Tiananmen, 15 Years Later

by on June 4th, 2004

Nicholas Kristoff considers growing western engagement and the government’s increasing tolerance for capitalist activity to constitute a victory over Communism in China. While I agree that reforms have taken place and that many Chinese are better off than they were a decade ago, I somehow doubt that those still suffering under the “fraying” Communist dynasty would agree that meaningful changes have occurred.

Yesterday, Chinese authorities released three Christian activists who had been detained for a month for daring to talk about their beliefs. Two had been charged with “disturbing public order” for trying to set up classes on Catholic morality, while the third was arrested during a harvest celebration. One of the ministers reported that he was only “lightly beaten,” as though that were a good thing. Dozens of religious leaders and thousands of practitioners of Buddhism, Falun Gong, and other religions are still in prison. During September and October of 2003, 44 Falun Gong practitioners died under severe torture in detention centers and labor camps spread across 16 provinces. For the religious, China’s revolution is clearly not “finished.”

Chinese Communism is also alive and well when it comes to repression of free speech. In 1996, a survivor of the Tiananmen massacre compiled a list of political prisoners being held by the Chinese government and gave it to western human rights activists. He was charged with “providing state secrets to entities overseas” and spent almost nine years in solitary confinement until his release last week. Other activists have served sentences as long as 30 years for publishing newspapers, discussing structural reform within the Communist Party, or “counter-revolutionary” activities.

China has, to be sure, reformed quite a bit in the last 15 years. The economy is more open, people have greater choice of careers and residences, and the government is somewhat less repressive than it has been in the past. However, just as we wouldn’t judge South Africa’s apartheid regime based on the contentment of whites, we should not judge China based solely on the growing prosperity of the middle class. While protests still occur, it seems that many young Chinese have been lulled into complacence by the limited economic reforms and are not as motivated as previous generations to fight oppression. Meanwhile, thousands of political prisoners languish in “re-education labor camps,” corruption and government graft thrive, and political reform stagnates.

Unfortunately, I don’t agree that political change could come to China at “any time.” Democratic nations and their citizens must make a greater effort to trade with China and circumvent their powerful censors to bring the ideas of freedom and self-rule to the Chinese people. They need to get excited about democracy again, and that may require violence. I agree that greater involvement and exchanges with the citizens of many countries against whom the U.S. has sanctions might bring some limited reform to those countries as well. But that alone has not been enough in China, and will not be enough elsewhere in the world. If we want a revolution in China, we must continue to help foment one, and declaring that “China today is no longer a Communist nation in any meaningful sense” is not going to help capture the righteous anger that has brought real reform to other parts of the world.

Amy Phillips