Sunday, June 05, 2005

16 Years later on the Square of Heavenly Peace and beyond

A Cookiesap commentary:

Every morning the Chinese flag is raised with pride and nationalism on China’s most famous plaza, the Tian An Men Square (天安门广场). It is rumored to be a marvelous sight. Anyone who has visited this gigantic place usually finds themselves in awe and fascination for at least a minute or two. The significance and symbolism of this intriguing square varies tremendously between those looking out through the windows of the Great Wall and for those taking a peek at (or writing blogs about) the world’s most populous country.

Sixteen years ago, on this day, the Chinese government authorized its military to solve the on-going student protest-crisis on Beijing's central square. Although reports vary, we can be certain that several hundred people lost their lives. That is all common knowledge, but what is interesting to this day—140160 hours later—is the extent to which China’s government has matured in the meantime. Economically, there has been a tremendous proliferation in “China-fuss”. It is hard to open a newspaper without spotting at least one china-related article. The Middle Kingdom is no longer merely a vestige of the old communist bloc; but a vibrant market-like economy with opportunities a plenty for friends and foe alike with the dream of earning a fortune. Politically, however, much remains the same. Jiang Zemin was seen as a very cooperating figure in the EU-US circles and helped pave the way for Chinese multilateral involvement in arrangements such as the World Trade Organization, APEC, and ASEAN+3; however, China’s new leader, Hu Jin Tao, has steadily been reconciling power without an apparent effort to follow a similar trend towards political reform and democratization.

With the Tian An Men incident’s status as a major milestone in modern history of China, it has meant very different things for China and the rest of the world. To this day, many ‘Mainlanders’ strongly believe the student protests were more akin to a terrorist/rebel insurgency than the emergence of a civil society. Others speak of the protesters as if they were criminals disguised as students. Conversely, in the ‘outside’, Tian An Men has given organizations such as Amnesty and the Human Right’s Watch more fuel for criticism of the communist country. Americans and Europeans alike would easily agree that the incident was a step backwards for democracy. Who does not remember the CNN images of a lonely soul trying to block the access of monstrous tanks on this day, 16 years ago?

The underlying question now concerns what the past 16 years can teach us of what is to come in the next 16. The answer: very little! As you may recall, Taiwan and South Korea were also authoritarian regimes that prioritized national economic growth over sowing seeds of democracy. Can we expect the same of China? I believe the answer is both yes and no! Sure, people in the PRC are learning more about the benefits of liberal democracies in the rest of the world and how democracy in South Korea has not impeded their national economic goals. However, Korea and Taiwan received much less attention and outside pressure (on every possible front), which established a much less defensive posture vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Remember, it is much easier to change the mind of a calm person than a subject with a blatant defensive (and aggressive) position. We must therefore give China a chance to develop a regime of their own choice and not scare the emerging super-power into something that has to come from the blood, sweat and tears of its own people. As we saw in Lebanon and Ukraine, the next Tian An Men will be more successful if it is initiated by people within the confines of the Great Wall.

What do you think China will look like in 16 years from now?
(Thanks to Milton's editing skills)

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