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.

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.