Tiananmen: the Gate to China's Future

Ten years have passed since the shocking images of carnage in Beijing galvanized me into a new life as a human rights activist. The government's brutality then, and all my experiences since, have convinced me that without a proper accounting for those crimes, China's future will remain in doubt.

A day after seeing those scenes on TV in the United States where I was studying for a Ph.D., I abandoned astrophysics and caught the first flight home to China. For two months, in a time of terror, I tried to find out what had happened, dodging police, contacting people in hiding, and handing over donations raised abroad to the victims and their families. I came back from this trip with one simple belief: you can massacre people, but you can never kill their desire for freedom.

The peaceful demonstrations of 1989 gave millions of Chinese people their first heady taste of political freedom, and a hope that they could have a say in their nation's public life. But the government labeled this completely non-violent movement a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" in order to legitimize its brutal crackdown and send a clear message to its people that there would be no political liberalization.

People now argue that China has moved on from that time: the economy has grown, living standards have risen, and there is less state interference in people's daily lives. But such a view ignores the fact that many of the current challenges of China's development are directly related to a lack of political accountability and transparency. The Chinese government continues to claim that the Tiananmen movement and democracy mean political turmoil and national disintegration. "Stability above all else," as the official slogan goes. But stability built on repression is like a house built on a live volcano.