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Tiananmen Twenty Years On:

The day it happened in 1989, I was at a human rights retreat organized by Henry Steiner and Philip Alston, a remarkable private meeting of human rights organizations, from north and south, on the island of Crete. Remarkable in that it was one of the first times that anyone had tried to sit down a bunch of human rights NGOs and discuss a set of important and simultaneously practical and abstract themes. Not everyone attended - Human Rights Watch rather snootily said that it had better things to do than attend academic conferences. The horror! But it was the loser; the exchanges, particularly between north and south, were frank and pointed and one of the first such occasions within the human rights NGO movement.

I was there as the young conference administrator person, dealing with things like rooms and planes and meals and all that, seconded, I am pleased to say, as a pro bono gift of Sullivan & Cromwell. Tiananmen took place while all of us were there; it was discussed at length, but the conference declined to make a joint statement, if I recall correctly. I think that was the right decision - no one at the meeting was authorized to speak on behalf of their organizations, to start with.

Somewhat more disturbing was that not everyone at the conference appeared to think that the Chinese protestors had a defensible cause, even if they were not eager to see Tank Man flattened. The fault lines of the human rights movement and its internal contradictions run deep, from its ideological development in the 1980s down to today. But I recall watching the protests on the small TV that was in the monastery on a remote stretch of beach on the island, hoping that it would turn out like the Soviet Union, but not very sure. But I did not want to let today go by without marking it.

Kenneth Anderson:
Okay, it's past midnight and so not quite commemorative. Not on Volokh Time, however, which is three hours behind!
6.5.2009 12:15am
Ricardo (mail):
Here in Asia, you missed the boat by an even bigger margin -- it's yesterday's news :-)
6.5.2009 12:31am
Richard A. (mail):
I had a similar experience a few years earlier in Nicaragua when the Sandinistas were in power. All of the "human rights" people thought it was just fine for them to shut down radio stations and newspaper with whom they disagreed.

Human nature ain't all it's cracked up to be.
6.5.2009 1:33am
Best divorce lawyers (mail) (www):
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6.5.2009 2:26am
Catherine Jefferson:
When I first heard about the Tianenman Square massacre, I was at work. I lived in California and had many coworkers and friends who were Chinese, so word spread quickly. At the time, I'd been a member of Amnesty International since college, almost ten years. I'd been following events in China closely, so it hit like someone dropped a boulder on me from above. :/ I'd rarely felt so enraged or so sick in my life.

I still feel sick and angry about the massacre, twenty years later. I know much more about China now, though, and realize how inevitable something of that type was, given the beliefs and nature of the Chinese government and many of its people. In the following several years, I got to know a number of the leaders and members of the student movement, many of whom had come to America after fleeing China. I read "Mandate of Heaven", Orville Schell's incredible book published a couple of years after Tianenman Square. Most Chinese were as outraged by the massacre as I was, but mostly for different reasons. People do not all think or feel alike.

Twenty years later, most of the students seem to moved on and given up changing the current Chinese government. They were all waiting for the old men to die, and then realized that the old men had trained the young men that followed them well. :/

I also look at Europe, and my own country, and see a thoroughly disquieting trend away from valuing freedom -- of conscience, religion, speech, whatever -- and towards fearing the consequences of letting the rabble think for themselves. Look at the evidence -- hate speech laws, police and legal harassment of religious groups with ideas we don't approve of, harassment of *scientists* who ask questions instead of agreeing with the current popular "scientific" beliefs (can you say "global warming"?), and a culture that seems ever more bent on enforced conformity and isn't afraid to use Hollywood and Washington to bring it about.

I personally wonder how much of this trend is due to the influence of China and other countries and culturesthat do not value individual liberty. The Chinese political leadership doesn't change as often as ours does, and often takes a much longer view than our presidents and senators do. There are also about three Chinese in China for every American in America, and China is by no means the only country that's pushing for fewer freedoms and more state control over individual lives.

We Americans need to fight the battle for freedom here first and foremost. That's going to mean fighting on a number of fronts: legal, political, and (IMHO most important) cultural. There are good things to learn from the rest of the world. In my opinion, though, the trend towards greater social control over individuals, especially greater social control *enforced by the government*, is pernicious and will lead us nowhere good at all.
6.5.2009 2:41am
tank treads and ooloong tea:
Sorry, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who is ambivalent about Tiananmen. The received wisdom in the West seems to be 'massacre,' 'outrage,' blah blah blah, but many Chinese, even diaspora Chinese, think that the Chinese leadership at that time did not act wholly without justifiication. Had they not acted decisively to crush the students, unrest would have spread -- as it has already been spreading -- to other cities and university towns in China, at which point it would have been uncontainable. The madness of the Mao-instigated, youth-led Cultural Revolution was still fresh on Chinese minds, and the unrest had distressing echoes for many in the leadership, not least Deng, whose own son was thrown off a building and rendered a paraplegic by the red guards. The dilemma was between letting them go on in the hope that they would peter out, while risking conflagration, or nipping the protests in the bud before things spiraled out of control. The latter option was not obviously the wrong option to take.

So while the conventional wisdom views Tiananmen as an unmitigated evil, there's also the countervailing view that it was regrettable, but a lesser evil to forestall a greater doom. More experienced China-watchers than Chas Freeman have taken that (admittedly) politically-incorrect view, so it's not a view that is lightly dismissed.
6.5.2009 5:05am
Brett Bellmore:
Sounds like the excuse of every despot. I think it's one that should be lightly dismissed.
6.5.2009 6:56am
Desiderius:
KA,

Your post makes me wonder how influential Tiananmen was on the Velvet (etc.) Revolutions which followed not that long thereafter in Eastern Europe, of which I have my own youthful (and formative) memories among the Human Right.
6.5.2009 7:17am
Reasoner:

while the conventional wisdom views Tiananmen as an unmitigated evil, there's also the countervailing view that it was regrettable, but a lesser evil to forestall a greater doom.

