The yearning for liberty is universal but, alas, so is the desire of the ruling classes to squelch it. The crackdown on protest in Beijing's Tiananmen Square 25 years ago demonstrated how far China's ruling class, the presiding Communists, would go to protect its authority and control. Minders of the masses have hardened the steel to defend their turf, and the struggle for control has jumped to cyberspace. Tiananmen Square is a reminder that freedom begins with free speech.
Every uprising has a trigger, and the unrest that led to the massacre at Tiananmen was set off in April 1989 by Chinese university students mourning the death of a liberal political reformer, Hu Yaobang. Thousands gathered in Beijing's central square to honor his advocacy of government accountability, freedom of speech and an uncensored press. The gathering became an occupation with a hastily constructed "Goddess of Democracy" statue as its symbol. When the occupation stretched beyond a month, sympathetic citizens began to join the students in Beijing, and the protest gradually spread to 400 towns and cities.
Communist Party authorities declared martial law on May 20, and on June 4, opened a military operation supported by a tank column to evict protesters from Tiananmen Square. Hundreds attempted to block the advance and were killed by soldiers of the People's Liberation Army. Many were injured. Thousands were rounded up and imprisoned.
The boot of oppression stamped on dissent in China and has not eased. In the days leading up to the 25th anniversary, the government is watching Tiananmen Square for the slightest sign of renewal of the sympathy that led to the crackdown a generation ago. A tourist innocently snapping a "selfie" making the victory sign can be interpreted as an act of defiance, and the offender arrested.
Tiananmen Square, with its provocatively named Gate of Heavenly Peace, occupies a hundred acres in Beijing. Through the power of social media, it has become a source of worldwide discussion — except in China. The millions of Tiananmen Square pages on a Web accessible elsewhere are blocked by an army of censors at the "Great Firewall of China." The Communist Party has forced Web search engines such as Google and Yahoo to collaborate in the scrubbing of their content. Facebook and YouTube are routinely banned. With only a sanitized version of cyberspace accessible, younger Chinese have little — if any — knowledge of what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Censorship tempts government everywhere. Washington embraces busybodies eager to control the sights and sounds available to Americans through their electronic devices. President Obama's Federal Communications Commission recently toyed with a proposal to monitor news management in newsrooms until a firestorm of protest forced him to back down, at least for now. Senate Democrats who covet the censor's blue pencil are plotting a vote in Congress this summer to effectively amend the First Amendment to enable them to restrict political advocacy.
Winston Churchill once described democracy as the worst form of government, except for all the others. What happened at Tiananmen Square demonstrates what happens when a "worse form of government" takes charge, and the government dream of shutting up the people comes true.