Wu’er Kaixi: Prosperity Can’t Erase Tiananmen

 Tiananmen student leader Wu’er Kaixi writes for the Wall Street Journal about the impact of Tiananmen and the trade-off for economic growth:

The crime we committed in 1989 was to hope for change. In 1919, students campaigned for change, for a China that was genuinely part of the modern world. In 1989, we did the same. In 2009, change has come to China. It is a country awash with foreign investment, a country that is superficially the same place in which readers of this newspaper live. I have not seen it with my own eyes, but I know that China today has 7-Elevens and Metros and malls and discos and outlets for Italian brand names; even Hooters. China has walked in space.

In part, the change we hoped for has happened. When the people of Beijing took to the streets in 1989 — however people might read it today — they were acting out of frustration. In 1989, when I went into exile, I said the reason for the protests initially was that China’s youth wanted Nikes and wanted to be able to go to a bar with their girlfriends. Such things were not possible in the China I grew up in. They are possible today, largely because China’s university students rose up in 1989 and the workers’ unions and the common people joined them. The government realized it had no choice but to liberalize the economy if it was going to keep popular discontent at bay.

In short, 20 years on, I believe the protests in 1989 were a kind of tragic success. China got its Nikes and discos. Unfortunately, China did not get the other change we yearned for — political reform. For many years, I have been of the opinion that a deal was struck with the people of China. The deal was economic prosperity in exchange for political quiescence and continued and unchallenged one-party rule. For years, I have been describing it as a “lousy deal.” But today, on the anniversary of the bloodshed that ended the protests, I would like to add that it is also an illusory deal.

Wu’er Kaixi is one of many activists that have been blocked or suppressed before the anniversary as he tries to make his way back to China. From the Seattle Times via the New York Times and the Associated Press: 

Wu’er Kaixi, one of the principal student leaders of the 1989 pro- movement, flew Wednesday from Taiwan to the Chinese territory of Macau, saying he wanted to surrender to Chinese authorities after two decades in exile.

Immigration officers pulled Wu’er aside and demanded he fly back to Taiwan, something he vowed to resist.

Wu’er said in a statement issued through a friend that he wants to surrender to Chinese authorities so he can visit his parents, who haven’t been allowed to leave China.

“When I turn myself in, I will use the platform of a Chinese courtroom to debate the Chinese government about this incident,” he said. “My turning myself in should not be interpreted as my admission that my behavior 20 years ago is illegal and wrong. I want to reassert here the Chinese government bears complete and undeniable moral, political and legal responsibility for the tragedy that happened in China in 1989,” his statement said.

The Washington Times also provides a perspective on the impact of Tiananmen from a Western news point of view:

Those Chinese patriots died to banish two cruel ideas from the face of the Earth. The first is that the desire for freedom is not universal, that individual rights are a Western creation forced on a different culture that has its own values. We have always been puzzled when so-called liberals tell us freedom is some kind of foreign colonization when we know it grows naturally in every soil. Those brave students and workers who met for weeks on the square and built what they called the “Goddess of Liberty” or “Goddess of Democracy” – in form and meaning akin to our Statue of Liberty – were signaling that their aspirations were like ours. They too wanted the freedom to speak, believe, petition, buy, sell, make and move. They didn’t want to flee to America, although many later did; they wanted to bring America to China.

The other notion that died on June 3 and 4, 1989, was that the Chinese Communists rule by the consent of the governed. It had become fashionable to presume that the late 1970s economic reforms that had lifted China out of the abject misery of communist-imposed poverty had satisfied the restive population. A bit of rice in the bowl, and collectivism was popular again. It wasn’t true. The ordinary Chinese had never surrendered his spiritual side, his longing for autonomy.

By May 13, 1989, thousands began to gather in the square. Some went on hunger strikes, demanding faster reforms. The crowds grew, and the regime creaked. Even after Zhao Ziyang made a tearful appeal, begging the students to leave on May 19, the majority stayed. Martial law was declared the next day, but many still stayed. They were peaceful and powerful. The government waited more than two weeks, for the first time unsure of its next move. When the tanks came, the fiction of communism’s appeal was the only thing permanently crushed



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