It was unmitigated evil because the leaders of China shouldn't have let it get that far. The government should have had free elections and should not have got in the way of the people's freedom of speech. If they had done that before the demonstrations there would not have been a demonstration or a resulting massacre. The only way they could have a slightly legitimate claim that it was to keep the peace would have been if they had granted democracy and freedom of speech right after the massacre. But because they still haven't, they have no defense. It was unmitigated evil. They're mass murderers.
6.5.2009 7:21am
PersonFromPorlock:
Tank treads: much the same can be said for the (then) government's march on destabilising elements at Concord.
6.5.2009 7:23am
JB:
"The madness of the Mao-instigated, youth-led Cultural Revolution was still fresh on Chinese minds, and the unrest had distressing echoes for many in the leadership,"

The following comments seem to have missed this sentence. Had the Tiananmen protesters succeeded and then instigated a CUltural Revolution-style reign of terror, it would have been far worse than the last 20 years. That may have been very unlikely, but if it was a real fear then it was a real justification.
6.5.2009 8:11am
Ricardo (mail):
So while the conventional wisdom views Tiananmen as an unmitigated evil, there's also the countervailing view that it was regrettable, but a lesser evil to forestall a greater doom.

The burden of proof ought to be on China's defenders to support this point. The late 80s and early 90s witnessed many peaceful, popular uprisings whose end result was liberal democracy and not a Robespierre-style reign of terror. The People Power Revolution in the Philippines, the revolutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and the democratic movements of South Korea and China's own sister country Taiwan, to give a few examples.

The more realistic argument China's defenders could use is that a democratic China might go the route of Thailand, the Philippines or (for now) Indonesia, where corruption undermines confidence in the results of democracy while leaders focus on short-term re-election and catering to special interests rather than on the long-term interests of the country. You could also argue that China's regional political chiefs already wield substantial power and one-party centralized rule helps keep them in line to some extent. Now that's a provocative argument to be had for sure -- but it is an argument -- not an excuse to kill a few hundred or thousand people for the presumed benefit of the greater good.
6.5.2009 8:35am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Even if Tank Tread's argument - we had to massacre lots of peaceful, innocent people because maybe they would have turned violent if we hadn't - weren't bankrupt to begin with, it's bankrupt because it assumes that there were only two possibilities: let the protests continue or quickly end them by killing the protesters. But there was, of course, a third: end them by giving the protesters what they wanted.
6.5.2009 9:09am
Randy R. (mail):
I too recall seeing the events unfold, and I was hoping for Berlin Wall falling down, and democracy spread throughout China. And of course, it didn't happen.

Since then, I have done a lot of business in China, and read up on its history. One thing that strikes me is that the leadership in Beijing always says that democracy is too messy and it will only lead to chaos. Strange, because to most Americans, we believe the opposite. Democracy encourages dialogue.

However, when you read up on 5000 years of chinese history, you get a wholly different perspective. China is a massive country, with over 50 minorities, stretching from arctic cold to the tropics, embracing several languages and many different peoples. It has *always* been difficult to keep it all together peacefully, and whenever it was broken up, it inevitably lead to someone trying to reunify the country.

One lesson I've learned: When China has a strong, but ruthless, emperor, it has peace. When China has a weak or ineffectual emperor, it has civil war. And the civil wars can last decades and involve the killing of many people.

Another lesson: China was weak in the 19th century, principally because of the Opium Wars that the western powers created. (And opium addiction, courtesy the British), and as a result, it was carved up and exploited. What happened back then is yesterday in the mind of the Chinese (there are still many people who lived through the warlordism of the early 20th century, which was a direct result of revolution and the colonialism). Todays' Chinese leaders remember all that.

So, I can understand a mindset that says that there cannot be challenge to the all powerful emperor, or else civil war will result, and that wil only lead to more bloodshed.

Now, this is not to excuse their actions 20 years ago (though inevitably some commentators will accuse me of such), but it does put it in perspective. And it may lead to some understanding of why not all Chinese people necessarily agree with the student protestors.

One other tidbit of info: Back in the 18th century, China got a new dynasty of non-chinese rulers. They were not popular, and there were uprising, brutally put down. So the people tried to think of ways to forms resistance. They decided to form garden clubs, theater discussion groups, and other sorts of innocuous sounding associations. Too late, the gov't found out that these were hotbeds of resistence, and again, they were ruthlessly put down. Could this be why today the gov't fears such innocuous groups as Falun Gong? I don't believe practitioners are resisters in any way, but you must remember that the Chinese government has a long memory, and they will not be fooled twice.

Again, this doesn't justify suppression of what I believe is a peaceful movement for personal development. But before we can fight tyranny, we must first try to understand it.
6.5.2009 9:16am
Randy R. (mail):
A few other tidbits: The foundations of wealth for the Roosevelt family and the Vanderbilts in the 19th century was the sale of opium to China. I'm sure many others were as well.

You won't learn that when you tour their historic homes!
6.5.2009 9:19am
Randy R. (mail):
Incidently, when I was in China during the Tibet protests, all the chinese people that I met were incredulous that the Tibetans would revolt. (This distressed me, because I naturally support their independence, and worry that the Chinese takeover will destroy their culture and autonomy, not to mention their liberties).

They said to me that Tibet was always a part of China, and they have no right to seceed. "It's just like when the South tried to secede from the North, and you had a Civil war to stop it." they told me. I was actually surprised how angry many Chinese were at the Tibetans -- apparently they believe that they have given a lot to Tibet, helped them modernize and stuff, and it was ungrateful for them to throw it back in their face.

I was sorta surprised, and didn't know how to respond, not knowing the full story.
6.5.2009 9:24am
Careless:

Sounds like the excuse of every despot. I think it's one that should be lightly dismissed.

It's a very Chinese argument: stability at all costs.
6.5.2009 9:25am
resh (mail):
Nary a word of repudiation, in the agora, from those attending the conference? Oh, wait. Your silence was a word, wasn't it.
6.5.2009 9:33am
Fedya (www):
Desiderius:

Some of the events in Europe were going on even before what happened in Tiananmen. Poland had its elections on June 4, 1989, while the East German tension was already building up: Austria and Hungary opened a border post a few weeks earlier, and at the ribbon-cutting, the post was stormed by a bunch of East Germans.

