I was up late the other night re-watching "The Tank Man", a powerful Frontline episode that asks: "Who was that lone individual who stood in front of the column of tanks in Tiananmen Square?" The episode never resolves the answer, but this 30th anniversary of the uprising is really the right time for you to set aside 90 minutes to watch the show.
In 1989, when the protests that led to the massacre occurred, China's population was 1.119 billion. Today, it's 1.384 billion. That's an increase of 265 million people -- larger than the entire population of any other country in the world, except for India or the United States.
So, since the crackdown that shattered the pro-democracy movement in China 30 years ago, it's as if a whole new country, the 4th-largest in the world, has been formed and placed under the power of an authoritarian regime.
The last 30 years, of course, have represented a massive success in terms of moving hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. That has been the successful part of China's change.
But it's still a place where the individual isn't free. Where the people do not choose their own government. Where the military responds not to civil authority but to the control of a political party, which says, "[W]e can ensure the gun is always in the hands of those who are loyal to the party".
There are people who look at the Chinese system with admiration or even envy. And there are certain things that China gets right, at least culturally -- the patient, long-term view, for instance, which we are told looks at things from a perspective of centuries.
But for whatever good we can find in the culture, the socioeconomic system is built on false promises. The culture may favor a long-term view, but the Communist system only favors short-term self-preservation for those in power. As bad as Tienanmen Square was, what they're doing to the Uighurs is orders of magnitude bigger -- between one and two million people are being held in camps.
We coexist on a planet with the people of China. And if we are true to our own Declaration of Independence, we should see those people as being just as worthy of individual dignity as we are. Some of our people are quick to see them as either economic rivals or prospective consumers, but our concerns for their human rights ought to come before our economic self-interest.
A political system that is so rotten is bound to fail, sooner or later. But it's going to continue doing incomprehensible damage in the meantime, particularly if the authoritarians again feel their power slipping. That's why it's time for us to improve America's strategy for encountering China. Our government is using blunt economic instruments to address a precision failure: Namely, using tariffs to fight what really ought to be a battle over IP theft.
Yet do we care at all about the world the people of China are living in? It's not a problem that stays "over there" -- authoritarianism doesn't stay "over there". It comes to us, here in America, in forms ranging from Confucius Institutes, surveillance and intimidation of Chinese college students studying here, and the database hack of our own government's OPM, to the surveillance technology built into some Chinese products sold here. It bears repeating: Authoritarianism doesn't stay "over there".
China's economy continues to grow, but that's no substitute for fair recognition of their individual rights and freedoms. To borrow a metaphor (I wish I could acknowledge the original source): It's like they're loading coal on the fire that drives the engine of the train, at the same time someone is straining with all their might to pull the brakes. Something's going to give. Conducting our relations with them in a way that puts dignity and human rights first is the most important thing we can do.
You can hear some additional thoughts in this podcast recorded on June 4th, 2019: