Benjamin Akande

It’s been 30 years as of June 4 since a group of students sought to challenge the leadership of China and almost succeeded. 

As we approach the 243rd celebration of our nation’s independence, I can’t help but think back on those historic events when I was a doctoral student at the University of Oklahoma. Like most graduate students, I spent my free time engaged in intellectual discourse about the economy and political events around the world. But 1989, in particular, was a year that altered my perception of the meaning and significance of freedom.

That tumultuous year was witness to a series of domestic and international political revolutions that shocked us to our core. The Berlin Wall – that symbol of repression and tyranny – came down at last. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic policies of glasnost and perestroika were transforming the Soviet Union. In Poland, the Solidarity movement defeated the communists in the first free parliamentary elections held in more than forty years. The South African government took the first steps to dismantle apartheid. A new sense of freedom was spreading across the planet.

Middle Eastern neighbors Iran and Iraq, after a decade of war, finally stopped fighting each other. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, an enigma to many in the West and revered almost god-like by millions of followers worldwide, passed away, a mere mortal.

Back home in America, 1989 brought us a landmark judicial ruling, political cleansing, and the downfall of a bona fide American hero.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was protected by the Constitution as a viable expression of freedom of speech. The powerful Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, was forced to resign after a Congressional investigation found numerous violations of House rules. In his farewell speech, Wright quoted the words of Horace Greely, “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wings, those who cheer you today may curse you tomorrow, only one thing endures … character.”

In the world of sports, the Pete Rose saga altered our perception of heroes and role models, reminding us that not all that glistens is gold. The question many Americans were asking was, “For Pete’s sake, why gamble on baseball games in clear violation of Major League rules?” Pete bet his life, and then he was banned for life.

But the most profound memory of 1989 occurred on a public square across the globe, in the most populous nation in the world, China. It was the image of a young man defiantly standing in front of a tank in the middle of Tiananmen Square. His act of bravery was a modern day version of Nathan Hale’s, “I regret I have only one life to give for my country.” The fate of that Chinese hero remains unknown to this day.

The Tiananmen Square massacre – officially 500 were killed, but it was probably hundreds or thousands more – started as a peaceful demonstration two months earlier. Students sought to engage with government officials about expanding social freedoms. Their numbers quickly increased, with up to a million Chinese of all ages joining in the growing protests. Their symbol was a huge, garish version of the Statue of Liberty, all done up in white Styrofoam and uniquely named the Goddess of Democracy.

The protestors sought to sweep away the cobwebs of a disreputable past and build a new and proud legacy for the future. But it was not to be. Despite a decade of reforms that suggested China was moving to become freer and more democratic, instead its government chose to revert to its authoritarian rule. On the fateful day of June 4, 1989, tanks and armored personnel carriers breached human barricades, toppled the Goddess of Democracy statue, and ended the freedom movement with bullets and blood. Hundreds lay dead, and democracy was on hold. 

The Chinese government’s decision to fire on its youth transformed the way I look at life, the way I live, and what I am willing to die for. I was profoundly affected by such callous disregard for human beings.

Fast forward 30 years. Memories of the student massacre are fading. Life across the world has changed in many ways. Economic growth and trade have replaced human rights as the measures of a nation’s worth. The word “freedom” has become a pejorative: if you don’t agree with me, you don’t deserve to share in our freedoms.

The China of the 21st century has become an economic powerhouse, and its political intolerance and moral abomination are overshadowed by its prosperity. Still, an old Chinese proverb gives me solace and provides an avenue for hope: “The effects of our actions may be postponed, but they are never lost.”

I would like to believe that the hundreds of Chinese students did not die in vain. It may take 30 or more years, but some day there will be another celebration in Tiananmen Square, a celebration of a China that has finally empowered its people. When that time comes, we shall look back and truly grasp the significance of 1989. 

China’s economic success underscores the meaning of free enterprise. But real success still continues to elude her, because China has not been able to grasp the true essence of what it means to be free.

Benjamin Ola. Akande, an economist, is assistant chancellor of International Programs-Africa, director of Africa Initiative and associate director of the Global Health Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is the former president of Westminster College and served as professor of Economics and dean of the Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

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