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It is hard to believe that it has been nearly a half century since 1972 newspaper headlines screamed: “Nixon goes to China.”

The process of normalizing relations with China continues to this day, deepening a relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China — perhaps the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Going forward, most important global issues will intersect at the corner of Washington and Beijing.

I took the first of many trips to China in May of 1989 even as millions of Chinese students gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the corruption of their leaders, calling for greater “freedom and democracy.” As I stood with a million protesting students in Tiananmen Square then, they asked a penetrating question that haunts me to this day: “Describe democracy, describe freedom?”

As Americans we can live in the country or city of our choosing, decide whether to have as many children (or not) as we wish and can support. We believe in and worship the God of our choosing, can follow our own professional path — be it university or trade — and read any books we like. Ours is a land of not only second chances, but of multiple chances to reinvent ourselves. Democracy is the ability to choose for oneself.

This was May 19, 1989.

Two weeks later, on June 4, China’s People’s Liberation Army began firing on its own people.

What has transpired over China’s 5,000-year history is nothing short of amazing, but the last 35 years have been truly remarkable and universally acknowledged as a stunning reversal of fortune for China.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s post-Mao leader exhorted his people: “We must catch up with the times, and this is the objective of our reforms.”

Today, decades after Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world, the nation has evolved into one of the world’s largest trading partners and economies. In essence, China bypassed its own Industrial Revolution, fast-forwarding directly to all the problems of a modern nation: pollution, social injustice, and inequality while bringing seismic economic and political shifts to its people and culture.

Deng knew the old ways were failing China’s people and that without the support of them, the Party could topple. Prosperity was the ticket to staying in power. In explaining his shift in thought Deng said, “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice.”

That day Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese leadership made clear that certain freedoms to “grow rich” would be encouraged, but political freedom would not be tolerated and would be forcibly suppressed. Perhaps it is to be expected that a country struggling to overcome the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Today’s China is still grappling with these issues. Xi Jianping, China’s current president, is waging war on corruption and cracking down hard on dissidents. At the same time, more than 500 million Chinese citizens have risen out of abject poverty into China’s middle class.

The unspoken trade-off between the rulers and the ruled seems to be: If our (Chinese) lives improve, then you (Communist Party) can remain in power. Time will tell if all the adaptations and changes of the past that resulted in today’s China, will positively impact the lives of the students I met in 1989.

Tom Watkins, an adviser to the Michigan’s Economic Development Corp. and Detroit Chinese Business Association, is president, CEO and executive director of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Twitter: @tdwatkins88

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