I visited my relatives in (West) Germany in the summer of 1989, and one of my overriding memories was that all the news broadcasts led with the tent cities East Germans had set up on the grounds of West German embassies in East Bloc countries.
6.5.2009 9:35am
Javert:

So while the conventional wisdom views Tiananmen as an unmitigated evil, there's also the countervailing view that it was regrettable, but a lesser evil to forestall a greater doom.
That "greater doom" being two decades of censorship, "political" crimes, and forced abortions?
6.5.2009 10:22am
Anderson (mail):
Had they not acted decisively to crush the students, unrest would have spread -- as it has already been spreading -- to other cities and university towns in China, at which point it would have been uncontainable.

Well, yes, that was the idea. "Revolution" is the word.

The bizarre notion that the Tiananmen protesters were trying to impose ... what? Maoism? ... and raise the risk of a "Cultural Revolution II" is risible.

The Chinese crushed the revolt precisely because it threatened their power, and they had no intention of going the way of Gorbachev.
6.5.2009 11:13am
Randy R. (mail):
Javert: That "greater doom" being two decades of censorship, "political" crimes, and forced abortions?"

And the fastest growing economy in the world, the world's largest holder of US debt (you should thank the commies for the favor they have done for us), and soon be the largest economy in the world. Not to mention the fact that they have lifted millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class.

They have a long ways to go, but most Chinese (and these include Chinese who have been educated and worked in the US for many years), think that this sort of progress could only have been achieved with a strong central government. The Chinese that I've encountered say that the one-child policy is good for the future of China, and they laugh at India and say that they certainly don't want that sort of trouble of unchecked population growth to deal with.

Regarding censorship: WE look at as horrible that they censor about 1% of the world's websites, and they look at it as holy cow! they can access 99% of the world's website. CNN and BBC are broadcast without censorship in the country, for instance. I'd say you are hard pressed to find many chinese who want much change.

IN a country that remembers very well when people didn't have enough to eat, and censorship was much worse, they see things going in the right direction. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot, and people can indeed openly criticize the gov't (as I've witnessed at seminars and conventions held in China). It sure beats what they've had for the last two centuries, in fact.
6.5.2009 11:53am
Anderson (mail):
Randy, is there some bar on immigration into China? Because I'm sure they'd be happy to have you.

Most Chinese may be happy with a dictatorship. Then again, most Americans might put up with one as well.

But then, in a country where one can be jailed for dissing the government, I think it's a bit tough to say just what "most Chinese" think.

As for a "strong central government," I thought the U.S. had one of those too.

Your defense works equally well for Germany in 1936. No more refutation is required.
6.5.2009 12:14pm
Careless:

Randy, is there some bar on immigration into China?

Pretty much, if you're not ethnically Chinese.
6.5.2009 12:47pm
c.gray (mail):

They have a long ways to go, but most Chinese (and these include Chinese who have been educated and worked in the US for many years), think that this sort of progress could only have been achieved with a strong central government.



Pheh. China's leaders have managed to protect their own hold on the center of economic and political power, but they have proven almost completely unable to control serious, growing social disorder.

Beijing's own statistics admit to roughly 80,000 riots and disturbances last year, with the number of "disturbances" growing every year since 1993. Close to three times as many policemen are murdered each year in China, a police state with strict gun control, as in the USA, a nation with more firearms than people with fairly substantial limits on police power. Smuggling has become rampant in all coastal and border areas, with outright piracy and banditry a growing problem.

In the countryside, where roughly half of China's population still lives, medical care and schooling are unavailable to those who cannot come up with "gifts" for the civil servants responsible. Fabulous corruption leaves the children of provincial party elites wealthy while peasants are driven off their land into a migrant worker population numbering 100s of millions cut off from access to basic services.

The "strong central government" has even proven unable to suppress internal trade wars between provinces. The center's grip on the provincial party cadres is actually weaker now than in 1989.

I suppose after the horror and incompetence inflicted on the country by Mao, the current crop of kleptocrats-in-chief are a genuine improvement. But that's setting the bar pretty low.

The cold reality is that the current government derives its claim to legitimacy almost entirely from "achieving" breakneck economic growth. When that rapid growth evaporates (as it almost certainly will....just look at the economic history of evry other industrializing country) then legitimacy will evaporate along with it. The government's refusal to liberalize while it still possesses some claim to loyalty from China's people makes the political turmoil and possibly civil war MORE LIKELY, not less.
6.5.2009 12:51pm
Ken Arromdee:
Close to three times as many policemen are murdered each year in China, a police state with strict gun control, as in the USA, a nation with more firearms than people with fairly substantial limits on police power.

Since China has more than three times the population of the US, this means that China is doing better than the US in this regard.
6.5.2009 12:55pm
Bob from Ohio (mail):
The economic benefits that Randy describes are going to the elites and the coastal middle class. Now, that is more than a hundred million people so its not nothing.

Is it worth the cost of having the "freedom" to watch the BBC (so long as it doesn't show too much)and have internet access (so long as it doesn't show too much)? I'm sure for the benefitted minority, its a good trade off in their minds, but what did Ben Franklin say?

c.gray points out the reality for hundreds of millions of more people.

If this dictatorship is admitting to such unrest, the real unrest must be massive.

I would also point out that the odds are the economic growth was far overstated (10% per year every single year, no deviation!) and the economic problems now understated. What are they exporting? To where?

Sooner or later, the unrest will spill over and the party will not be able to control it.

At least I hope so.
6.5.2009 1:14pm
Randy R. (mail):
Bob: "Now, that is more than a hundred million people so its not nothing. "

Actually, closer to 300 million. Still, about one third of the country lives below the poverty line, and that would be about 300 million or so.

Anderson:"But then, in a country where one can be jailed for dissing the government, I think it's a bit tough to say just what "most Chinese" think."

Actually, I've seen people diss the gov't in official conferences. None were rounded up. But don't believe me -- why don't you actually GO to China and see for yourself. You;ll see that it is far more capitalistic than we are (for good and for bad, actually). Whenever I have people travel with me on delegations, they are always amazed about it -- they expected all these oppression and secrecy. Someone actually asked me if they would be able to take photographs!

Or, if you can't make it there, talk to some Chinese people who spend time in both China and the US. You will find that they do have criticisms, but they are far more nuanced than the ones offered here. They also have criticisms of the US as well.

