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A bittersweet anniversary

Remembering an outbreak of freedom in Europe and a crackdown in China 35 years ago


A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Widener

A bittersweet anniversary
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“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Charles Dickens famous words could be applied to the massive developments that rocked the communist world of 1989. This year  we commemorate the 35th anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, but also the Chinese victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In early 1989 the Soviet Union allowed for the first semi-competitive elections since the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917. 1989 saw a tidal wave of democratic transitions as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany all shook off their communist leadership, culminating in the beautiful fall of the Berlin Wall once and for all. Although Ronald Reagan had predicted this moment, few believed that the evil empire would unravel in this way. It was truly a great moment for liberty, vindicating the fundamental human dignity of all people behind the Iron Curtain.

Not so behind the Bamboo Curtain. The late 1980s did see a measure of economic liberalization in China and hints of a political opening. Many hoped that a similar democratic revolution would overtake the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), even as so many other changes came in 1989.

Hopes were raised when, in April, student protests galvanized thousands of young Chinese citizens in a mass pro-democracy, anti-corruption movement in Beijing and other cities. What precipitated this pro-democracy movement was the death of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang who had been ousted from power two years before, who was seen as a progressive figure. Masses of students came to Beijing, using the moment to call out the corruption and hypocrisy of the increasingly wealthy Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials who were using market reforms in the economy to line their own pockets. The protestors also demanded transparency and honest media reporting, just application of the law, and democracy.

Over the next six weeks this protest movement took off in dozens of universities across the country and in a number of major cities, but with the focus being Beijing, the heart of the country. Student activists engaged in hunger strikes and an increasingly large group rallied in China’s capital city. Support for the democracy movement took off elsewhere as well. For instance, 1.5 million residents of Hong Kong rallied in support of the Tiananmen Square protesters and positive news coverage of the movement reached people around the world.

Communist repression was brutal. We do not know how many students and other Chinese citizens were slaughtered at Tiananmen Square.

Sadly, the CCP recognized that this was a dire threat to its very existence and to its stranglehold on political and social life. The CCP was not going to capitulate to the demands of activists, nor allow itself to be overthrown as seemed to be happening in countries that were throwing off Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops were mobilized across the country and thousands were sent into Beijing with orders to crush the protesters. They did so on June 4, 1989. For those of us who were alive at the time the images in news reports stick in our minds to this day, such as the lone student standing in front of and staring down a tank.

Communist repression was brutal. We do not know how many students and other Chinese citizens were slaughtered at Tiananmen Square. What we do know on this 35th anniversary of the massacre, the regime of President Xi Jinping has become more aggressive and less free over time. Xi and the CCP have broken the customary relationship with Hong Kong, cracked down on dissent, and installed a technologically sophisticated surveillance state. They continue to repress religious minorities including Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, Falun Gong, and the Uyghur Muslim minority. The “new socialist thought” of Xi Jinping lays out a vision for a party-directed country where the CCP oversees, controls, and manages nearly all aspects of Chinese life. Those who say that China does not have a truly “Communist’ government clearly have not read the voluminous writings of President Xi nor have they taken into account the brutal totalitarian activities of the state.

2024 is a double 35th anniversary as we look at the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in most of Eastern Europe in contrast to the violent crackdown at Tiananmen Square. It is a bittersweet time for commemoration. This week, we remember those who have fallen under the brutality of Chinese communism with a hope that sometime soon we will see the evaporation of the legitimacy of the CCP and the liberation of the billion Chinese men and women held captive behind the Bamboo Curtain.


Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.


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