The triumph and tragedy of 1989: Why Tiananmen still matters
America stood triumphant 32 years ago. The Berlin Wall came crashing down in 1989, and the Cold War soon ended. But 32 years ago today also marks a tragedy, as the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party then under the direction of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, moved tanks into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and massacred hundreds, possibly thousands, of pro-democracy Chinese demonstrators.
That year, one communist empire proved too weak to survive, while another proved too brutal to allow itself to be tossed into the ash-heap of history.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire, many in the West rushed to declare an “end of history.” After decades of the Cold War, it was understandable to wish that communism, the gravest threat to freedom and democracy, was forever over.
The wishful thinking of the triumph of Berlin can eclipse the true meaning of the tragedy of Tiananmen. Both events featured heroic manifestations of an epic struggle between people’s yearning for freedom and communists’ determination to crush them, as occurred in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But since 1989, many of the West’s intellectual and political elites have thought that the struggle ended. They’ve downplayed the degree to which the Chinese Communist Party is still a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship dedicated to upending the rules-based international order led by liberal democracies.
Amnesia with regard to Tiananmen in Americans’ collective consciousness has grave consequences for our security and freedom. This mindset — which did not change until the bipartisan awakening to the China challenge of the last five years — led the U.S. government to conduct a misguided foreign policy as if communism no longer exists in the People’s Republic of China. And indeed, the vast majority of the Chinese people have abandoned that bankrupt ideology. But the core of the Chinese Communist Party monopolizes all powers and resources in the world’s most populous nation, and it is deeply and dogmatically committed to the cardinal tenets of Marxism-Leninism. It systematically brainwashes an entire nation with the help of advanced technologies, indoctrinates its youth with communist dogmas, traps its people inside a gigantic information firewall, allows no private property beyond the control of the state, rules through a one-party dictatorship, views universal human rights and respect for the individual as threats to its power, and is fundamentally committed to a life-and-death struggle with Western, capitalist societies.
The nature of the Chinese Communist Party was not lost on the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The creators of the 33-foot-tall “Goddess of Democracy” statue that stood in the square declared days before the regime’s massacre, “Today, here in the People’s Square, the people’s Goddess stands tall and announces to the whole world: A consciousness of democracy has awakened among the Chinese people. The new era has begun!”
In times of greater moral clarity, America’s elites also would have recognized the nature of the Chinese Communist Party. But they were too often convinced of the inevitability and persuasive power of democracy and free markets. Many believed the People’s Republic of China would become a liberal democracy like the West through maximum economic engagement and policy appeasement. Though much of the world now understands the reality of the threat from Beijing, too many elites still fail to grasp that the Chinese Communist Party’s core leadership is ideologically dogmatic and inflexible. It aims to transform as much of the world as possible in its own image.
The triumph of Berlin that we rightly celebrate must not crowd out the tragedy of Tiananmen that we commemorate today. We not only salute the heroes at the square, but we remind the world that there must not be any illusions about the Chinese communist regime, which, even under its most reform-minded leader, massacred its own people — a massacre for which Beijing still refuses to publicly and transparently account. Today, that same regime is committing genocide against its own people in Xinjiang.
The free world’s contest with the Chinese Communist Party did not start with the rise to supremacy of General Secretary Xi Jinping in 2012. The party’s “hardliners,” like Xi, and its “reformers,” like Deng, share deep ideological commitments that trace to Marx, Lenin and Mao. America’s policies must not wish for a return of the Deng Era. They must take a stand on the Chinese people’s side, as manifested by the heroes of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
To forget Tiananmen is to betray freedom and to surrender to tyranny. After decades of misguided engagement with Beijing, the free world is faced with an existential threat from the same Chinese Communist Party regime of 1989 that looked to Berlin not as a hope, but as a warning. The regime in Beijing today is more ideologically animated and more economically, militarily and technologically capable. But America has prevailed against such foes before, and it can stand triumphant again.
Mike Pompeo served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2018 to 2021 and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 2017 to 2018. He previously was a Republican congressman from Kansas, 2011-2017.
Miles Yu, a historian and strategist, served as principal China policy adviser to Secretary Pompeo at the State Department. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, the Project 2049 Institute and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.