Tiananmen 30 years later

Thirty years ago today Deng Xiaoping ordered the use of force to commence against the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square seeking liberalization of the Communist regime. So we learn from Andrew Nathan’s behind-the-scenes account published by Foreign Affairs as “The new Tiananmen Papers.” Based on previously unpublished documents, Nathan’s article has been made “temporarily paywall-free so you can share it with your family, friends, and colleagues,” according to the magazine’s email alert.

At City Journal Maura Moynihan reminds us in “Tiananmen’s shadow” that “June 4 marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre[.]” Getting a jump on the anniversary this weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an excellent collection of articles in its Review section. Gerard Baker’s column “In 1989, the U.S. Decided to Let Beijing Get Away With Murder” reminds us of the heartbreaking scene:

There are many enduring images of the pro-democracy demonstrations by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989: the bloody denouement, of course, with its scenes of carnage; the heartbreaking sight of one man bravely standing unarmed and pacific in front of a People’s Liberation Army tank.

But for Americans, perhaps the most powerful and recognizable visual at the time was the image of the Goddess of Democracy, the makeshift statue constructed by the students and placed directly across from the portrait and mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Though student leaders insisted it wasn’t intended as a replica of the Statue of Liberty, the resonances were too obvious to be missed by most Americans who watched. The lady with the lamp held aloft evoked America’s unique role in promoting the rights and aspirations of people around the world yearning to breathe free.

If the students had been hoping that a nation that had rhetorically championed the universal human right to freedom would stand in solidarity with them while they were brutally crushed, they were sorely disappointed.

Though President George H.W. Bush initially denounced the crackdown, suspended arms sales to China and announced some other sanctions, the administration decided early on that it wasn’t going to allow Tiananmen to become a turning point in U.S. policy. It became clear that the official response would be essentially to pretend that nothing had happened. “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States,” President Bush said just a few days after Tiananmen. The decision to continue business as usual sparked strong opposition in Washington. In Congress, Democrats and some Republicans pushed for sanctions and a more confrontational stand against Beijing.

As the world (outside China) marks the 30th anniversary this week, has the U.S. position at that moment stood the test of time? The decision to go softly on the butchers of Beijing was premised on two main arguments, both of which turned out to be flawed….

Baker doesn’t consider the alternatives. Indeed, he acknowledges that “[t]here’s no way to know if a more robust response to the events of 1989 would have changed things much.” His conclusion nevertheless seems inarguable: “[B]y its own lights—the aim of encouraging China to become a more open, democratic, liberal society—the decision to let Beijing get away with murder 30 years ago has been an abject failure.”

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