the world’s second largest, and on some measures is forecast to overtake that of the United States within a decade or two. Rapid economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty – the greatest anti-poverty achievement in human history. And, given the turmoil unleashed following the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse in 1991 – and the subsequent failure of democracy there – one might reasonably question the merits of China inviting a similar upheaval by abandoning the path of gradual reform.

Nevertheless, the country cannot escape the shadow cast by the terrible events of June 4, 1989. The CCP might try to eliminate all mention of what happened at Tiananmen Square for fear of triggering renewed calls for human rights and democracy; but, though this anniversary will pass without official acknowledgment, the protesters’ demands have not gone away, and they cannot be suppressed forever.

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