This week brings the 20th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square uprising--or rather, of its suppression, on June 4, when China's government sent in troops to crush the democracy movement then blooming out of Beijing.
How should we remember that day?
In Beijing, it was a day of horror. I was there, as a reporter, and during a night lit up in memory with flame and tracer bullets, watched troops and armored personnel carriers move toward the square--as street protesters set fire to barricades, and then, unarmed and overwhelmed by the guns of the People's Liberation Army, fell back. In the early hours of the morning, I watched a few thousand protesters make a last stand in the square, weaponless and surrounded on three sides by thousands of AK-47-toting soldiers. Shortly before dawn, I saw those troops, on foot and in tanks, force the remaining protesters out.
I saw buses and trucks burned, banners crumpled on the pavement and people shot. The number killed that day, as China's communist government took back its despotic control of Beijing, remains one of the mysteries of the People's Republic--estimated at hundreds, maybe thousands.
But those horrors are not what gave Tiananmen its compelling place in modern history. There was far more at work here than any straightforward arithmetic of death. After all, the high-end estimate of the number killed in the Tiananmen uprising is dwarfed many times over by the millions of Chinese who died under the horrific communist experiment of Chairman Mao: forcibly collectivized, rusticated, starved, executed outright or dispatched to the torments of China's prison camps, the laogai.
What gave Tiananmen its historic heft was the movement that brought millions into the streets, not only in Beijing, but in other major cities like Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou. The precise point of conflict was the yearning for individual liberty and the crushing reply of the despotic state.
Out of this confrontation came some of the modern era's most haunting images of the struggle for freedom: the sea of banners and the Chinese statue of liberty--or the goddess of democracy, as its builders called it--erected in Tiananmen Square itself, holding a torch in both hands, facing the huge portrait of Mao, which still hangs over the main gate to the old imperial Forbidden City.
All this was then summed up by that astounding scene--as the army consolidated its control over the city--of a lone man, at the edge of Tiananmen Square, stopping a column of tanks.
But today, 20 years later, is this anything more than fading history?
Did it matter? That lone man stopped the tanks, but not for long. He has vanished, and China's despotic one-party state carries on. Does Tiananmen today add up to anything more than a collection of memories? It is of obsessive interest to a number of scholars, to many who were there, to the families of those who were killed--but is it otherwise irrelevant to the world, or even to China, today?
Since 1989, layer upon layer of Tiananmen has been peeled back, examined, debated. Student leaders of the time have escaped China and told their tales. The Chinese government has pushed out assorted versions of its own, including a book-length photo essay, published for wide consumption shortly after June 4, 1989. Its English version opens with the almost wistful sentence: "In 1989 when spring was passing to summer, a shocking turmoil happened in Beijing, which attracted the close attention of people at home and abroad." Documents have emerged--"The Tiananmen Papers," published in English translation in 2001--providing windows on the party deliberations.
On my desk right now is the recently published Prisoner of the State, the secret journal of the late Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang, whose sympathy with the Tiananmen protesters, and push for reform, landed him under house arrest in China for the rest of his life, from 1989 until his death in 2005.
As details have emerged, and the years have gone by, experts of many stripes have questioned whether the Tiananmen uprising was really about democracy; whether the uprising, if not stopped, might have derailed China's economic progress; and whether China was "ready" for democracy.
But cut through the debate and hypotheticals, and I'd say at least two enduring and important messages came out of Tiananmen. Both sorely need remembering, especially as the world today seems to be losing its bearings on the immense value of individual freedom. That applies to an alarming extent even in America, where President Obama instinctively defaults to the policies of a statist, cradle-to-grave collective, while moving human rights abroad onto the foreign policy back burners in a push to "engage" with despots from Iran to Syria to nuclear-testing, missile-launching North Korea, as well as China.
The first of these messages is that the Tiananmen uprising did not occur in a vacuum. It mattered greatly that as 1989 dawned, Ronald Reagan had just finished his second term as a U.S. president unapologetic about America's values of capitalism and freedom. He was willing to stand up to the Soviet Union, build up America's defenses and demand that Mikhail Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall.
In this way, Reagan reversed the totalitarian spread abroad, during which the apologist policies of Jimmy Carter were answered in 1979 by Iran's Islamic revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the late 1980s, dictatorships were falling, withering, coming unglued. In the Philippines, in 1986, Ferdinand Marcos had departed. In South Korea, in 1987, despotism gave way to democracy. And the Republic of China on Taiwan lifted martial law and began evolving at speed toward the democracy it is today.
Around the globe, the push for democracy seemed contagious. In the Soviet bloc, the countries of Eastern Europe were shaking loose. The Soviet Union itself, immersed in Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika attempt to keep the evil empire together, was just 18 months from collapse. In Myanmar--or Burma as we then called it--thousands of democratic protesters took to the streets in 1988. They were gunned down, their leaders killed, confined, silenced.
But out of Burma had come unmistakable stories of heroism and calls for freedom. Their neighbors took note. One of the signals flashed around the globe was that individuals isolated and silenced by repressive regimes were far from alone in their desire for something better. For America to serve as standard-bearer of that message really did matter.
So came the spring of 1989, and in China, home to roughly one-fifth of humanity, the people spoke. And that brings me to the second message I glean today from the Tiananmen uprising of 20 years ago.
Since the founding in 1949 of the People's Republic, that 1989 groundswell was the only chance that China's people have ever enjoyed to speak their minds openly, to organize massively as they saw fit, to stand in the center of their own capital in huge numbers and call on their government to account. They seized it with both hands.
From a government that fed them lies and propaganda, they demanded truth. In a country where all power belonged to one party, they demanded the rights of democracy. They asked for the chance to honor the best in themselves--and for that, they demanded the rights to be free to speak and free to choose.
If you have ever looked at that famous photo of the lone man in the square, facing a column of tanks, and been deeply moved, then I would say you have understood the heartfelt cry we now refer to by the shorthand of Tiananmen.
Whatever the complex forces still playing out beneath the surface in China, that uprising was a message about the universal desire for freedom, a message with which--however muffled it may often seem--it would be richly rewarding to keep faith.