Thirty Years After Tiananmen: It’s Time to Face Facts and Join Forces

June 04, 2019
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Anniversaries invite us to put contemporary events into perspective. The 30th anniversary of the crushing of the popular movement in and around Tiananmen Square on 3–4 June 1989 drives home a simple and obvious fact: the Chinese Communist Party is still here and maintains a total silence on 4 June. The strict, Leninist, ideological, intolerant and dictatorial rule of the CCP in China has become resurgent and stronger, backed up by economic might and technical ability. Not only is the CCP not going away, it appears to be getting stronger.

In fact, the party isn’t necessarily stronger. It faces severe challenges at home and brewing conflicts abroad. Much of the domestic repression and international bravado we see in China reflects an anxious effort to ensure the survival of the party-state.

But, for us in the West, the anniversary of the violent repression of peaceful protests in Beijing and other Chinese cities in June 1989 is a reminder and invitation to review the 30 years of our relations with China. We have to deal with the government of the People’s Republic of China as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Scholars have pointed out since the 1990s that economic liberalisation and the opening of China’s markets to world trade would not inevitably lead to democratisation as an automatic effect of a rising middle class. Political and popular opinion was more hopeful, and US President Bill Clinton famously expressed the confidence that China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in December 2001 would lead to liberalisation, an implied promise that China would become ‘more like us’.

It’s only in the past few years that public sentiment has turned and the realisation has sunk in that, somehow, we’ve been cheated. We let China into the WTO on a preferential basis, it made a lot of money, and it didn’t uphold its end of the bargain.

There was no bargain. The CCP knew what Clinton wanted and just assumed it was part of the US’s assault on the party’s rule. So, China’s leaders methodically set about taking the benefits of globalisation without the institutions of political liberalisation or democratisation. The CCP’s steely determination was evident on 5 June 1989.

Thirty years later, it’s clear that the Chinese party-state hasn’t crumbled, as many predicted it would in the early 1990s (and a doughty few announce annually), but has survived, and in many ways is more powerful.

Yet, at the same time, we know the current government in China faces severe challenges from economic stress, social unrest among workers and the left-behind, mounting ethnic tensions, and profound environmental problems of pollution and access to water. This has provoked anxious responses from the party that include brutal repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, imprisonment of Chinese lawyers for trying to apply Chinese law, and harassment of Marxist youth groups in Beijing’s universities for supporting workers, as well as a harsh but so far ineffective crackdown on endemic party corruption. Given these domestic challenges and the repressive responses of the current government in China, its increasing global power makes it dangerous. Dangerous to its own people, and dangerous to the world.

So, what should we do? We can’t change China fundamentally, but we can influence and modify the actions of the Chinese government in the world. Domestically, we are going to have to respect China’s sovereignty even as we regret and criticise the CCP’s policies. The mass detention camps in Xinjiang deserve concerted and continuous public criticism.

Nonetheless, our job now is not to change China or bring about regime change but to create and enforce the structures and incentives that we feel promote a good global order. Most fundamentally, this means we have got to work together—Australia, Canada, the EU, even the United States—when we can. Liberal countries, liberal democracies have to work together more effectively to promote a peaceful and fair global order. We need to spend less time trying to fix China and more time shoring up our ability to take care of ourselves, our societies and all of our citizens.

In short, we need to play better football. This simple metaphor suggests three ways to respond to the realities of China 30 years after Tiananmen: study the other side, bring our team together, and build a better league—that is, strengthen our China capacity.

We need many, many more citizens in government, business and public life who can read, speak and write Chinese and who have the professional training and career opportunities to build a strong and deep knowledge base about China and Chinese history, culture, politics, economics and military affairs.

We need to welcome, engage and work with our citizens of Chinese descent. They are not the problem; they are an indispensable part of the solution with their cultural knowledge and personal contacts in China’s civil society.

Finally, we need to form a united front of liberal societies to build and defend the rules of fair play. We won’t have the organisational discipline of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, but we will have the more enduring strength of transparency and free societies working in concert.



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