Two Tales Of Tyranny


Thirty years is a long time.  It’s more than a generation.  It’s on the very edge of living memory.  So it’s no surprise that not many people know that today marks the 30th anniversary of two very important events in the history of tyranny.  One — under the diligent efforts of an oppressive government — fading from view; the other, largely forgotten for very different reasons.

In the spring of 1989, protests across China were gathering momentum.  They called for the total reform of the Communist government, and their epicentre was Tiananmen Square.  The Square had been occupied by thousands of students from Beijing’s universities since the middle of April.  On May 20th, the Chinese government declared martial law and ordered the students to leave.  In an unheard of act of disobedience, the students refused.  Two weeks later, on a warm evening in June, Deng Xiaoping called in the military, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square began hearing reports that the People’s Liberation Army was on the march.  What they didn’t know was the unarmed citizens of Beijing were fighting a desperate battle to stop the tanks.  All over Beijing, ordinary people had crowded into the streets to defy the People’s army – human barriers facing totalitarian steel.  The army didn’t care.  They had their orders.  They opened fire.  Stunned and enraged, the people fought back.  They threw up makeshift barricades and pelted the trucks with bottles, stones and Molotov cocktails.  But there was never any doubt: shopkeepers and office workers are no match for professional soldiers with automatic weapons.  Hundreds were killed that night, thousands injured and the trucks rolled on; their objective, the students in Tiananmen Square.  By midnight, the Square was surrounded and the young people were given an ultimatum: leave Tiananmen, or face the consequences.

There is no definitive account of what happened next.  Some say hundreds more were killed, but the Chinese government insists that there were no further casualties.  What we do know is most of the students did not leave voluntarily.  (There are videos of them, amid sporadic gunfire, shaking their fists at the soldiers and singing The Internationale.)  But we also know that, by mid-morning, the students were gone, and later, when a crowd of people (mostly parents looking for their children) approached the Square, the soldiers once again opened fire and then called in more tanks.  (We have a famous photograph of one man’s brave attempt to stop them.)  Whatever happened in the dark, early hours of June 4th, by the end of the day, the Chinese Spring was essentially over; ironically, crushed by the People’s Liberation Army.

Halfway around the world, June 4th, 1989 was Election Day in Poland.  But this was no ordinary election because, for the first time in 50 years, there was more than one name on the ballot.  For the first time since Hitler and Stalin had carved up the country in 1939, Poles had an opportunity to choose who would rule them, and millions were determined to make that choice.  In the big cities, the turnout was cautious; still, thousands waited patiently for their turn at democracy.  In other parts of the country, small towns were virtually shut down as everyone who could, went to the polling stations.  By the end of the day, it was clear that Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Party had broken the power of the Communists.  They’d won every seat they were allowed to contest in the Sejm (parliament) and 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate.  Their victory was so overwhelming many thought Moscow would annul the vote and send in the Red Army. (It had been done before.)  But Mikhail Gorbachev was not Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1989, the Soviet Union had its own problems.  The results were allowed to stand.  It was the first tear in the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe and dominated world politics for 45 years.  Here was proof that the Communist State was not invincible.  Within four months, the people of Berlin had pulled down the Berlin Wall.  Less than a year later, most of the other Warsaw Pact nations had held their own free elections, and Germany was reunified.  Within two years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed: the Cold War was over.

Today, no one much remembers Lech Walesa, the Soviet Union or the Cold War, and China’s economic power has made it expedient to shut up about Tiananmen Square.  Besides, our world is much more concerned about who’s wearing what on the Red Carpet and which celebrity wrote something unfortunate on Facebook five years ago.  But we need to remember these tales of tyranny because — even though eventually the pen is always mightier that the sword — there are also hard occasions when the sword wins.

