Sunday, June 05, 2005

Tienanmen Square -- June 4, 1989

The images are among the most unforgettable of our lifetime. A student model of the Statue of Liberty. Crowds of students peacefully protesting China's totalitarian system, capturing the world's attention in real time via TV. The most remarkable of all the images, a lone man standing in front of a line of tanks, prepared to die should they run over him.

Simon World marks the anniversary with this bleak observation.

Often we cling to this event as a sign of hope. A hope that democracy and freedom will one day prevail over the Communist party. The reality is while many of us like to think of June 4th as a turning point, the past 16 years have proved us wrong. The Communists have turned themselves into a party of nationalists who have created a new social contract with the Chinese people - economic prosperity and rising living standards in return for continued unquestioned rule by the CCP. And while it is difficult to be certain it seems the large part of China's population is (for now) happy with the deal.

There's plenty that could change. The CCP plays a delicate balancing game between socio-economic tensions and its grip on power. What's worse is it is good at it. But without the effective feedback mechanisms that democracy provides the powers-that-be need to hope they remain good at the game. It will only take one slip for the edifice to come crashing down. Which is why in situations like June 4th, 1989, the CCP is likely to err on the side of crackdown and confrontation. There's no upside in compromise and they hold the guns.

That's the problem. Firstly it seems almost inconcievable for another 1989 protest to happen as things stand. Secondly if it should happen the question to ask is how would the CCP leadership respond today? The answer is clear - in the same way. The CCP are good at learning the lessons of history.

The CCP has a clear desire to remain in power at all costs. Democracy and freedom is not an inevitability for China. That's the legacy of Tiananmen Square.

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