I would say that the censorship isn't much worse than in Singapore, which is a real dictatorship, yet I rarely see any criticism of that country. Having been there, I know that people are happy to criticize the gov't privately, but publicly not at all. And they criticize the censorship and the fact that the leader is corrupt and lines his pockets and his family members at the expense of the population.

The Chinese gov't sure does have it's problems, and riots and unrest are numerous and usually unreported. But if the gov't were to magically reform itself to a true democracy overnight, these problems would still exist. You would still have corrupt officials, 300 million people below the poverty line, undrinkable water for one-third the population, horrendous environmental issues.

Look at India -- the world's largest democracy. it's hardly a paradise, and in fact, is much worse in many ways than China. My point is that there is many problems in third world countries and lack of democracy is just one of them, but implementing democracy doesn't waive away any of them, and may make them worse, at least in the short run.

Anderson:"Your defense works equally well for Germany in 1936. No more refutation is required."

Yup. Much easlier to just insult people than actually try to learn something, or engage in a topic. I guess no one can deviate from the standard party line without being attacked, right?
6.5.2009 2:09pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
<i>Even if Tank Tread's argument - we had to massacre lots of peaceful, innocent people because maybe they would have turned violent if we hadn't - weren't bankrupt to begin with, it's bankrupt because it assumes that there were only two possibilities: let the protests continue or quickly end them by killing the protesters. But there was, of course, a third: end them by giving the protesters what they wanted.</i>

EXACTLY. I don't agree with David Nieperont that often, but there's a simple solution for all the Chinese Communists' "problems" with political dissidents-- have free elections and let someone else run the country.
6.5.2009 2:14pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
They have a long ways to go, but most Chinese (and these include Chinese who have been educated and worked in the US for many years), think that this sort of progress could only have been achieved with a strong central government.

You act as if the only way to have a strong central government is to have a murderous Communist dictatorship.
6.5.2009 2:16pm
tim maguire (mail):
No human rights organization worth the name could doubt the claims of the protestors.
6.5.2009 3:40pm
tim maguire (mail):
Sorry, no human rights organization worth the name could doubt the defensible cause of the protestors.
6.5.2009 3:42pm
Dana H.:

Had the Tiananmen protesters succeeded and then instigated a Cultural Revolution-style reign of terror, it would have been far worse than the last 20 years.


What in the world makes you think they were after a reign of terror? They built a Statue of Liberty for chrissakes ("The Goddess of Democracy"). Clearly, they were looking to America, not the French or Cultural Revolution, for their inspiration.
6.5.2009 3:44pm
Daniel22 (mail):
They have a long ways to go, but most Chinese (and these include Chinese who have been educated and worked in the US for many years), think that this sort of progress could only have been achieved with a strong central government.

If most chinese really believe that, then the ruling government should have no reason to fear letting people vote to keep them in power. Or need to kill 2,500 people who were demanding democracy.. Clearly, the ruling government is not as convinced itself, as Randy R is, that this is really the view of most Chinese.
6.5.2009 3:44pm
Randy R. (mail):
It's really amazing the naivite of some of the commentators here. Many people seem to think that if the students had been able to overthrow the communist party, it would have been a peaceful transition to democracy, no fighting, no wars, and economic prosperity would meet or exceed the levels they enjoy today.

I suppose that's one possible scenario. But for likely scenarios, we should look to recent Chinese history, and the history of other large, multi-ethnic countries that transitioned to democracy.

In the case of China, they in fact did have a revolution, in 1911. That didn't work out quite as planned, and there was another revolution in 1913. Opps! Didn't quite work out either. So they had another in 1917. All during this period, and continuing much later, they had several war lords who waged civil wars in various provinces, culminating in the Nationalist Revolution of 1926. This, of course, led to the Chinese Civil War from 1927 until the communist revolution of 1949. So I guess, all the failed revoluations aren't enough for some people, they need another round!

During this period, China suffered from famines and invasions. Remember the rape of Nanjing? The puppet emperor of Manchukuo? Throughout this period, millions died. I would wager that since there are still many people living even today who recall these tragedies, there probably isn't much appetite for yet another revolution.

Or let's look at such remarkable success stories as Yugoslavia. As soon as they gained democracy, they decided the best thing to do was to wage war. Since China has a long history (well before the 20th century) or warlordism, it's very likely it would have broken up into warring provinces. And do you really think North Korea would sit still with such a great opportunity to land grab? I'll sure their Dear Leader would leap at the chance to find an excuse to invade northern China and annex parts of it. OF course, millions would die in such an exercise.

Or let's look at how well Russia transitioned. Shining example of democracy? Or perfect example of how a few oligargs rig the system to enrich a few at the expense of many? Or how about Belarus? Romania? Bulgaria? Kazachstan? All the rest of those 'stans'. They've all reverted to murderous dictatorships and many have waged war to divert attention from their deteriorating situations.

Given all these historical examples, a destablized China would like result in warring provinces, warlords, famine, refugees on a mass scale, and the deaths of millions. (nothing in China is ever done on a small scale, that's for sure!) and possible foriegn invasion or harassments. All this, and we would NOT have China buying up all our national debt, making our own economic situation much less tenable for the past 15 years.

Now it's possible that this wouldn't happen. But are you all really ready to bet the lives of millions of Chinese that you are right?

Again, I don't have any answers. I wish we could live in a world of perfect happiness and wealth for everyone. But I'm not naive, and I know that often times the best intensions go awry. History is filled with that. But if you folks know better, I suggest you put your money where your mouth is, and go to China yourselves.
6.5.2009 3:58pm
Randy R. (mail):
Daniel: Clearly, the ruling government is not as convinced itself, as Randy R is, that this is really the view of most Chinese."

I'm not convinced of anything. Rather, I try to see situations as they are, not how I wish them to be. I don't see people seething with anger wanting to overthrow the government. It just isn't there in enough numbers to make much of an impact. Perhaps that should be different, but we can't change reality.

