Thirty-one years ago today, the world watched with a mixture of hope and anticipation as over a million people gathered peacefully to demand democracy and human rights in the streets of Beijing and over 400 other Chinese cities.
The promise of those heady days ended tragically with broken bodies and broken dreams. Dreams that were brutally suppressed by a Chinese Communist Party that will go to any length to keep its grip on power.
On that fateful day mothers lost sons, fathers lost daughters, and China lost an incredibly brave and idealistic generation to the tanks that rolled down Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
We solemnly remember the Tiananmen massacre because there is still absolutely no justice for those who lost their lives or suffered imprisonment and torture for peacefully seeking freedom and reform.
We commemorate the tragedy of Tiananmen each year because it is an event too important to forget and too dangerous to commemorate in China.
For over three decades, the big lie proffered by the Chinese communist government is that no one died on the Square.
In December of 1996, Bill Clinton invited Chi Haotien—AKA the Butcher of Beijing– to the White House and honored him with a 19-gun salute and pageantry fit for a king.
As operational military commander during the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, General Chi played a major role in the bloodbath. But while on that trip to Washington, General Chi, now defense minister, said “no one died on Tiananmen Square”.
Outraged, I immediately put together an emergency congressional hearing entitled—Was there a Tiananmen Massacre: The Visit of General Chi and heard from an expert panel that included the Time magazine Beijing bureau chief who saw it all and wrote about the killings and Amnesty International. I also invited Chi or anyone from the Chinese embassy to give an account. Not unexpectedly, he, was a no-show.
Despite the decades and rapid change in China, the fundamental brutality of the Chinese Communist government has not disappeared—and in recent years under dictator-for-life Xi Jinping has gotten demonstrably worse.
The scope of domestic repression in China is breathtaking, with more censorship, torture, and arbitrary detention than at any time since 1989. Indeed, technology-driven control by the State is greater now than at any point of history.
Communist Party officials and their propaganda organs regularly attack “universal values,” “Western ideals,” and “foreign influence,” seeking to blunt criticism of China’s human rights record.
General Secretary Xi Jinping has pushed through national security laws that legitimize repression of independent religious practice and stifle civil society, expanding censorship of online expression.
Rights lawyers are tortured, citizen journalists are jailed and foreign journalists are expelled.
Tibetan culture and religion are systematically destroyed and over a million Uyghurs and other predominately Muslim ethnic minorities are interned in concentration camps, forced to labor on goods that end up in global markets—something which stirs up a particularly poignant memory in me, having visited Beijing Prison # 1 in 1991 where I saw gaunt Tiananmen prisoners, heads shaved, stooped over machines while making clothing for export to the United States and other markets.
And, as we all know too well, the flame of freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong is being extinguished as we speak.
We are truly blind if we don’t recognize that there is a direct connection between Beijing’s domestic repression and its international aggression. The Chinese Communist government is staging a systematic assault on international norms and rules, exporting its model of censorship and repression to the world’s petty-dictators and authoritarians.
The U.S. needs to lead a global coalition of the democratic willing to push back against Beijing’s ambitions, before the subtle erosion of democratic values and governance models leads to eventual economic domination. This means countries of the European Union must reject offers by Chinese companies such as Huawei to build a 5G network, something which should raise security and privacy concerns.
The U.S. and the international community must start to demand transparency, adherence to international rules and norms, and an end to coercive influence operations as a starting point of diplomatic relations. We must shine a light on egregious human rights abuses and attempts to corrupt universal values globally.
Because political reforms will only come from the Chinese people themselves, we must stand with them as they face the inevitable repression and assure them, in the loudest voices we can muster, that their sacrifices will not be forgotten.
We either stand with Tank Man—the brave Tiananmen protestor who stood up to oppression—or we stand with the tank.
Failure to do so only gives the Chinese Communist government license to continue strangling dissent.
The Trump Administration has rightly started to reformulate U.S.-China relations as a strategic competition, addressing unfair trade practices and calling out serious human rights abuses, particular the mass internment of Uyghurs. Congress has passed more consequential and bipartisan human rights legislation on China in the past year than at any time before.
Nevertheless, the American people need to be educated about the nature of the challenges posed by the Chinese Communist government and clear articulations of the measures needed to meet them.
Such messaging must avoid fostering an atmosphere of unfair suspicion of Chinese-Americans, who are often targets of coercive political influence operations by Chinese government officials. In addition, U.S. messaging must clearly differentiate between the people and culture of China and the Chinese Communist Party and government.
The road ahead will not be easy. Western nations for too long bought into the fantasy that increased trade and integration into the international system – the so-called “Engagement Theory – would lead to a more democratic and tolerant Chinese Communist government. China is richer now but less tolerant of dissent and more willing to use its wealth to remake the international system to reflect is interests.
But failure to integrate values and interests in our China policy is something we can no longer afford.
In the end, the health of the U.S. economic and environment, the safety of our food and drug supplies, the security of sensitive personal information and investments, the health of America’s citizens, and stability in the Pacific will depend on the Chinese Communist government complying with international law. If they cannot do so, if they continue to refuse to allow the free flow of news and information and the development of an independent judiciary and civil society, the China must be contained and quarantined from the international system, until such time as they do change.
It is easy to be pessimistic during the time of Xi Jinping’s rule. I am not. The hopes of the Tiananmen protesters survive among the Chinese people today and they continue to seek human rights and political reforms, often at great personal risks.
As the late Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo said, “there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”
That is the day we must be working toward.