Man does not live by bread alone. So the Bible says, and it’s the message of Tiananmen Square.
Chinese students filled that space 25 years ago to demand free speech, democracy, and an end to corruption. Instead, their protest ended in tragedy. Hundreds of young people were killed the night of June 3, 1989, by Chinese Communist soldiers. But they did not die in vain. Their sacrifice and example are commemorated in rallies and wreath-layings from Hong Kong to San Francisco to Washington every year. The Chinese regime has tried to erase all memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but it has failed.
A decade ago, I lectured in Beijing and Shanghai at the invitation of the Chinese government. The Chinese wanted to know more about American conservatism and its major role in U.S. politics since the 1960s. I explained I could not discuss the American conservative movement without explaining the centrality of anti-Communism to its philosophy. They said they understood.
I said that better relations between the United States and China were possible only if the relationship was based on the truth. And so I talked about the horrific loss of human life in the Great Leap Forward of the late Fifties, when at least 30 million Chinese died as a result of Mao Tse-Tung’s forced communization of Chinese farming. That was a serious mistake, my hosts agreed. I talked about the Great Cultural Revolution and how the fanatical Red Guards plunged China into chaos for a decade. Yes, my hosts admitted, that was Chairman Mao’s idea and a very bad one.
And then I brought up the Tiananmen Square massacre, and my hosts fell silent. I waited, but no confession was forthcoming. Too many top officials had been involved in the bloodletting to allow open discussion, let alone admission of guilt.
It is now 25 years since Deng Xiaoping, so often praised for his liberalization of the Chinese economy, ordered tanks and troops to sweep clean the square and kill anyone who resisted. The Chinese regime still blames the massacre on “hooligans” who provoked troops into firing.
But truth will out in the long run, and not only about Tiananmen Square. The Internet is poking larger holes every day in the firewalls of the Chinese regime. We learn about the daily protests and demonstrations against corruption, cronyism, and the suppression of basic human rights throughout China. We know that the Chinese government continues to imprison thousands of political dissidents in the laogai, the Chinese version of the Soviet Gulag.
Two months after Tiananmen Square, the veteran anti-Communist Dr. Walter Judd startled a Washington audience by describing the massacre as “one of the most encouraging things that’s happened in China” in a long time.
It was encouraging, he explained, because “it proves that Communism . . . has failed to satisfy the wishes and wants of the people.” The Chinese Communists have “exposed themselves until even the blindest can see that they are barbarians — they are not true Chinese.”
“Tyrants,” Dr. Judd said, “have almost always looked invincible until the last five minutes, and then, all of a sudden, they fall apart.” Three months later, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and Communism collapsed in Eastern and Central Europe, followed two years later by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
For nearly three decades, the Chinese Communists have sought to preserve their regime by instituting a Chinese version of capitalism and offering a larger rice bowl to their people. But the annual commemoration of Tiananmen Square and the persistent protests attest that not everyone can be bought off. As the American journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote, the Chinese people want rights just as much as rice.
They will win those rights one day, and sooner than the Chinese Communists realize. That’s the encouraging message of a somber anniversary.
Originally appeared in National Review Online.