Furthermore, if you really think that the people should revolt and overthrow the system, then you should take a good hard look at the likely consequences. Why, not too long ago, lots of Americans thought it would be a piece of cake to overthrow one dictator and install democracy in a small country in the middle east. Didn't quite work out the way we planned, did it? Yet you are all convinced any revolution would be peaceful, successful, and painless -- contrary to virtually all of history! The English had their Civil War in the 17th century that lasted for decades and laid waste to huge parts of the country. The French revolution was actually led by many aristocrats, and they just wanted to establish a peaceful republic like the US. So how did the Reign of Terror ever start, if no one had those intentions? But Dana just "knows" that China would never have a Reign of Terror because they had such nice intentions! Heck, even in Afghanistan in the early 90s, people actually welcomed the Taliban because they brought stability to a country that had been at war with the Russians for years and was wrecked by civil war. The women even figured that giving up a few freedoms was okay in exchange for a chance to live a normal life once again. THAT is how murderous thugs get started -- they promise peace and stability after a period of chaos. But of course, you are all convinced that could never happen in China. Whatever.

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Or maybe to work slowly for change. It's difficult, slow, and frustrating. And there's no glory in dying on a battlefield. But sometimes it's really the best thing.
6.5.2009 4:12pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
It's really amazing the naivite of some of the commentators here. Many people seem to think that if the students had been able to overthrow the communist party, it would have been a peaceful transition to democracy, no fighting, no wars, and economic prosperity would meet or exceed the levels they enjoy today.

No, I never said that. But if the students had been able to overthrow the Communist Party, they would have OVERTHROWN A CORRUPT COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIP THAT HAS MURDERED TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE. That would have been a very good thing.

Further, it's worth noting that self-determination is a basic human right. In other words, even if you are right about the (doubtful) proposition that a democratic Chinese government that respected human rights would not be able to run the country as well as an authoritarian murderous Communist dictatorship, that misses the point that every day that murderous Communist dictatorship is in power, the rights of 1.2 billion Chinese citizens are being violated.

It really isn't a justification for murderous dictatorships that they make the trains run on time.
6.5.2009 4:25pm
RJO (www):
Like many others I've also posted a recollection on the Tank Man and the long moral arc of the universe.
6.5.2009 4:29pm
c.gray (mail):

I would say that the censorship isn't much worse than in Singapore, which is a real dictatorship, yet I rarely see any criticism of that country.


Yes, Singapore is a real dictatorship. But that society's leaders have never seen the need to deploy soldiers to brutally slaughter unarmed demonstrators.

It's one thing to make apologies for the Chinese government's authoritarian ways. Its actually quite another to make apologies for its wanton brutality.

And the big difference between these two societies is important to any discussion of China. Singapore may be a dictatorship, but it has quite possibly the lowest level of public corruption in the world. In contrast, the animating force behind the protest at Tiananmen twenty years ago, and the steadily growing levels of social unrest across China today, is the staggering corruption encountered among public officials, party members and ordinary civil servants across all levels of society.

All the protestation by China's leaders that their actions are motivated by a desire to avoid social chaos are hollow. The primary motivation of most current members of the system's elite is simply keeping a grip on the perks &cash that being tightly connected to the center of power makes possible in a deeply corrupt society. The ordinary citizen of China gets to experience social chaos anyway while she tries to scrape up bribe money to pay her kid's schoolteacher to do his job.
6.5.2009 4:57pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
In addition to what c.gray said, it's also worth noting that (1) there's a big difference in scale between Singapore, a city-state, and China, the world's most populous nation-- simply put, if China has a repressive regime, a lot more people are denied their basic rights as a result, making it a great problem; and (2) the existence of other regimes on the planet really doesn't excuse the brutality of the butchers in Beijing; obviously, compared to Kim Jong Il's North Korea, China is paradise (a fact that is confirmed in migration patterns), but that hardly is a defense of China.
6.5.2009 5:08pm
Brett Bellmore:

OVERTHROWN A CORRUPT COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIP THAT HAS MURDERED TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE.


That's got to be off by a factor of at least a hundred, and probably a thousand.
6.5.2009 5:10pm
Bob from Ohio (mail):

OVERTHROWN A CORRUPT COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIP THAT HAS MURDERED TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE.


Tens of millions actually. But so long as they have internet access and Ipods, some people don't care.


THAT is how murderous thugs get started -- they promise peace and stability after a period of chaos.


Yes, that is exactly how the present regime came into power in 1948.
6.5.2009 5:11pm
Anderson (mail):

Randy R. - Yup. Much easlier to just insult people than actually try to learn something, or engage in a topic.

No, I mean, literally: your remarks are exactly the kind of crap people wrote about Germany circa 1936. Or about the USSR in the same period, for that matter.

But it's much easier to just assume you've been insulted than to actually try to learn something.
6.5.2009 5:53pm
Javert:

I would say that the censorship isn't much worse than in Singapore, which is a real dictatorship, yet I rarely see any criticism of that country.
Metastatic cancer or SARS. Discuss.
6.5.2009 7:02pm
Desiderius:
Kudos to Anderson and Dilan for their intellectual integrity in this thread. I knew there was a reason (or several) why I love you guys.

BTW, let's not underestimate the heroism of the driver of that tank as well, and what he says about the prospects for China's future.
6.5.2009 10:53pm
Desiderius:
Fedya,

Thanks for filling in that background. I didn't really get up to speed on what was happening until I started reading the Guardian, Independent, Times, and Telegraph each morning (and the Economist each week - what a glorious paper in those days!) upon my arrival at Man U. in Sept '89, and didn't make it to the continent until November.
6.5.2009 10:56pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
EXACTLY. I don't agree with David Nieperont that often, but there's a simple solution for all the Chinese Communists' "problems" with political dissidents-- have free elections and let someone else run the country.
Dilan, who was it who said, "I don't care what you say about me, as long as you spell my name right?"
6.5.2009 11:01pm
Ricardo (mail):
Or let's look at how well Russia transitioned. Shining example of democracy? Or perfect example of how a few oligargs rig the system to enrich a few at the expense of many? Or how about Belarus? Romania? Bulgaria? Kazachstan? All the rest of those 'stans'. They've all reverted to murderous dictatorships and many have waged war to divert attention from their deteriorating situations.

