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Remembrance of Reagan

John Li looks back at President Regean’s legacy and reflects on what might have been for China’s democracy.

Ronald Reagan’s 8-year presidency ended shortly before theemergence of the pro-democracy movement in China in 1989. His demise coincideswith the 15th anniversary of the crushed movement, as people are rethinking themeaning of democracy and human rights to an economically robust China.Amidst an outpouring of sorrow and affection in the week following his death,Mr. Reagan was finally given credit for winning the Cold War without firing ashot. Many in China,meanwhile, would remember the bloodstains on Tiananmen Square, and how theywere instrumental in bringing together the forces that tore down the Berlin Wall severalmonths later and thousands of miles away.

During the 15 years since that tragic June 4thin 1989, I have wondered many times what would have happened in China had Mr.Reagan’s presidency been extended for another term. Would China have become another Poland? Or,would there have been a Chinese Gorbachev that gave people real hope for thecountry’s democracy? More than anything else, would June 4th havebecome a day for celebration rather than candlelight vigils—and confusion overhow to make the deaths in Tiananmen worthy in their own country?

Without Reagan, a true believer andnon-compromising champion for human rights and democracy, we saw China sadly spared from the fire that swept awaycommunism in Eastern Europe—although Tiananmenwas the torch that ignited that fire. It would take another hero from that era,Lech Walesa of Poland’s Solidarity Movement, to remind us of the true meaningof June 4, 1989. In his article in memory of Reagan in the Wall Street Journalon June 11, 2004, he wrote, “I have often been asked in the United Statesto sign a poster that many Americans consider very significant. Prepared forthe first almost-free parliamentary elections in Poland in 1989, the poster showsGary Cooper as the lonely sheriff in the American Western, ‘High Noon.’ Underthe headline ‘At High Noon’ runs the red Solidarity banner and the date — June4, 1989.” And who is the real-world embodiment of the sheriff with the resolveto rid not only the Wild West but the whole world of evil? Of course, it is theperson the article is eulogizing – Ronald Reagan.

Reagan imposed economic sanctions against Polandwhen the Communist government there cracked down on the solidarity movement. Itwas likely that some people in Polandwere hurt by the sanctions, but today the Polish people are thankful to him becausein the words of Mr. Walesa, “We owe him our liberty.” Similar sentiments wereechoed in Grenada,a country Reagan “invaded” in 1988 to free it from a pro-Cuban dictator. When aNew York Times journalist took a trip there to report the negative feelings hefelt people in Grenadawould have against the “aggressor” following his death, none could be found—onlyeffusive gratitude and grief. This is a lesson for those opposing the economicsanctions against China inthe wake of June 4th: Like Americans fighting at Gettysburgand Omaha Beach, and Chinese chanting fordemocracy in the hail of bullets at Tiananmen, the world’s people steadfastlyyearn for freedom and clearly understand that it comes with a price. Now, afterthe lifting of all the conditions attached to Sino-US trade, and themarginalizing and ridiculing of Wei Jingsheng and Harry Wu, the twolong-imprisoned democracy stalwarts, for still harboring such ludicrous ideas,China is slipping further and further from its embryonic quest for democracy inthe 1980s, and its human rights record has steadily worsened.
I once visited the editor of a prominentpolitical journal in Washington, D.C. to raise my concerns over China’sheightened persecution of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, undergroundchurches, and democracy activists, and to seek his advice on how Washington could beleveraged to aid those groups. He didn’t answer my question directly, but justsaid that it would be laughable for a country to build its foreign policy onthe promotion of human rights. I was quick to add, “although they may createthe appearance of doing so,” and he nodded. Reagan, however, believed in anddefended such basic values, which might sound simple-minded in the eyes ofthose sophisticates who have a penchant for tactical games such as détente,which have only served to perpetuate the existence of communism. People werealso amazed that Reagan’s simple definition of the SovietUnion as an “evil empire” could have the magical power of forcingit to change, and eventually, collapse. When I think about it, it was as simpleas that proverbial Danish boy – or cowboy –who saw that the emperor was wearingno clothes, and just told the plain truth to the mesmerized audience who hadall seen the same thing but refused to believe their eyes.

In the first few days after his departure I was shocked to see TV commentators in my town attemptingto reduce the significance of his shining presidency to a winsome smile, or thefading image of a “great communicator.” But later in the week, pictures of thelong queue leading up to the Capitol Rotunda where the body of the greatpresident lay in state testified to the failure of their attempts.

Throughout human history, people have battledfor goodness against the forces that opposed it. This is a simple truth thatmakes every man that fights for it great, including President Reagan.

On June 4, 1989, China’s Prague Spring was nipped inthe bud, and since then the government’s grip on the Chinese people’s lives hasbecome tighter and tighter. Beneath the veneer of an economic boom driven byforeign investment and wasteful exploitation of natural resources lies the trueChina,which seems to be forgetting the date of June 4th. The government’siron-fisted approach has all but wiped out the democracy movement, and supporthas been dwindling in the west under the tremendous influence of the appeasementof China—referredto now as “engagement.”

In July 1999, theChinese government, under the direct supervision of its then president JiangZemin, started a relentless campaign against the apolitical spiritual groupFalun Gong. Since then, tens of thousands of people have been illegallydetained, and thousands have died in police custody. The persecution wasbrought to life by journalistic reports and acknowledged around the world asyet another affront to human rights by the Chinese government. Many of thoseso-called Chinascholars, of course, would not humble themselves to agree with what wasobviously the case. Blindly neglecting the salient moral component of themovement and its consistently non-violent behavior, those Chinese experts havein the past five years tried to rationalize the persecution as a cataclysmicTaiping- or Yellow turban-like uprising against the government. Their messagecould have been a godsend to a Chinese government struggling to convince itsown people of the necessity for the crackdown, but oddly enough, those pundits’words were never quoted in China, because even small schoolchildren thereunderstand the history of Taiping and Yellow turban revolt—and their differencefrom Falun Gong. As a result, every time I hear or read a comparison betweenFalun Gong and those armed uprisings, I’m not sure whether the commentators’true purpose is to seriously examine the issue, or to show off their textbookknowledge of Chinese history.
Like his wordsand personality, Reagan’s values were simple and powerful, and they left alegacy the pundits can never diminish. History will remember that Ronald WilsonReagan, the greatest American President of the 20th century, won themost crucial war for mankind, and died on June 5, 2004, 15 years from the dateof a massacre at Tiananmen Square that helpedbring victory in a great battle against tyranny.

John Li is a New-York-based freelance writer on Sino-US relations. His articles have beenpublished in newspapers such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and theInternational Herald Tribune.