The People Want Rights as Much as Rice
Reflections on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square

Protesters in Tiananmen Square, 1989


Man does not live by bread alone. So the Bible says, and it’s the message of Tiananmen Square.

Chinese students filled that space 25 years ago to demand free speech, democracy, and an end to corruption. Instead, their protest ended in tragedy. Hundreds of young people were killed the night of June 3, 1989, by Chinese Communist soldiers. But they did not die in vain. Their sacrifice and example are commemorated in rallies and wreath-layings from Hong Kong to San Francisco to Washington every year. The Chinese regime has tried to erase all memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre, but it has failed.

A decade ago, I lectured in Beijing and Shanghai at the invitation of the Chinese government. The Chinese wanted to know more about American conservatism and its major role in U.S. politics since the 1960s. I explained I could not discuss the American conservative movement without explaining the centrality of anti-Communism to its philosophy. They said they understood.

I said that better relations between the United States and China were possible only if the relationship was based on the truth. And so I talked about the horrific loss of human life in the Great Leap Forward of the late Fifties, when at least 30 million Chinese died as a result of Mao Tse-Tung’s forced communization of Chinese farming. That was a serious mistake, my hosts agreed. I talked about the Great Cultural Revolution and how the fanatical Red Guards plunged China into chaos for a decade. Yes, my hosts admitted, that was Chairman Mao’s idea and a very bad one.

And then I brought up the Tiananmen Square massacre, and my hosts fell silent. I waited, but no confession was forthcoming. Too many top officials had been involved in the bloodletting to allow open discussion, let alone admission of guilt.

It is now 25 years since Deng Xiaoping, so often praised for his liberalization of the Chinese economy, ordered tanks and troops to sweep clean the square and kill anyone who resisted. The Chinese regime still blames the massacre on “hooligans” who provoked troops into firing.

But truth will out in the long run, and not only about Tiananmen Square. The Internet is poking larger holes every day in the firewalls of the Chinese regime. We learn about the daily protests and demonstrations against corruption, cronyism, and the suppression of basic human rights throughout China. We know that the Chinese government continues to imprison thousands of political dissidents in the laogai, the Chinese version of the Soviet Gulag.

Two months after Tiananmen Square, the veteran anti-Communist Dr. Walter Judd startled a Washington audience by describing the massacre as “one of the most encouraging things that’s happened in China” in a long time.

It was encouraging, he explained, because “it proves that Communism . . . has failed to satisfy the wishes and wants of the people.” The Chinese Communists have “exposed themselves until even the blindest can see that they are barbarians — they are not true Chinese.”

“Tyrants,” Dr. Judd said, “have almost always looked invincible until the last five minutes, and then, all of a sudden, they fall apart.” Three months later, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and Communism collapsed in Eastern and Central Europe, followed two years later by the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

For nearly three decades, the Chinese Communists have sought to preserve their regime by instituting a Chinese version of capitalism and offering a larger rice bowl to their people. But the annual commemoration of Tiananmen Square and the persistent protests attest that not everyone can be bought off. As the American journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote, the Chinese people want rights just as much as rice.

They will win those rights one day, and sooner than the Chinese Communists realize. That’s the encouraging message of a somber anniversary.

Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

Tiananmen Square Protests
June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the crackdowns that ended the historic political demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. Six weeks of protests had seen hundreds of thousands fill the square calling for democratic reforms, only to be sweep away in a brutal government response. Here’s a look back. Pictured, the iconic “tank man” showdown on June 5, 1989.
A protest sign held by demonstrators attempting to take part in the funeral of Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang on April 22. The passing of Yaobang, who was seen as a reformer, was the impetus for the start of the demonstrations.
Student demonstrators fill Tiananmen Square, May 4.
A truck passes through a sea of protesters, May 17.
Pro-democracy signs, May 17.
Students stage a sit-in, May 18.
Trucks carry banners and megaphones to urge on the crowd, May 18.
Beijing police officers wear banners supporting the striking students, May 19.
Protesters confront soldiers after the government declares martial law, May 20.
A helicopter drops leaflets urging protesters to leave Tiananmen Square, May 22.
Workers cover up a painting of Mae Tse-tung after protesters splashed paint on it, May 23.
A strike organizer addresses students, May 28.
Art students work on the “Goddess of Democracy” statue being constructed in front of the Great Hall of the People, May 30.
The Goddess of Democracy nears completion as crowds look on, May 30.
Students burn copies of the Beijing Daily outside the paper’s offices, June 2.
Tents used by student protesters, June 3.
Crowds gather at an intersection near the square where a bus has been placed as a roadblock, June 3.
Students link arms to form a wall in front of others standing on a bus being used as a roadblock, June 3.
A student protester addresses PLA soldiers, June 3.
Civilians clash with soldiers, June 3.
Soldiers depart after clashing with civilian protesters, June 3.
Students protesters rally their colleagues from a truck outside the Gate of Heavenly Peace, June 4.
Troops and civilians sit on opposite sides of a cordon line, June 4.
PLA soldiers cross a barrier under orders to clear the square, June 4.
Civilians climb on an armored vehicle, June 4.
A protester covered in blood holds a soldier’s helmet following clashes with government forces, June 4.
A wounded young woman is carried from clashes, June 4.
Wounded protesters are transported from clashes, June 4.
Students surround an armored personnel carrier they set ablaze, June 4.
The aftermath of the crackdown: The charred remains of more than 20 armored personnel carriers and other vehicles, June 4.
Chinese soldiers arrives in Beijing, June 5.
Soldiers warn civilians away from a tank as it takes up a position at a key intersection, June 5.
Protesters flee PLA troops while in the distance (at left) the so-called “tank man” stands in front of a line of approaching tanks on June 5.
A wider view of Tank Man standing in front of Chinese tanks, June 5.
PLA troops and tanks take position in front of the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, June 9.
A handcuffed man is led away by police in the aftermath of the demonstrations.
Beijing resident ride by a wall of tanks and military vehicles in Tiananmen Square, June 13.
Updated: Jun. 04, 2014