In order, Russia went from centrally planned communist state to capitalist democracy instantly while China even by 1989 had already had a much slower transition toward capitalism. Belarus and some of the other "stan" countries you cite never really transitioned at all. And few people in Romania miss Ceau┼čescu. Your comparisons miss the mark.

I ask again, why not start by comparing China with other countries in East and Southeast Asia that have made the transition to democracy? Some of them have turned out much better than others, but none would have been justifiably prevented from democratizing by massacring protesters. Warlordism is a legitimate fear in China but there is a big difference between having the central government hold elections and be accountable to the people and having a weak central government.

Most Chinese would probably vote for a strong central government: they are tired of being screwed over by corrupt local officials and their complaints right now go nowhere. There was an article a while ago about provincial governments sending secret police to Beijing to intercept citizens lodging complaints with central government authorities there by kidnapping them.
6.6.2009 1:21am
tank treads and ooloong tea:
Randy R. is right, and I concur with his view that most commentators on this thread are a combination of naivete and ignorance. Most seem to assume that revolution is painless -- something not usually borne out by history. And for a gargantuan country like China, with its perennial famines, natural disasters, and wars, "stability" is in fact a paramount concern. Any upheaval would have had unimaginable human costs on a grand scale. It is more than likely that China would not have pulled hundreds of millions out of abject poverty without the stability and political chill wrought by Tiananmen. That's 20 years worth of market reforms potentially lost to the maelstrom. Are you willing to chance the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese on the naive hope that the outcome of revolution would have inevitably been peaceful, not fractious? That it would be Rousseau instead of Robespierre?

One need only look at Russia's painful "transition" to democracy for an inkling of what potential conflagrations await. Xinjiang would have been China's Chechnya, except on a greater scale. 10 years of market reforms at that point would not have survived the internal chaos of a power vacuum. What would have arisen would have been akin to Russia's abortive attempt at capitalism -- oligarchy. Provincial politics and regional power centers would have jousted with each other in a replay of warlordism, as Randy R. insightfully notes. A China with no democratic traditions, no civil institutions capable of withstanding great social shocks, no experience of democratic governance, no bedding-in period to allow for a mature polity to arise organically (as Taiwan and South Korea have had), and riven with sudden internal upheavals would have fared no better than Russia -- or indeed India, which for all its democratic virtues remains sclerotic at the state/provincial level, and came to market reforms 15 years later than the Chinese began theirs. That's a lot of human misery you're willing to wager on an ideological whim, unhinged from any realistic appreciation facts on the ground. Facile "democracy good, Third Reich bad!" remarks don't really add anything of value to this discussion.

If there's one thing I take exception to in Randy's comments, it would his utterly mistaken view of Singapore -- a very malign view that is fringe-certifiable. A dictatorship and corrupt, really? That's as wrong-headed as the many comments here on China. Singapore is authoritarian, certainly, but not a dictatorship. Unless by "dictatorship" you meant a parliamentary democracy where people get to vote on stuff, ranks exceptionally high on economic freedom, consistently ranks as one of the most globalized countries in the world, and is almost untrammeled as to the flow of people and information. And the notion that its leaders are corrupt is certainly out of tinfoil hat territory -- as corrupt as the Swiss, maybe.
6.6.2009 4:50am
Reasoner:
Transitioning China to democracy would be dangerous. Millions may die. Or it might be a good thing. The economy might have grown even faster than it has. So what is right? The supposed stability of tyranny, or the danger and opportunity of freedom?

The motto of New Hampshire is "Live Free or Die". Thomas Jefferson started a war and said "What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

If the Chinese government is to escape condemnation for its killings, it must ask the people who's lives are on the line. Have a fair election, and ask the people of China if they would like to continue with the stability of the current system, or set out on a dangerous struggle for freedom. The fact that no such election is held, shows what the Chinese government thinks the outcome would be.

Absent such authorization, they're just murdering thieves. And to defend such despicable crimes, is a shameful contribution to evil. Stability is just the fraudulent excuse.
6.6.2009 6:50am
Marian Kechlibar:
I understand the Chinese desire for strong central government. Yes, stability is a concern for every multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire. Ask Iran, ask the Ottomans, ask the Austria-Hungary, ask the British rule in India ... ask the USSR. Hell, even Belgium is on the verge of cracking because of irreconcilable hatred between the Flemish and the Walloons, and that is a peaceful, democratic country of size of Alabama.

But the current quasi-communist dictatorship (in my view: it is rather a classical oriental despotism wrapped in a few citations of Mao and Marx) is not a long-term solution for stability. It has been stable for a generation, because the Chinese experienced tremendous economic growth.

But no growth lasts forever, and a major crisis will hit China one day. Maybe it will be this year, maybe in 2025. And then?

What will hundreds of millions of peasants-turned-factory-workers do when they lose jobs? In a society that has been primed to think that bribery and force are the two principles upon power is built, and which has no notion of peaceful and effective negotiation with the powers that be?

Add to the mix the general lack of drinkable water in northern China. About 8% of the world's population lives in northern China, where just 2,5% of the world's fresh water is available. And most of this water gets contaminated beyond drinkability by the local industry, which is preferred by the officials. Not even the Chinese are timid enough to get thirstied to death for fear of authorities.

Really, I cannot see any other scenario than "they-screwed-us-we-kill-them" for any serious crisis in China right now. Of course, in the next years, situation may change in any direction.
6.6.2009 12:44pm
Randy R. (mail):
"(1) there's a big difference in scale between Singapore, a city-state, and China, the world's most populous nation-- simply put, if China has a repressive regime, a lot more people are denied their basic rights as a result, making it a great problem.

I never denied that. I never said that China is any free place, nor have I denied that they deny lots of rights, and have murdered many people. And of course it is a problem. The issue is whether having another revolution would necessarily make anything better for them.

"(2) the existence of other regimes on the planet really doesn't excuse the brutality of the butchers in Beijing; obviously, compared to Kim Jong Il's North Korea, China is paradise (a fact that is confirmed in migration patterns), but that hardly is a defense of China."

Agreed, which is why I haven't defended China. I'm merely saying two things: Sometimes you learn a lot about a country by studying it's history, and that revolutions don't always turn out as pleasant as people hope.

