This week is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in the centre of Beijing. Like most of us in 1989, I was captivated by the wave of protests and democracy struggles that swept across Europe and the world that year. After decades of stalemate in the Cold War, in the space of that year Solidarity won elections in Poland, the Berlin Wall was breached and Chile moved decisively to remove the dictator, General Pinochet. Hope was breaking out all over and it felt like our generation’s 1968 moment.
Then the tanks of the Chinese People’s Army rolled in and the voices of hope and freedom fell silent. The image of a single individual, shopping bags in hand, standing in the way of a column of tanks, flashed around the world and became the icon for the Chinese democracy movement - valiant, defiant but, in the end, futile.
Despite the ruthless crackdown, the received wisdom of the time, perceived this outbreak of energy amongst the student population as the beginning of the end of repression and the one-party state. Thirty years on, we are still waiting for the end to come. If anything, the suppression of dissent has increased and, despite the arrival of the internet and social media, China has managed to prevent its citizens from giving free rein to their aspirations. The economic growth of the world’s second largest economy has not lessened the grip on power of the Chinese Communist Party as predicted.
It's easy to look at China since Tiananmen and become disillusioned by the lack of change. It is an important challenge to those who believe that ‘progress’ is inevitable, especially when tied to economic prosperity. Instead it reveals how adept power is at transforming itself to take maximum advantage of social change. We look on as other countries undergo major transitions through revolution and coup and become cynical that the same elite seems to rise to the top regardless. We are less able (or willing) to look at our systems of power and influence until confronted with a crisis like Brexit. Suddenly, in sharp relief, we discover that power tends to accumulate around those few who already have it.
For anyone interested in radical social change, this is a reminder that the path to change is never easy or swift. If we want to see power exercised by different people in different ways, then we must be prepared for the long haul. For the changes we really want to effect are often hard to quantify and difficult to explain. For instance, a fair voting system will allow many more parties to be represented in Parliament and strengthen a democracy that wants to hear from all voices, but trying to sell electoral or constitutional reform on the doorstep is never easy.
The things we take for granted in 2019 - online shopping, social media, 24 hour news, mobile phones, electric cars, online banking - have transformed our lives but were mostly unthinkable in 1989. Whilst China has gone in one direction, central Europe, Latin America and most of Africa have gone in another, proving that change is messy and unpredictable, but always present. Hope never dies.
This week we remember those who gave their lives in the struggle against coercive and abusive power. Their sacrifice must never be forgotten.