Remembering, but Moving On

I did a post the other day (“Where Were You?”) with the story of where I was on June 4, 1989.  I want here to offer my thoughts on the events of that day and their meaning today.  As usual, I write from the perspective of someone who spent most of the last 25 years working to promote the broad range of US interests in our relationship with China.

The best word to describe the events of June 4th (and 5th) 1989 in Beijing is “tragedy”.  I don’t have much of a background in the classics, but I use that word in what I understand to be a sort of Aristotelian sense, i.e., a chain of events driven by mistakes or misunderstanding to a terrible outcome.

I have not yet read the newly released commentary on these events by former Premier Zhao Ziyang.  However one review I read noted that it is consistent with the picture provided in “The Tianamen Papers”, which I have read.  As I read through that book I had the vision of two trains racing at each other on the same track toward a horrible outcome.  The protesters – brought together by youthful idealism fed with a mix of economic and political concerns – were an unruly group not amenable to direction from their leaders.  China’s national leaders were operating in a bubble and ill-equipped to deal with the upheaval.  But I don’t believe they wanted or were pleased with the violent outcome of events.

The decision to restore order to the capital was reasonable.  But the nature of the political system and the inappropriate tools at hand (heavily armed combat troops rather than riot police with tear gas and rubber bullets) led to the events that are all too well known.  I believe it is important for us to remember those events and draw appropriate lessons drawn from them.

However, China’s political and economic circumstances, and its place in the world, have evolved rapidly since 1989.  Our challenge is to give due recognition to the events of June 4, 1989 while not allowing them to serve as the touchstone for understanding China today.

I have felt for many years that the shadow of Tiananmen has exerted too heavy an influence on how some Americans – especially in our legislative branch – view China.  As US Consul General in Shanghai from 1999 to 2002 I was impressed with (depressed by?) the number of Americans – including official visitors – who arrived in Shanghai and were astounded to find how far the reality of China differed from their preconceived notions of this “totalitarian state”.

Twenty years after Tiananmen I believe that finally we are putting those events, and the current human rights issues that do exist in China, into a more proper perspective.  In other posts on this blog I have offered my praise for the Obama Administration’s approach on these issues.  And even more recently, I noted that Speaker Pelosi too, long one of the most outspoken voices seeking to keep human rights central to the US-China relationship, has moved beyond that approach.

I know that some in the human rights community view this effort to more appropriately reflect the place of human rights in our bilateral relationship as a retreat from principle or a sell out of some kind.  To me, it represents the right approach by the people who ultimately bear the responsibility for working with this dynamic and complex country to advance a broad set of US interests.  And it is about time.

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