Some lessons from Tiananmen

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In late Fall of 1987 the Defense Department sent me to China.  I went there to preside at the inauguration of a Landsat station about 30 miles north of Beijing, and a research station in Beijing itself.

Landsat was and remains a multispectral satellite based imaging system, the only multispectral system then flying.  The U.S. and China had been in urgent discussions about the Russian nuclear missile threat aimed at China. The Chinese could not assess how many missiles were aimed at China by the

Soviets or know where they were. Landsat was supposed to fill that gap.

The first Landsat satellites were launched in 1975 and the most recent Landsat was launched in 2013.

I was selected to go to China mostly because I was strongly opposed to giving Landsat capabilities to China.  So I suspect that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, my boss, known for his very British sense of humor, sent me on the mission.

I was hosted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (中国科学院) which ostensibly would be the operators of the Landsat ground station and research laboratory, which was really a military photo interpretation center. Indeed, the Academy was not a benign scientific organization. It worked for the military on projects ranging from tactical to nuclear systems. When there I was taken to see the new Chinese particle accelerator that could be used for nuclear research.

I was picked up by a big Mercedes limo with two of the main scientists on board plus a driver. The scientists talked to the driver only in Chinese.  On that same morning I heard on the Voice of America shortwave broadcast that there had been protests and riots in a number of Chinese cities, the worst apparently in Shanghai.  In those days without cell phones or the Internet, I always carried a small but very good shortwave receiver with me.  I started doing that in 1973 on a trip to the USSR where the radio was all important to keep me plugged into the Yom Kippur War then raging in the Middle East.

In the car I asked my Chinese colleagues if they heard about the protests and riots.  They said they had heard nothing.  A little later I asked again and got the same response but, at that point the driver, who was not supposed to be able to speak English, replied with perfect English pronunciation that yes, he heard it on the VOA that morning.

The protests were quickly snuffed out, but that did not mean that the ferment in the Chinese underbelly had gone away.  Even ten years before Tiananmen, protests were breaking out around China.  And the year before, in 1986 until January 1987 there were widespread student riots in many Chinese cities. They all shared one common characteristic: they wanted the Chinese Communist dictatorship replaced by a freely elected government. In short, they wanted democracy.

I was caught by surprise by the riots.  No one briefed me on what was going on in China before I left on my DOD mission.

The same impulse for freedom swept across many places in 1987, including Taiwan.  Taiwan was under martial law from May 20, 1949 until July 14, 1987.  By November 1987 when I was sent to China, Taiwan was finally moving towards freedom. It would take a few more years and a number of clashes, and the emergence of heroic fighters for freedom, but Taiwan finally became a truly democratic nation, a shining light that was visible in China and may have inspired the student-led Tiananmen protests which unfortunately ended badly when Chinese troops and secret police crushed them on June 4 and 5, 1989.

There are some lessons about Tiananmen we should all learn.

The first is that democracy is vital to the future of Asia. While democracy does not guarantee the absence of war, consider what could have been accomplished if China was democratic. Instead of threatening war against Taiwan or suppressing Hong Kong, or putting Uighurs in concentration camps, or crushing Christian worship places (even homes), instead there would be acceptable solutions in the region and a democratic China could be playing a constructive and positive role.

The second lesson is that the Chinese Communist leaders cannot be trusted.  Absolute dictators are always ruthless.

The third lesson is that the most powerful asset the United States has is that it is still the world’s beacon of hope for liberal democracy.  That is why Taiwan is so vital to the United States and to its allies and friends in Asia and elsewhere.

In a recent table top exercise that brought together leading strategists and senior military officials from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the United States talking about the threats to Taiwan, it was our Asian friends that reminded us just how important preserving liberal democracy was and why it was the key reason for supporting Taiwan.

If we fail Taiwan, we fail all our friends and we set the stage for a very dark and ugly time for all of Asia and, perhaps, for us as well.

The fourth lesson is that we should not fall into the trap of thinking that China has a separate culture and no interest in liberal democracy.  That sort of relativist nonsense is unrelated to reality.  Given the chance, China can become a liberal democracy and her students, many of whom study in the United States, carry the flame for a free nation. And why don’t we organize to provide democracy education to our Chinese guests studying at our universities, working in our tech factories, or doing R&D at research institutes and organizations? This would give our own educators and students a truly meaningful mission.

The final lesson is we owe it to those who fought and perished in the fight for democracy in China that we keep up the struggle for them.

Stephen Bryen
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