Remembering Tiananmen Square June 4, 2009

(Modified slightly from WAMC Northeast Public Radio broadcast)

Audio for Remembering Tiananmen Sq June 4th 2009

Can it really be twenty years since the Tiananmen Square Uprising? Twenty years since so many of us sat riveted to our TV’s watching that enormous public challenge to the leaders of the China –a particularly meaningful moment for someone like me who’d spent decades studying China’s effort to enter the modern developed world.

Can it really be ten years since I sat in a small symposium at Harvard’s faculty club as many of the now decade older student leaders of the Tiananmen Sq. movement chatted about their roles while Wu’er Kai-shi far and away the best known of the those hunger striking students privately told me all about his post Tiananmen Sq career pumping gas in California.

But that day, like today was more formally a time to reflect on the meaning of those dramatic weeks when Chinese population challenged their leaders. In short it’s time to ask the question: What Tiananmen Sq. was about?

Sure most Americans saw it exclusively as a democratic movement while many Chinese saw it more as a challenge to pervasive corruption while it was clear as well –at least for policy wonks like myself that behind the scenes the struggle was as much about Deng Xiaoping’s decision to unleash China’s economic energy by pulling off the straitjacket of its unproductive communist command economy and the dislike that effort earned from so many of his more conservative communist colleagues.

Indeed –in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen- China’s economic reform effort went into a tailspin gutted by a conservative leadership that went after the economic reforms almost immediately after they crushed the more popular street movement. So now, twenty years later. What can be said about the various threads that made up the Tiananmen Moment?

Well, the question of official corruption is still a significant issue. Though if China has not become one of those dictatorial kleptocracies that so often plague people in Africa it still ranks only 57th in a recent scale of 150 nations. In some ways not to bad –way ahead of its Asian neighbors Burma and Cambodia but well behind the squeaky clean folks from Finland to Singapore.

And on that democratic challenge of Tiananmen Square that the American media single minded focused on. Well China is still a party dictatorship but that dictatorship is simply far less intrusive than it once was. I usually tell my students that from a party that one tried to control everything we have arrived at China’s new basic social contract.

As the party tells people more basically

Barring an effort to challenge the domination of the CCP

Barring an effort to challenge the integrity and unity of China (got that Tibetans and Western Muslims)

have a nice day!

But what of that more subtle effort to roll back Deng’s open market reforms. Well only a few years later, Deng Xiaoping traveled to Southern China to put the Chinese economic miracle back on track. So today, how has China changed? Well in many ways it remains quite different from America. But in so many other ways its not all that different. Today’s China is currently committed to some of the same challenges we face here in America -attempting to put into place its own affordable national health care system -while moving to take on the challenges of environmental degradation.

Today’s China faces the reality of climate change that is seeing a good chunk of north central China simply drying out while the south is more and more vulnerable to the greater storm systems systematic of global warming– twin challenges of climate change that Americans from Arizona to Florida could easily understand. Indeed China’s going through its own revolutionary energy conversion spewing out levels of planet warming fossil fuel based green house gasses at a rate that would have made any late nineteenth century American industrialists proud even as they are also moving to become one of the world’s leaders in green energy production. Indeed twenty years after Tiananmen today’s China would in so many ways be quite familiar to most Americans

About Steven Leibo

This entry was posted in Asia, China, Human Rights, WAMC Northeast Public Radio Commentaries. Bookmark the permalink.

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