The day after — why Tiananmen still matters
© WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday marked the 30 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Congress held a hearing and unanimously passed a resolution commemorating an event that had a profound impact on U.S.-China relations.  Members of both parties spoke passionately at rallies, award celebrations, and candlelight vigils. We were united for a moment in remembrance of an event that is too important to forget and too dangerous to commemorate in China.

Nevertheless, after a day of remembrances and bipartisan solidarity, we are still faced with Tiananmen’s aftermath, a Chinese government and Communist Party willing to take any steps to suppress the demands of the Chinese people for justice and political reform.

Despite stunning economic growth, Beijing’s leaders remain terrified of their own people.  China’s ruling Communist Party would rather stifle, imprison or even kill its own people than defer to their demands for freedom and rights.


There is a direct connection between the impunity and violence used to squash the Tiananmen demonstrations and the impunity and violence employed now to support the creation of a high-tech police state in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the internment of over a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in “political education camps.”    

The screws on domestic dissent have been turned tight in recent years. Xi Jinping’s crackdowns on civil society, ethnic minorities, and rights advocacy are certainly the most brutal and comprehensive since Tiananmen

President Xi and top Communist Party leaders regularly unleash bellicose attacks on “universal values,” “Western ideals,” and “revisionism of the Party’s history.” They not only smother internet freedom and domestic media but threaten foreign journalists and encourage censorship and self-censorship from Hollywood to Harvard Square.

China is the world’s torture capital, the largest jailer of journalists, with the globe’s worst record on human trafficking and religious freedom. Human rights lawyers, Tibetans, ethnic minority groups, labor organizers, Christians, and free speech advocates all face repression and harassment when they peacefully seek universally-recognized rights.  

We are at an important point in U.S.-China relations. The “engagement theory” that governed bilateral relations for the last 30 years has crumbled. Trade, investment and people-to-people exchange did not bring political liberalization or human rights to China.

Just the opposite in fact. Through the “engagement theory,” Western governments and corporations helped create a China that is richer, stronger, and more assertively authoritarian.

Xi Jinping talks often about the “China Dream”—but that dream is a nightmare for untold millions of the Chinese people.   

It would be easy to adopt a myopic realism and focus our energies on simply winning a “trade war” or finding ways to work together with the Chinese government on some small mutual interests. Such a view is mistaken and underestimates just how China’s domestic repression drives its external aggression.

It also underestimates the way that global security and prosperity requires shared commitments to universal principles such as individual rights, the rule of law, universal suffrage, and transparency. Truly free trade and security cooperation are based in the trust that is rooted in these shared principles. 

Not one of these principles are currently shared in Beijing. In fact, Xi Jinping has doubled down on a hard authoritarianism domestically and mercantilist economic policies globally. Spurred by a belief that the U.S. is a declining power, China’s Communist leaders have also adopted a more aggressive military stance and foreign policy—using economic threats, political influence operations, disinformation campaigns and promised investments to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies and weaken U.N. human rights mechanisms.          


The divergence in interests and values between democratic nations and authoritarian powers is starkly drawn—more so than at any time since 1989. This does not mean, however, that conflict is inevitable.

The best way for the U.S. and its allies to reduce the risk of conflict is to build up our own defenses and harden our abilities to resist military coercion, political subversion and economic exploitation.

We must also stand resolutely in support of liberty, the rule of law, and human rights because we can no longer afford to separate human rights from our other interests.

The health of the U.S. economy and environment, the safety of our food and drug supplies, the security of our investments and personal information in cyberspace, and the stability of the Pacific region will depend on China complying with international law, allowing the free flow of news and information, and the developing of an independent judiciary and civil society. 

The United States can make a strong appeal to the self-interest of China leadership. The rule of law, freedom of the press, a flourishing civil society and accountable officials would promote all of China’s primary goals—economic progress, political stability, reconciliation with Taiwan, good relations with America, and international stature and influence.

But whether or not China’s Communist leaders accept such arguments is immaterial because by making them—publicly and through U.S. policy and programs—we will communicate to the Chinese people that their struggle and sacrifice have not been forgotten.

The spirit of Tiananmen remains, repressed but not broken. Neither riches nor despotism have dimmed the desires of the Chinese people for the rule of law, human rights, democracy, and the desire to speak and worship freely without restrictions.   

This is exactly why the memory of Tiananmen still matters to us today. My hope is that our bipartisan commemoration of this tragic event will energize efforts to address human rights abuses in China and inspire us to develop a foreign policy that prioritizes the advance of liberty and the rule of law globally.       

Smith represents New Jersey’s 4th District and is the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. He is co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.