Overnight, the students raised the statue of the Goddess of Democracy. By the morning of May 30, she stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square, challenging the giant portrait of Mao Zedong, which from its place of honour on the Gate of Heavenly Peace had long surveyed the vast plaza.
Standing tall, holding the light of freedom high in one hand, it was impossible to miss the Goddess’s resemblance to the Statue of Liberty. For the Communist Party of China, which had held back as protests centred on Tiananmen spread across the country, it was the last straw.
In the early hours of June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army cleared the square, firing wildly and crushing people and bicycles under tank tracks. Hundreds of civilians were killed, possibly thousands. The Goddess of Democracy was knocked over, and then soldiers smashed her with iron bars.
In China, that history is not history. Instead, it is an Orwellian unhistory – a past that is actively suppressed, and that most Chinese know little or nothing about. There will be no official commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre. Unofficial commemoration, or even mention, is subject to serious punishment. What happened never happened.
And just as the past in China can only be discussed with blinders on, so is any talk about China’s future circumscribed from on high. Democracy, human rights, the rule of the law and an end to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power – all are on the list of things that cannot be raised.
Why? As Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador to Canada put it last month in a speech in Toronto attacking his regime’s Western critics, “the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the path of socialism are the choice of the Chinese people and an inexorable historical trend.”
The ancient emperors claimed a mandate from heaven, but the Communist Party claims a mandate from economics: It justifies permanent one-party rule on the country’s increasing wealth. Although hundreds of millions of Chinese are still poor, hundreds of millions more have been raised to a middle-class lifestyle.
The people may not have been given the opportunity to vote for the Communist Party but, so the regime’s argument goes, the gross domestic product has voted in their stead.
The Communist Party also argues that democracy and human rights are foreign ideas, unsuited to China. As Mr. Lu put it, China is a “5,000-year-old Eastern civilization," and "has a much longer history than all the existing Western countries. Therefore, it is an ‘impossible mission’ to transform such a country into a Western-like one.”
These are odd arguments, and the facts rebut them.
In his speech, Mr. Lu traced the “New China” to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which in his telling “introduced Marxism into China and gave birth to the Communist Party.” But Marxism and communism are Western imports. They are no more or less “Chinese” than democracy or universal human rights. China’s Communist Party is rooted in Western ideas – it just happens to have chosen ones that much of the rest of humanity has rejected as harmful to human freedom.
And there’s no evidence that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are antithetical to economic growth. Quite the contrary. The rich countries that China is trying to catch up with, from Canada to Europe, are the freest and most democratic.
That’s also true of China’s neighbours. Japan’s living standards are far above those of China – and Japan achieved this postwar feat under a democratic constitution. South Korean living standards are similarly far ahead of Chinese ones; South Korea is a democracy.
Even two places populated almost entirely by Chinese people mock Beijing’s thesis about the necessity of one-party rule. Hong Kong’s people enjoy freedom of speech and conscience unknown in China, along with the rule of law. Despite this, Hong Kong’s living standards are well ahead of China.
And Taiwan, a democratic country of 24-million self-governing people, has long been more prosperous than mainland China. Its GDP per person is about two-and-a-half times that of China. (Canada’s GDP per capita is four-and-a-half times higher than China’s.)
The choice between freedom and prosperity, democracy and order, is a false one. To get rich, China didn’t have to mug Lady Liberty.