In his description of his conversion from communism, the writer Whittaker Chambers said he “felt a surging release and a sense of freedom, like a man who bursts at last gasp out of a drowning sea.” I know how he felt. Three decades ago, I began my own break with communism. It culminated twenty-six years ago today, in the capital of my native land, at a place called Tiananmen Square.
Today the atrocities in Beijing are an increasingly distant memory as Americans, particularly those with a financial interest in China, hope to turn the page from the past. That was then, they tell us. China has learned its lesson, they say. But I was a survivor of the Tiananmen Massacre, and I know that this is not true.
In the early 1980s, I was not only a member of the Chinese Communist Party, I was a student leader. As a senior in high school, I believed in the Party’s leadership and its doctrines. I thought Mao was a great hero. And I saw communism — a system that was only a few years away from collapsing all across Europe — as the way of the future.
Then, I went to college.
In college, I took advantage of what would prove to be a brief window of liberalization in China. Arriving in 1985, just a few years after the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, I found a student body excited about the future, curious about the countless foreign books suddenly available on campus, and enthusiastic about discussing the changes we hoped to see from a Party and a communist system we still believed in.
At a university parade, students held up signs saying, “How are you, Deng Xiaoping?” – signs whose familiarity showed we did not fear Deng, and whose sentiments showed we cared about his welfare. Little did we know how much he feared us, and how little he cared about our welfare.
Gradually, I learned. I found that the Chinese Communist Party was not what I thought. It thrived on corruption. It abhorred criticism. It renounced self-improvement. Nevertheless, my fellow students and I naively believed that communism could be reformed.
At Tiananmen Square, we learned otherwise.
For more than a month, until June 4, 1989, I spent most of my time at Tiananmen Square, alongside a million other men and women who wanted the basic human rights communism rejects. Then, in the final, fateful 24 hours, the army I had once admired turned its guns on its own people. After an initial flurry of fire, I found myself 10-20 meters from a host of terrifying tanks. Behind them were armed soldiers who already had the blood of innocent demonstrators on their hands.
I was afraid for myself and for everyone around me. I remember thinking, “I don’t want more people to die.” It was then that the sound of the soldiers’ guns again rang out across the Square. The tanks’ treads began to roll over the limbs and spines of unarmed students. And among the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of murdered protesters was a young man from my own college. He died right before my eyes.
After briefly flirting with human rights and civil liberties, from 1989 to 1990, the government arrested all the reformers in key government positions who remained in China.
The Chinese Communist Party launched a censorship campaign that confiscated some 32 million books — twice the size of the Library of Congress. According to Professor Minxin Pei, the government also “closed 12 percent of all newspapers, 13 percent of social science periodicals, and 76 percent of China’s 534 publishing companies.”
To be sure, what happened at Tiananmen Square twenty-six years ago was a tragedy. But what happened in the year after it was catastrophe. And in recent years, that catastrophe has been compounded.
Since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, human rights abuses in China have gone from bad to worse. In the past year, the Chinese government spent $33 billion on monitoring, censoring and controlling its people. On 2,270 occasions, those billions helped pay for speech-chilling measures like monitoring or detaining dissidents and reformers.
In a stinging rebuke to decades of western hopes that China’s communists would open up their political system, the Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch called last year the “cruelest” in China since 1989. According to Freedom House, the government is “mounting more coordinated and multi-pronged campaigns to dominate online discourse, obstruct human rights activism, and pre-empt public protests.” And “democratic concepts such as a free press, judicial independence, and universal human rights … are viewed as an existential threat to the party’s rule.”
Having once been a communist, and having seen what communism will do to survive, I do not expect the Chinese Communist Party to relax its repressive policies. It will never voluntarily embrace the principles of liberty that it believes, for good reason, threaten the party’s very existence.
Freedom and democracy will exist in China only when the Chinese Communist Party ceases to exist in China. Brave Chinese and Chinese-American activists as well as invaluable groups like the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation work tirelessly to see that day. But until that day arrives — and it will arrive — I will mourn my friends who fell before the rifle bullets and tank treads of Tiananmen Square twenty-six years ago, and for the more than one-billion souls on earth still trapped in communism’s “drowning sea.”
This article originally appeared at the Washington Examiner on June 4, 2015.