Opinion: 30 years after Tiananmen Square, China has modernized, but government holds reins

Tom Watkins
Students in Tiananmen Square asked a penetrating question: “Describe democracy, describe freedom?”

Thirty years ago, on June 4, 1989, shots were heard around the world when China’s People’s Liberation Army turned its guns on the Chinese people in Tiananmen Square.

Students had gathered there to demand an end to corruption with calls for greater freedoms and democracy. They were answered with guns and army tanks. 

The Chinese Communist Party claimed it needed to take drastic action to address these hooligans who were disrupting the peace. What the world witnessed — in real time — was upwards of a million Chinese people, primarily young college students, peacefully petitioning their government for change, freedom and an end to government corruption. It ended in bloodshed.

I remember this sad episode in Chinese history. I was in China on the first of what would later become dozens of trips there over the next 30 years. In fact, I had spent a few nights In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square talking to the students in mid-May of that fateful year.

The students who crowded round me in 1989 peppered me with questions. All these decades later, one student’s stinging question still haunts me: “Describe freedom? Describe democracy?”

I felt totally inadequate in describing what we as Americans take for granted — freedom and democracy. Trying to explain it to the idealistic students felt like trying to describe what it is like to wake up and start breathing.

To this day, I wonder if this student’s fateful question has ever been definitively answered.

China's Communist Party’s greatest fear is not an attack from outside of China, but an uprising from its own people within. The Times of London reports that Beijing has launched a crackdown on what authorities fear might be a rise in dissent before the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

Recently, China substantially increased spending on domestic security, reflecting mounting concern about threats inside its borders. Beijing’s budgets for internal and external security have grown faster than the economy as a whole for several years, but domestic security spending has grown far faster — to where it exceeds the national defense budget by roughly 20 percent.

June 4, 1989, was not China’s proudest moment.

Many people of my boomer generation well remember our '60s education that China was a backward Communist county — some parents even implored their children to "eat your peas — kids are starving in China." This was well before China modernized and opened itself to the world. Today, China is eating our lunch.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s opening itself to the world, transforming itself into a global economic superpower. Today, 40 years after Deng Xiaoping opened China, the nation has evolved into one of the world's largest trading partners and economies. The country essentially compressed hundreds of years of its missed Industrial Revolution into just a few decades of change. At the same time, it has had to deal with the accompanying problems of an industrial age: pollution, social injustices and inequality.

The Trump doctrine is evolving but clearly after more than four decades of China engagement it is obvious that the U.S. policy has failed to liberalize China, and the U.S. expectation that engaging and waiting on China will result in them embracing Western democracy and freedom. 

China has emerged as a new economic, if not military and diplomatic superpower under the unprecedented communist model of authoritarian capitalism. 

Clearly Michigan has benefited from China’s rise and global investment. According to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., in 2016 Michigan ranked second in the nation for the number of investment projects from China. Michigan also ranks third in the nation for the number of jobs created by Chinese investment.

Today we are living through disruptive, transformational, unpredictable, technology-driven global change where ideas and jobs can — and do — move around the world effortlessly. China and the United States are the major players on the world stage.

While forgotten by many, June 4, 1989, tarnished China’s international image at the time, and the memory of Tienanmen pops up like a whack-a-mole to this day.

With China’s newfound prosperity and standing in the world, perhaps one day students will learn the legacy of Tiananmen as they begin to learn about freedom and democracy.

The world, while challenging China on its trade practices and with lesser intensity and degree on its human rights record, hopes for China’s continued success because perhaps the only fear greater than China’s continued rise would be its demise.

Tom Watkins is an education and business consultant in the Unites States and China. He is on the advisory board of the Michigan/China Innovation Center.