"I ask again, why not start by comparing China with other countries in East and Southeast Asia that have made the transition to democracy? "

Even better, why not compare to China's actual history? It ain't pretty, especially in the 20th century. To assume that any transition to democracy would be easy and pleasant is pretty much a pipe dream.

"Most Chinese would probably vote for a strong central government:

Perhaps so. Which again is my point: having a strong central gov't to deal with local unrest often leads to dictatorship.

Bob: "Tens of millions actually. But so long as they have internet access and Ipods, some people don't care."

And for many Chinese, they are happy with that. I never said that I am. However, I'm not Chinese, and I believe it is for them to decide their future, not you or me.

"THAT is how murderous thugs get started -- they promise peace and stability after a period of chaos.
Yes, that is exactly how the present regime came into power in 1948."

Exactly my point. The numerous revolutions in the early 20th century for China were not to create a dictatorship -- they were to eliminate despots, crime, corruption, chaos and everything else that people were fed up with. But all those revolutions ended up devolving into just that, despite their best intentions. So you get a thug like Mao coming in proming peace and stability, and that leads to another round of dictatorship. The odds that yet another revolution to install democracy in China are rather long, based on recent history. Of course, I could be wrong, but again, are you willing to bet the lives of millions of people on that? Some are, but I'm not quite so arrogant to argue that I know how the future will turn out. Others, of course, disagree.
6.6.2009 1:46pm
Randy R. (mail):
Reasoner: "Absent such authorization, they're just murdering thieves. And to defend such despicable crimes, is a shameful contribution to evil."

Totally agree. That's why I have not defended any of their crimes.

What is interesting, however, is to see that saying anything, anything at all deviates from standard orthodoxy is seen as full throated support for a communist regime.

" Stability is just the fraudulent excuse."

Agreed, but I havne't seen anyone argue that either.

"If the Chinese government is to escape condemnation for its killings, it must ask the people who's lives are on the line. Have a fair election, and ask the people of China if they would like to continue with the stability of the current system, or set out on a dangerous struggle for freedom. The fact that no such election is held, shows what the Chinese government thinks the outcome would be."

Totally agree. So then, what is the solution? What should the average Chinese person do? So far, everyone here condemns the communist gov't. Hurray! Bravo! But words are cheap. I haven't seen a single person here offer any solutions to the problem except come down on me because I had the temerity to actually study a bit of Chinese history and try to understand the mindset of its citizens and its leaders. (We made that mistake in Iraq when we didn't bother to realize the enmity between the various ethnic and religious groups there. Why can't we learn from our mistakes?)

You don't like communist China? Then here is what YOU can do:

Stop shopping at Walmart or any store that obtains any goods from China. Your dollar is used to raise the living standards of average Chinese, which makes them support the current regime.
Eliminate all debt, because China holds more US debt than any other country.

Unless you are actually willing to do that, your words are cheap, and you are nothing than an armchair revolutionary. You want other people to put their lives on the line to satisfy your own political goals. You could also donate money to Chinese democracy movements and resistents. You can study Chinese history to figure out their mindset. Heck, you can even visit the country and talk to people to find out what's really going on.

But of course that aint' gonna happen. Easier to just dump on people who say things you don't like.
6.6.2009 1:59pm
Reasoner:
Randy R. wrote:

I have not defended any of their crimes.

and

The issue is whether having another revolution would necessarily make anything better for them.


The issue this discussion started with was whether "the Chinese protestors had a defensible cause", or whether the Chinese should find out if a peaceful transition to democracy can remain peaceful and make things better. You cited violent and peaceful revolutions that turned out bad or not as good as one would hope. Thus you effectively defended the tyrannical stability of the current regime.

The protesters should have been granted a peaceful revolution before the protest. Failing that, they were justified in starting a violent revolution if need be. If it was a close call whether a violent revolution would be worth a try, then you would be justified in pointing out the dangers of a revolution. But since its not even a close call, you shouldn't even be citing what little reasonable argument there is against a revolution. It would be like if you had been citing some minor advantage of maintaining slavery, in the face of the massive injustice of it. Nobody should stop you from bringing up the stability argument, but it's fair to condemn you for it.

Randy R. wrote:

And there's no glory in dying on a battlefield.

If you're fighting for freedom, there sure as hell is! Giving your life for the benefit of humanity deserves the ultimate respect. Barring some breakthrough in medicine, everybody dies some day. If you want your life to have some meaning, if you want to make a lasting, valued, and respected contribution to humanity, risking your life fighting for justice is an excellent occupation. If we don't promote, support, and contribute to the military fight for justice, we will be overrun by evil attackers. The totally pacifist ideology cant yet work in this world, and it very likely never will.

Randy R. wrote:

What should the average Chinese person do?

I don't know. It may be a good idea to hold off on revolution for another ten years or so, to give the internet more of a chance to spread the thirst for freedom. But I certianly wouldn't say the protesters didn't have a defensible cause, or much less that the risk is too great that a peaceful transition to democracy would go bad.
6.6.2009 7:28pm
Desiderius:
Tank Treads,

"Are you willing to chance the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese on the naive hope that the outcome of revolution would have inevitably been peaceful, not fractious?"

Not peaceful, just just. I'm proud of my naivete on that count, thanks.
6.6.2009 9:15pm
Randy R. (mail):
Reasonser: "The issue this discussion started with was whether "the Chinese protestors had a defensible cause", or whether the Chinese should find out if a peaceful transition to democracy can remain peaceful and make things better."

I never doubted that the protestors had a defensible cause. Certainly in 1988 they did. I do doubt that there could have been a peaceful transition to democracy. The fact that the protests eventually ended in the killing of thousands supports my notion. I seriously doubt that the Communist party in China would have given up power then or now without a fight.

" You cited violent and peaceful revolutions that turned out bad or not as good as one would hope. Thus you effectively defended the tyrannical stability of the current regime."

Yes of course. I defended it as a bad outcome, but one that is better than the alternative. Others may argue that civil war is better than the current regime, but I believe it isn't. I suppose that's something reasonable people can disagree upon. However, if you are going to urge people to civil war (which I believe is inevitable if you try to overthrow the party, and are even partially sucessful in doing so), then you really should consider the opinions of those most affected, which are the Chinese.

