Wednesday, June 03, 2009

20 years since the PLA turned on the people

20 years ago there was much optimism in many parts of the world. Mikhail Gorbachev had ushered in a new age of freedom and openness in what was then the Soviet Union, and had made it clear to the former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe that what happened to the politics of those countries was up to them - no longer would the USSR intervene as it had done explicitly in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (and less explicitly on many other occasions). Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia were already moving rapidly forward, as it appeared the Cold War was fading away. This was watched by tyrants in all "really existing socialist" states that remained, as the regimes in Romania, Bulgaria, East Germany and Albania all clung on in Europe, whilst in Asia, Pyongyang, Hanoi, Beijing and Vientiane remained defiant.

Mikhail Gorbachev sought to end frosty relations with China by visiting Beijing in May 1989, the coverage of which was significant, as Gorbachev brought with him a message of openness to government, and an end to the totalitarian tentacles of single party rule involving itself in most aspects of life. It was a message noted by students in Beijing, which brought about protests in Tiananmen Square calling for similar reforms to bring freedom of speech and an end to the unfettered rule of the Communist Party of China.

The events of 2-4 June 1989 in Beijing are well known. I have blogged before about it, one noting a report from the then Radio Beijing English Language Service which you wont hear on the modern day China Radio International. I don't intend to repeat it.

It is worth noting that China is freer now than it was 20 years ago, not least because the advent of cellular phones and the internet has made it more difficult to control information flows to the public. However, the Chinese government has also loosened up, criticism of officials and debate about how policies are implemented appears. While questioning the rule of the Communist Party can still land you in prison or worse, the appearance of protests and the reporting of protests about situations and issues at the local level shows progress. There is little doubt that as Chinese gain property rights and prosperity they are more demanding of government. This is something unheard of when Sue Bradford went to Maoist China in the early 1970s.

Yet it isn't enough - China has two vibrant examples of free, open Chinese societies on its doorstep. Hong Kong is within its grasp, and flourishes with the rule of law and a quasi-democratic system of government in a free society. Taiwan has a vibrant liberal democracy and free society. The Communist Party of China, which essentially is running a corrupt state capitalist system (rather like an organised crime syndicate, as it is not accountable) fearful about what would happen if it "let a hundred flowers bloom". However, it is, in effect, slowly letting the screws loosen - even if questioning its rule remains taboo.

Reports after the Tiananmen Square massacre range in deaths from the low hundreds to the thousands. The most memorable image being the one man standing in front of the row of tanks. It is true for evil to be done it simply requires good men to do nothing, but in this case it was the People's Liberation Army that turned on the people. Chinese people still get arrested, imprisoned, tortured and executed for challenging the government, and the behemoth of the Chinese government and Communist Party of China can still bulldoze over people, leaving no trace of where they have been, with no accountability.

The BBC has an audio archive to remember the events.

It is time to take a moment to wish for more freedom in China, and gently remember those who strived for that which so many of us take for granted.

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