Tiananmen Can Happen Here

Westerners learn the wrong lessons from a distant massacre.

U.S. troops load up into personnel carriers to take them toward Washington, D.C., from the Joint Force Headquarters of the D.C. National Guard on June 2.
U.S. troops load up into personnel carriers to take them toward Washington, D.C., from the Joint Force Headquarters of the D.C. National Guard on June 2. Drew Angerer/AFP via Getty Images

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When I was 5, all I knew of Tiananmen, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, was that it was an entrance to the Forbidden City, a wondrous palace where the emperors of the Qing dynasty once dwelled. China’s history was tangible to me, at my fingertips in my books and lessons.

Then I learned more. At 15, I knew of the deaths when tanks rolled into the square and suppressed the demonstrators. At 20, I read the diary of Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, which detailed how students and workers organizing for government accountability had once filled the square. Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army struggled to force them out. Leaders, afraid for what they called a “counterrevolutionary riot,” sent in tanks and ordered the use of live ammunition.

June 4, 1989, 31 years ago this month, is a pivotal moment in Chinese history. Memory, ideology, and state violence intermingle even after three decades. Tiananmen’s true legacy, which encompasses both the glory of the palace and the blood and hopes of the students who demonstrated on the square, will be something that Chinese people like myself continue to grapple with as long as our history ticks on.

Hong Kong’s research institutions and bookshops, some of which have shuttered, are threatened with restrictions if noncompliance with Beijing’s law stands. Underneath their helmets and umbrellas, protesters in Hong Kong fear the future even as they push on. They have remembered, and they have learned from the bones of Tiananmen.

In spaces in the United States, where there are none of the barriers to mourning Hong Kongers face, Tiananmen’s story is only a relic. There is no linkage of Tiananmen to America itself, despite the violence that the American state has also inflicted on its own citizens over the years and decades and the struggle against the brutality of law enforcement that continues today.

In 1990, Donald Trump told Playboy magazine: “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.” Blunt as this observation was, it treated Tiananmen as not just a moment but a lesson, one from which Trump learned the lessons of power. Among the foreign-policy community, however, Tiananmen is too often a dusty relic behind glass, not a lesson about blood, strength, and sacrifice for today.

When survivors are brought out for photos or testimony on Tiananmen, the event is directed on the Chinese Communist Party alone, not on the possibility of bloodshed elsewhere. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a photo with Chinese dissidents and posted the image on social media without a caption. Their faces, more recognizable to the Chinese government than the broader American public, were meant as a signal to his Beijing-based diplomatic counterparts.

Despite the selectivity of this remembrance, death and dissident life are not all there is to tell about 1989. The vividness of the Tiananmen movement’s life at the hands of the Chinese people, and its subsequent death at the hands of the Chinese army and the police who hunted down the movement’s supporters throughout the country, is seldom allowed breathing room. In the moments when the young were able to dance and chant for a brief moment in that Beijing Spring, a different future was present but not one unconnected from the past. They worked with one another in the spirit of their ancestors, who rallied against emperors and warlords and secret treaties.

They found a sympathetic ear in Zhao, who was then swiftly punished by Deng Xiaoping, a leader himself once exiled by the Communist Party. In the days and years afterward, Beijing mourned its dead children, the ones who dreamed of something else, shot on Changan Avenue, at Hufangqiao, at Qianmen. So did the parents of students in Chengdu, Lanzhou, and Xian, to name just three of the cities that were crushed in the aftermath.

It has been 31 years. In the United States, young protesters pour water into their eyes to clear out tear gas and tend to their wounds, inflicted by police and a military that demand acquiescence. Black Americans, restless from the unending burdens of systemic racism, demand that their lives matter. As I see Americans marching, singing, dancing, and asking the nigh impossible from their leaders, I think back to young people in a square doing the same many decades ago.

Despite the Communist Party’s efforts to silence the story, Chinese parents of the fallen youths and overseas communities tend the flame in their memory. Stories of what happened pass on through families of students who vanished or were imprisoned and those who have sought homes overseas. The government sought to cut dissidents off in the aftermath of Tiananmen by severing their connections to family, friends, and communication channels back in their homelands, levying loneliness and the pain of immigrant life as discipline for political activities at home, just as the government is now assaulting the Uighur community, which suffers brutally at the hands of state repression in Xinjiang.

But the weight of Tiananmen is received in the United States not as a warning to treasure civic society but as a relic of another place that lost a piece of it irreparably. In America’s places of power and knowledge, where Tiananmen is studied most, the lesson is cleanly and precisely unconnected to U.S. governance. It is a matter for China, not for the aftermaths of Rodney King’s beating, Michael Brown’s shooting, and the cold-blooded killing of George Floyd. In choosing to advocate for military intervention on the streets of Washington, D.C., and other cities where protests have taken place, politicians like Sen. Tom Cotton miss opportunities to apply Tiananmen’s bitter lessons to the United States.

Tiananmen in the American imagination is something fantastic and distant, deliberately placed far away and long ago. It is otherized in a collection of stories of crushed overseas rebellions that can’t happen at home. It is a black mark against the Chinese state alone, rather than a possibility in America itself. Only under a dictatorship could such things happen, we say, forgetting Ocoee, Opelousas, Tulsa, or Kent State.

The soldiers standing on the streets of Washington today hail from around the country, called in by the Defense Department. They have been issued looming, vague commands to keep order, as defined by a White House dissatisfied with the response of local police officers.

American officers have publicly rebuked the president, echoing the spirit, perhaps, of Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian. “I’d rather be beheaded,” he said, refusing to quash the Tiananmen protests, “than be a criminal in the eyes of history.” He served four years in prison as a criminal in the eyes of the Communist Party. His subordinates, pulled from barracks outside Beijing, rode tanks into the square and carried out their orders.

Uprisings are begun by ordinary people and crushed by people just as ordinary. Today of all days, it’s time to start remembering that.

Rui Zhong is the Program Assistant for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.