Thursday, June 4, 2009

Know Your History - Why the Tienanmen Crackdown is Relevant Today

June 4, 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the Chinese government crack-down on the massive pro-democracy protests that were happening in Tienanmen Square in Beijing.

These events are important to remember and relevant today in my estimation for two reasons:

  1. The violent crack down shows what the Chinese communist government is willing to do if challenged.

  2. The protests led directly to an opening up of the Chinese economy and the resulting boom that has, lets be honest, a HUGE impact on the U.S. and world economy.

Diane and I were in China last year and visited Tienanmen Square. You can see some of the pictures I took while there by clicking here.

In terms of what happened and why it's relevant today, the story goes like this...

In the spring of 1989, students and others filled the huge plaza in central Beijing to protest the controlling government that was presiding over a faltering, iffy economy on top of heavy restrictions on personal freedom, speech and other human rights.

Protesters initially gathered in mid-April to mourn the death of pro-democracy and anti-corruption official Hu Yaobang. Focus of the protest began to crystallize around desire for national democratic reform and greater economic freedoms. The crowd got bigger, louder and more determined...however, it remained a non-violent protest.

All of this happened in a year - 1989 - in which other communist governments had failed (East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania for example). With this in mind, and not wanting to lose their grasp on power, the communist government of China decided the protest could last no longer and "cleared" Tienanmen Square with army soldiers and tanks. People died. Lots of them. They were shot, run over and beaten. Many more were jailed or never heard from again. This was a naked power play by the Chinese government to crush dissent. So, we now know what they're willing to do if things come to a critical head again. We also know their army is willing to participate.

However, soon after the end of the protest, the government did something else too. It decided that instead of giving in on controls over speech, rights and would greatly loosen economic controls and open up China to free-enterprise and market economies. This enabled the big and enduring economic boom in China that is still happening today.

As a result, today - and believe me it's evident over there - the Chinese are very focused on amassing wealth and material possessions. They are not as concerned over freedom of speech or democracy. Their perspective might be, "I don't mind government control of the media or that I can only vote for one party if I can drive my brand new car from my new high rise condo to my tech job."

Of course other big outcomes of the economic decisions made in the wake of the Tienanmen Square episode have been US companies moving jobs from North America to China for the cheap labor and Chinese ownership of US debt. To me, these are clearly not good developments given our country's inability to balance these moves out with new job creation and fiscal responsibility here.

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