Twenty years ago the light of liberty flickered briefly in China. In May 1989, Chinese students built a "Goddess of Liberty," alternatively called a "Goddess of Democracy," in Tiananmen Square. Throughout much of China, the subjects of the nation, on the fortieth anniversary of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, expressed their support for liberty as well. The whole world watched. Then, on May 30, 1989, twenty years ago today, the tanks of the People's Liberation Army (the ultimate oxymoron) violently crushed the mass gathering and crushed all public dissent. All this happened while the whole world watched. There could be no pretense any longer that this was the People's Republic. It was, instead, the Oligarchs' Republic.
The vast evils of Mao, perhaps the greatest mass murderer in human history and certainly a monster as awful as Stalin or Hitler, had been stilled before 1989. During the thirteen years between the death of Mao and Tiananmen Square, China had been entering a phase not unlike de-Stalinization in Russia during the 1950s. The Great Helmsman (Mao) was never repudiated, but his policies which were essentially to sate every vile impulse he could imagine, were tamed.
How far would this end of totalitarianism go? The world was wondering this twenty years ago, and the Chinese people were wondering too. Did they own China, or were they simply increasingly well-paid employees of the mandarins and warlords? A free China -- a truly free China -- promised wonderful things for mankind. A democratic China -- a truly democratic China -- promise real hope for the world.
When students twenty years ago constructed the "Goddess of Liberty," anyone who looked at that structure knew exactly what it was: the Statute of Liberty that sits astride the entrance to New York and which has come to represent all that is America. The students in China knew exactly what they wanted, and what they wanted was a true People's Republic, a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, as Lincoln so beautifully described America in the Gettysburg Address. Twenty years ago today, that dream died. What do we have today? We have a nation that is described by Freedom House in its three tiered categories of "free," "partly free," and "not free," as "not free." Is this because the Chinese people cannot govern themselves? The Republic of China (Taiwan) is a free democracy. The two other great powers of Asia, Japan and India, are also free democracies. Freedom and democracy, the history of the last sixty years has shown, are not inventions unique to European based cultures and civilizations.
America has become the homeland of many Vietnamese, Chinese, and other East Asians who have left homes that were not free or democratic to enjoy these blessings in a foreign land. The Goddess in Tiananmen Square, like the Statute of Liberty which it so strongly resembled, reflects a universal human yearning.
What is China, if it is not "free" or even "partly free?" Certainly the Chinese people have a higher standard of living than twenty years ago. Businessmen in China are getting rich. The Chinese people are not starving, as under Mao. Genocide continues (ho, hum) in Tibet, as it has over the last sixty years. But the very modernity of China today, the very affluence which is obviously spreading slowly across this vast land, belies our conventional notions of enslavement.
This is a ghastly and dangerous way of looking at nations. Nazi Germany was relatively prosperous, at least during the peacetime years and the early days of the Second World War. Nations and peoples can have much material wealth and still be slaves. Countries can be glittering and yet bad. Governments can grant subjects limited privileges and still keep them subjects and not citizens. Wealth, technology, national pride -- all the things we see swelling up in China now -- are the very same sorts of things that the world watched growing in Germany under Hitler.
Freedom often produces affluence -- that is one of its pleasant byproducts -- but we fool ourselves badly if we begin to imagine that rich slaves are not slaves. The cluster of political virtues we call "human rights" transcends material goodies. That is why our Founding Fathers sacrificed wealth for freedom. That is why our soldiers, whose heroism we honored a few days ago, bled for our liberty. That is why the brave students in Beijing, many of who still linger in awful prisons in China, stood up to tanks for the chance to breath free air.
When we drop into the memory hole the matchless courage of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto sixty-five years ago, when we forget the Hungarians armed only with Molotov Cocktails in the streets of Budapest fifty-three years ago, and when we let the memories of Chinese student facing their own nation's tanks wilt and die, then we more than our sense of the power of freedom: we lose our souls. Twenty years ago, the human spirit soared in China, and then, as so often has happened in human history, it was crushed under the jackboot. Twenty years ago, the Goddess of Liberty wept.