The Great Chinese Boycott

China is flexing its muscles today.  They’ve organized a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for Liu Xiaobo.  He’s one of the few survivors of Tiananmen Square in ’89, and he’s currently serving an 11 year prison sentence for not keeping his mouth shut.  China’s position on his Peace Prize was made clear when they said, “We are against anybody making an issue out of Liu Xiaobo and interfering in China’s judicial affairs.  We will not change because of interference by a few clowns.”  I’m not sure whether anybody knows if the “few clowns” are confined to the Nobel Committee or not.  Either way, the boycott is supported by all the usual suspects: Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela and about a dozen other countries who think Human Rights are something the Americans made up just to piss them off.  Russia has joined the boycott too, but that’s understandable insofar as they don’t want of string of their own dissidents trooping to the podium in the future.  The most notable of the absentees, however, is going to be Navi Pillay, head honcho of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights.  Somehow, she suddenly discovered she had a subsequent engagement.  While it’s true the UN has basically been turned into a Will Ferrell comedy, it’s still significant to note that China has enough pull in the Hall of Has-Beens to push their Commissioners around.  Diplomats are like dogs; they know who’s jerking their chain.

The United Nations isn’t the only place that China is calling the shots, these days.  More and more, developing nations, especially in Africa, are looking at China as the model to build political and financial power around.  They see double digit economic growth as a good thing and they want to get in on it.  The inherent value of democracy pales in comparison to money in the bank.  China is using this situation to enhance its power around the world.  They are dropping billions into developing markets with — and this is extremely important — no strings attached.  In other words, financial assistance from China doesn’t come complete with the Clintons wandering around, asking awkward questions and wanting to see the receipts.

To be fair, China isn’t doing anything that much differently from any other world power in history.  They’ve amassed a certain level of economic and political stability, and they want their “place in the sun.”  In their minds, they think they’ve earned it and they don’t feel the need to be lectured at by western democracies who collectively look like a train wreck.  On the one hand, I don’t blame them.  I wouldn’t really be interested in the EU telling me what to do, right now.

On the other hand, China has a lot to answer for.  They didn’t get to their present position of power without some casualties along the way.  Their environmental record sucks.  Their safety standards are literally murderous.  And their trade practices are on the Tony Soprano side of criminal.  There’s also Tibet and their treatment of the Uyghur and a few other ethnic minorities.  These are serious problems that China is going to have to address very quickly.  In an ever-shrinking world, their impact is felt far beyond China’s borders.

Then, there’s the whole question of Human Rights.  Since Tiananmen Square, there has been an ever-increasing constriction on what ordinary Chinese people can see, hear, say and possibly even smell.  Even as we speak, most western news agencies — including the BBC and CNN — have been blocked out of China.  Over the last decade, China has vigorously defended its cyber-sovereignty and aggressively kept things like Facebook and Google from reaching into the Middle Kingdom.  They see western ideas of personal choice and freedom as dysfunctional in Chinese society.  They maintain that you can’t build the world’s second largest economy when you have a billion people running around in all directions.  That’s why a Nobel Prize to a dissident like Liu Xiaobo is such a big deal to them.  They believe he is the potential thin edge of the wedge that could tip the whole structure over and send it crashing into chaos – and they’re absolutely right.

History teaches us that you can’t give a modern society economic power without political power.  It’s impossible.  In a nutshell, a robust economy breeds a middle class, which has to be educated to keep the machines running.  Educated people discover ideas, the great equalizer in any society.  And people who believe in equality don’t like to get pushed around.  It’s just that simple.  Totalitarian regimes have tried throughout history to suppress ideas, but the only thing that happens is discussion goes underground and the accumulated anger and frustration continue to build.  Eventually, it boils over.  China has a rendezvous with history that cannot be denied.  They can either accept it, and avoid catastrophe by slowly moving towards an open democratic society, or they can carry on deluding themselves and suffer the consequences.  It’s not as if the Dragon Throne hasn’t seen revolution or two in its time.  Believe me, this particular dynasty isn’t much different from all those other ones.

In the short term, however, China’s power will continue to grow in exact proportion to the world’s appetite for cheap consumer goods.  They will continue to fuel the collective Western economy with surplus cash, and they will continue to suppress internal discontent.  Liu Xiaobo will languish in prison.  Academics in North America will slap on another bumper sticker beside “Free Tibet,” and the world will continue to spin.  But one of these days, unless something changes very soon, another Liu Xiaobo is going to come along, and the Mao Dynasty is going to end up just as dead as the Ming.