And like or not, the Chinese are on the whole not inclined to revolt against the party today, and it it diminishes with each passing year. Will this continue? I have no idea -- I can't see into the future. Wishing it were so doesn't change these facts, despite the what others are hoping for.

There is an interesting Op ed in today's Washington Post by journalist John Pomfret who was in the Square during those protests, and basically says the same thing as I do. Please take a look at it. The chinese have far more freedoms today than they did in 1988, more money, more of a future than ever before. In 1988, it was a tightly controlled society -- in the intervening years, the Party has given up a lot of control. IN short, they have done exactly what we would like them to do as a Plan B; If you aren't going to give up power, at least let people have more personal freedoms, tremendous economic freedoms, and the right to personal property. They have done just that, perhaps not as fast as our time table would require, but there is no question that the average chinese person has more freedom today than they did 20 years ago. And more food. Wouldn't you agree these are good things? Or is PC so prevalent upon the right that we can't even acknowledge basic facts?

Yes, they still have a long way to go, and there are plenty of things that need to be done. But again, the chinese think longterm, as befits a culture of 5000 years. The fact that the party has been in control for about 60 years is but a blip in their history books, and they know that eventually this will pass, as I agree it will and should at some point.
6.7.2009 11:34am
Randy R. (mail):
tank treads: "If there's one thing I take exception to in Randy's comments, it would his utterly mistaken view of Singapore -- a very malign view that is fringe-certifiable. "

Oh total baloney.

Have you been to Singapore? Because I have. And every time a cab driver or restaurant owner learned that I was an American, they started complaining bitterly about their government. The parliamentary democracy is a shame, because any real opposition is first slandered, then harassed, and if still viable, eventually jailed under trumped up charges. Bankrupt politicians can't run for office, you know.

From an opposition website: :The sham opposition I'm referring to is the Wayang Party. Why do I call it a sham opposition? It is because over time, we have seen that through its words and actions, it has no real intention of opposing the ruling party, but only making a show and pretending that it is opposing."

In other words, Singapore is effectively a one party state tightly controlled by its leaders and his cronies.

The cab drivers complained to me that all the cab companies are all owned by a brother of the leader. When I spoke with tech companies, they complained that the leaders were forcing them to go online in ways that they didn't like, but they couldn't refuse because of gov't edicts. In other words, the economy is more tightly controlled by the gov't than most are willing to admit. No one liked it and they want real democracy, not the sham elections that they go through. In fact, I find far more discontent among the average person in Singapore towards their govt' than I do in China. Admittedly, that's just anecdotal evidence, but at least it is first hand.

Apparently, the Singapore gov't has done a very good job in snowing you. Funny how the liberal media can be trusted on such issues!

Oh, and homosexuality is outlawed there, and gays are indeed harassed, something that rarely occurs in China anymore. But I guess that might be a good thing, depending upon your views on such matters.
6.7.2009 11:49am
tank treads and ooloong tea:
I live in Singapore, genius. I know this country better than you ever could, and it strikes me that you're profoundly mistaken.

If anecdotal diatribes from cab drivers are all you have, then may I suggest that the one getting snowed is you? Cab drivers complain bitterly about everything, often in exaggerated terms. Many are rather good at detecting the latent antipathies of their passengers and especially adept at giving a spiel suited to their audience. It happens, sometimes to the gullible. You got snowed.

The cab drivers complained to me that all the cab companies are all owned by a brother of the leader.

Quelle horreur! Which cab companies? By whom? Name and shame! The "leader" (do you even know who he is?) only has one brother, so the odd phraseology ("a" brother) suggests that you don't know what you're talking about. You even seem unaware of the correct appellation for the "leader" (you mean "Prime Minister," btw) which reinforces the impression that you are unfamiliar with your subject-matter, if not completely at sea.

In other words, Singapore is effectively a one party state tightly controlled by its leaders and his cronies.

So is San Francisco and Berkeley for that matter, but that hardly makes these places "dictatorships." I believe Bryan Caplan has already debunked this particular conceit (see link, supra). Don't take my word for it -- take his.

From an opposition website

Yes, I knew from the start that the manic tenor of your Singapore comments was probably taken from one of these websites that border on the crankish (amazingly, they haven't yet been shut down or banned in this dictatorial city-state -- help! I'm oppressed!), which is why I so quickly fingered you for venturing into tin-foil hat territory on Singapore. Citing a fringe website as support for your fringe theory makes my point: It's akin to citing Alex Jones or Democratic Underground when inveighing against the federal government.

Risible. And not credible.

Oh, and homosexuality is outlawed there, and gays are indeed harassed

I guess this colors your views about everything. No, gays are not "harassed" because anti-sodomy laws, while they remain on the books, are as far I'm aware no longer enforced. They have lapsed into a kind of benign desuetude. Official opporobium does not translate to "harassment," unless you have a very low bar for what harassment is.
6.8.2009 6:54am
AKE138 (mail):
"Many people seem to think that if the students had been able to overthrow the communist party, it would have been a peaceful transition to democracy, no fighting, no wars, and economic prosperity would meet or exceed the levels they enjoy today."

Li Peng, is that you???

The students weren't looking to overthrow the party. The fact that hardliners in the politburo decided, halfway through the protests, that "black hands" and foreign subversives were behind the whole plot was an excuse, not a reason. And what really freaked the party out was the workers joining in the protests. Couldn't have the workers forming non-party-run autonomous unions, now could we? Yes, what a clear and imminent danger to national stability that was.

The government had many opportunities, from April 15 through June 3, to calm the situation by conducting credible, productive meetings with students. Instead they ignored the students or held rigged meetings. Did the students handle every situation well? No. But the students were 19- and 20-year-old kids. The standing committee and the elders were experienced politicians and administrators. It is UNBELIEVABLE that they sent tanks into Tiananmen on June 3-4. There's no argument that will get you around that.
6.8.2009 12:27pm
AKE138 (mail):
And by the way, Randy, that is NOT what John Pomfret said in his editorial.
6.8.2009 12:30pm

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