TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Were the Chinese Too Lenient at Tiananmen?

It’s one thing for the Secretary of State to backpedal on human rights and refrain from making them central to U.S.–China relations. This probably accurately reflects a moderate position on rights in the Obama administration, which may be disappointing some of its supporters, especially since it’s a rollback from the rights advocacy of the Bush administration.

It’s quite another, however, to find that the newly appointed Chair of the National Intelligence Council, Chas Freeman, apparently holds that the Chinese government was too lenient in its treatment of the demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Here is the relevant passage from an old email by Freeman uncovered by Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard:

[ . . . ] I want to take issue with what I assume, perhaps incorrectly, to be your citation of the conventional wisdom about the 6/4 [or Tiananmen] incident. I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than—as would have been both wise and efficacious—to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at “Tian’anmen” stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.

That means: the Chinese government waited too long. They were too “cautious” in the use of force. They presumably should have shot sooner. Dictators should be more dictatorial, and more efficiently so. Just call it realism.

In order to make his case, Freeman goes on to draw an analogy from Washington of 1932, when U.S. military forces, under the command of Douglas MacArthur, attacked the camp of the Bonus Army at the Hooverville in the Anacostia Flats, across a muddy swamp from the government area. Yes, the new director of the NIC retroactively endorses the use of the military against veterans demonstrating for their due:

For myself, I side on this—if not on numerous other issues—with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ “Bonus Army” or a “student uprising” on behalf of “the goddess of democracy” should expect to be displaced with despatch from the ground they occupy. I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China, allowing students to occupy zones that are the equivalent of the Washington National Mall and Times Square, combined, while shutting down much of the Chinese government’s normal operations. I thus share the hope of the majority in China that no Chinese government will repeat the mistakes of Zhao Ziyang’s dilatory tactics of appeasement in dealing with domestic protesters in China.

OK, folks, be forewarned. The Director of the NIC also supports the use of the military against a “student uprising” in the name of democracy. I can imagine how this reads in Beijing. What about Tehran? Or Caracas? Or, for that matter, Berkeley or Washington?

One wonders where Nancy Pelosi is on this; she used to be a strong spokesperson for rights in China.

And what about Bill Ayers? If he is not repentant for his Weatherman years as a protester, is there any solidarity with the protesters in China?

Freeman’s adamant insistence on agreeing with MacArthur is interesting, since the General went beyond the force mandated by the President. Even after Hoover ordered the attack stopped, MacArthur persisted. By the way, the rout of the Bonus Army marchers won them sympathy, and the issue, payment of a promised bonus from World War I service, would not go away. Roosevelt was as adverse to paying it as was Hoover (another example of continuity between presidents), but it was eventually passed by Congress, in 1936, over Roosevelt’s veto.

Is there an underlying contempt for rights creeping through Washington today? An expression of a cynical realism that replaces the democracy agenda? Is it, too, part of the stimulus? In any case, as metaphors abound comparing the current situation to the Great Depression, keep an eye out for the return of the authoritarian state. Rights? Yeah, right.

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