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Tiananmen Square at 25: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Tiananmen Square at 25: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Wednesday marks a quarter century since the Tiananmen Square massacre. It also marks what, in hindsight, looms as a tragic crossroads in modern Chinese history, when then-leader Deng Xiaoping made the gruesome choice to privilege the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) monopoly on power over the path of reform and liberalization. I recently looked back at this post I wrote five years ago on the 20th anniversary. Other than revising the date, when it comes to China’s failure to come to terms with the Tiananmen legacy or to allow more freedom for its people, that same post could be written today almost verbatim. Such is the continuing tragedy of Tiananmen Square.

Yet while five years hence the CCP’s repressive internal rule remains the same, in that same time the geopolitics of Asia have shifted substantially. It may seem now like distant history, but 2009 witnessed the shared hopes of the Obama administration and Beijing to forge a "G-2" economic partnership of China and the United States, with other countries of the region envisioned in cooperative supporting roles. Instead today brings a region fraught with tension, division, suspicion of Chinese hegemony, and fears by other Indo-Pacific nations of American weakness and retrenchment. These trends are exemplified by tense exchanges between the United States and China at regional security conferences, neo-imperial territorial claims by China and aggression against the maritime vessels of neighboring countries, and a percolating China-Russia condominium based on shared interests in energy, countering American power, and preserving authoritarianism.

It is that latter factor that connects contemporary Asia with the legacy of Tiananmen Square. Beijing’s willingness 25 years ago to massacre its own citizens, and refusal today to admit it, let alone atone for it, illuminates this uncomfortable reality: The internal character of the CCP drives much of its external behavior. 

This suggests that as the Obama administration continues to wrestle with how to operationalize its rebalancing to Asia, a robust strategy should include promoting human rights and political reform in China. Doing so does not mean "imposing American-style democracy on China"; it means supporting the desires and efforts of many Chinese people for greater liberty and a more accountable leadership.

There are a number of specific ways that the Obama administration could pursue this goal. To begin with, it could invite former Tiananmen Square student movement leaders, many of whom now live in exile in the United States, to meet with President Obama in the Oval Office. It could also increase funding for the China programs in the State Department’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund;

To send a clear message about the importance of human rights policy, the administration could ensure that anytime President Obama or Secretary Kerry meets with a senior Chinese leader, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski is also present in the room. This will also empower U.S. human rights officials in the eyes of Beijing.

On top of this, it should scrap the moribund U.S.-China Human Rights Dialogue, which has accomplished little in recent years and is used by Beijing as an excuse for inaction on human rights. In its place, the administration could convene a multilateral human rights dialogue with China consisting of the United States, European Union countries, Australia, and other interested democracies that can present a united front and communicate the importance of improving human rights for China’s global standing.

A final thought. This New York Times story about previously unreported dissension within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the order to use force against the student demonstrators reminds me of an encounter I had several years ago when working on the National Security Council staff. I gave a West Wing tour to two Chinese men who had both been at Tiananmen Square in 1989, in very different roles. One of them was a leading student demonstrator; the other was a PLA officer commanding one of the army units engaged in the crackdown. In later years both of them converted to Christianity and became leaders in China’s burgeoning house church movement. Their ministry activities incurred the disfavor of Beijing, including imprisonment for one of them, and both eventually sought asylum in the United States, where they became close friends.

As we walked through the White House, I reflected on how their common faith could bring such a powerful reconciliation between two men on opposing sides of the Tiananmen massacre. Such stories are not unusual given the remarkable growth of that faith in China. Yet the fact that these two men remain unwelcome in their home country reveals an underappreciated cost in human capital: The CCP’s repression deprives China of some of its most courageous and innovative citizens. That, too, is part of Tiananmen’s unfolding legacy.