Twenty-five years ago, it was possible to believe that the contest between democratic and authoritarian ideas of how societies should be organized was ending. East Germans breached their wall; Chileans voted to end the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet; and on June 4, 1989, in Poland, Solidarity won the first round of Eastern Europe’s first free, post-Communist election. But June 4 was also the day Chinese troops put down student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, ending hopes that China would join the changes sweeping the world. Ballots and bullets competed to define the age. The contest of ideas continued.
Looking back on the Tiananmen movement, it is striking how modest the protesters’ demands were: an end to press censorship and restrictions on demonstrations; openness about the income of state leaders; increased funding for education. Since then, China has made progress in many ways: building a modern economy, lifting hundreds of millions from poverty and becoming an influential power. It is hard to imagine how granting the demonstrators’ demands would have held back any of this progress; on the contrary, China could have advanced even further and shared those advances with even more of its people.
Yet many who stood on Tiananmen Square that day, asking only for the freedom to speak their minds and to take part in their country’s political life, are still harassed. The government has detained dozens of people, including parents of those who lost their lives in the bloody crackdown, merely for commemorating the anniversary in the privacy of their homes.
And so now, the United States is asking of the Chinese government what we have asked — and what the Chinese families of the fallen have asked — for 25 years: to provide the fullest possible accounting of the Tiananmen events and to stop retribution against those who wish to remember them. We ask Chinese authorities to release prisoners of conscience, lifting up, rather than knocking down, the brave souls who work for goals that China’s government says it supports: respect for Chinese law and a state more accountable to its citizens. A strong and confident nation would not fear such people or avoid coming to terms with the painful moments of its past.
What does this mean for the United States’ relationship with China? Few relationships are more complex or important to the security and prosperity of the world. U.S. security is enhanced when we cooperate with China on challenges from North Korea to Iran to South Sudan. Our trade relationship strengthens our economy and supports American jobs. As national security adviser Susan Rice has said: “That’s precisely why we have a stake in what kind of power China will become, and that is why human rights are integral to our engagement with China.”
The rule of law that China’s dissidents ask for is important to U.S. businesses investing in China as well. The respect for the rights of minorities that China’s Tibetan and Uighur activists champion would prevent instability that could spill across China’s borders. The freedom of expression that China’s “netizens” demand is vital to exposing and correcting environmental, public health and product safety problems in China, which increasingly affect Americans, too. In moments of tension between our governments, uncensored media would also allow the Chinese and American people to form conclusions from the same set of facts.
China has a stake in domestic developments in the United States; its government often comments on our efforts to stabilize our economy and our deficits. Likewise, as China grows more integrated with the world, its economic, environmental and security problems will increasingly be our problems, too. Those kinds of problems get solved only where governments allow civil society to flourish, people to communicate, journalists to write and judges to judge, without government interference.
If there is disagreement on this point, it is between the Chinese and U.S. governments, not between the Chinese and American people. Given a choice, most people in China would undoubtedly choose more access to information, not less, and a greater, not weaker, say in the decisions that affect their lives.
In his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech, delivered in absentia, China’s imprisoned democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo wrote, “Twenty years have passed, but the ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest.” The effort to suppress the memory of Tiananmen has only proved how much Chinese people want not just to remember their past but also to shape their future. The United States will continue to support their right to do so; it’s in our nature, and it’s in our interest.
Tom Malinowski is assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.