Today marks 25 years since the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.
To commemorate the event, I reached out to Marion Smith of the the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
The following interview was conducted via email:
ML: We are about to commemorate the massacre at Tiananmen Square. What did the standoff teach us?
MS: The tragic events on Tiananmen Square showed the limits of peaceful protests in the face of a Communist government willing to use its army against their own people. When police were unable to contain the pro-democracy protests, the Communist Party deployed battlefield tanks and combat troops to suppress unarmed student protesters – students, factory workers, and pensioners – who simply proclaimed their desire for a free China.
ML: How many students were killed?
MS: Although we don’t know exact numbers, we do know that dozens were killed, hundred disappeared, and thousands were arrested. The massacre revealed to the world just how far Communist leaders would go to secure their power. The Communist leadership saw the event as a “near-death experience” and decided that an iron grip on political power in China was an existential matter.
ML: Despite this crackdown, is it fair to at least say that Chinese citizens are better off today?
MS: Despite some very welcome pro-market economic reforms in China since 1989, these reforms have left untouched the authoritarian power structure of Chinese government, which is controlled by the Communist Party and enforced by the People’s Liberation Army.
But isn’t there an argument that capitalism will gradually fix everything in China?
MS: China has taken steps towards economic liberalization and offered platitudinous overtures to Western onlookers, but the long history of censorship, intimidation, government control, and human rights abuses has continued from 1989 right through 2014. China’s experiment in “communism with Chinese characteristics” fails to offer much hope. Even the supposed reformist CCP Chairman Xi Jingping has failed to move the country towards a direction of healing.
Just in the last few weeks, he has presided over the jailing and silencing of Chinese citizens who were in any way connected to the Tiananmen Square massacre twenty-five years ago for fear that they might use today’s anniversary to embarrass the government. The official line of China is that Tiananmen did not happen.
ML: These students were victims of Communism. How should we honor their sacrifice for the cause of freedom?
MS: By telling the truth about what happened there in June of 1989. For 25 years now, the Chinese government has covered up the truth and denied the well-recorded historical fact of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese government has largely been excused for this egregious and unconscionable act of aggression against its own people.
ML: How does China spin what happened 25 years ago?
MS: Official accounts still label the protests as a “counterrevolutionary rebellion” or “political disturbance.” The numbers of those killed are impossible to ascertain. Most young people have learned not to try investigating that incident online, lest they face censorship and investigation. The Chinese people have been told that certain harsh measures were necessary to guarantee China’s remarkable economic growth. Moreover, Western leaders have been unwilling to name and shame the ruling Chinese Communist Party – the same body that presided over the bloody massacres at Tiananmen – on any number of human rights abuses. This willful ignorance does a disservice to the many hundreds that died at Tiananmen Square. It helps the guilty Party hide the truth.
ML: Broadening the conversation a bit, why do we act like Communism is in the ash heap of history when, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, a billion Chinese still live under a Communist regime?
MS: It’s because of a long and concerted effort to make communism respectable among the Western intelligentsia and political classes. In a very real sense, the idea of communism never died; we are seeing that resurgence in a number of ways. But more importantly, there are still actual Communist parties holding the reigns of power in several countries across the world, most notably China. In fact, roughly one fifth of the world’s population continues to suffer under communism.
ML: Yes, it does seem like Marxism, at least, is gaining some steam. You have the Thomas Piketty book, of course, and then there are these so-called “Millennial Marxists” who are gaining prominence as opinion leaders. Is there a sense that we are now far enough removed from Communism that young people don’t realize how horrific this ideology turned out to be?
MS: In one sense they shouldn’t be totally blamed. They have been failed by educational institutions that teach them communism was just a “good idea badly implemented” and by political discourse that fails to properly honor the victims of communism. Add to this the shameful moral equivalence that pervades discussion of the Cold War and you start to understand why so many young people want to give communism another try. After all, Capitalism is far from perfect. This makes our mission at VOC important for the future of America, and it is why we sponsor a number of educational initiatives like our high school curriculum resources on communism, which are already being used in a number of schools.
ML: There’s an old episode of Seinfeld from back in the 90s — so we’re not that far removed from the fall of the Soviet Union – where Elaine dates a Communist. She sees this as sort of exotic and edgy, but also sort of funny and harmless. But you would never imagine Elaine dating a neo-Nazi or something. Why do so many Americans still view Communism as romantic?
MS: There is a vast and bloody chasm between the promise that communism makes and the reality it delivers, every single time it is tried. Who wouldn’t want the utopian dream that communism offers—to be free from want and guaranteed a basic quality of life. But in the dozens of countries where a Communist party has gained control, the consequences are pain, suffering, death, destruction, poverty, war and—as it turns out—no equality. All this is not accidental. Ideas have consequences. Communism is an enabling ideology of tyranny.
ML: You were recently named executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. What is the mission, and why is it needed?
MS: The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is a U.S-based non-profit educational and human rights organization. The mission of The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is to educate this generation and future generations about the ideology, history, and legacy of communism. The foundation was authorized by an Act of Congress to build a memorial in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the more than 100 million victims of communism. Our work is as vital today as it ever was, primarily because the memory of communism’s crimes is fading with each passing generation. There must be a group dedicated to keeping an accurate record of the truth about communism.
ML: Thanks for talking with me.
MS: My pleasure.