(ORIGINALLY POSTED ON SCMP) COLUMNIST TOM PLATE WRITES — For no self-respecting ‘superpower’ is failure an option. But history’s guarantees for nations are few: For big as well as small, survival can prove a struggle. And so, while humility might not be ranked as the first virtue of prudent superpower-ing, internalizing at least a healthy measure of it would seem wise. A singular anniversary later this week, and a series of sad events this past week in the U.S. and elsewhere, make this point emphatically.
On 4 June 1989, the government of the People’s Republic of China came to an existential crossroads. In the wake of widespread domestic protests, its rulers unleashed Chinese military units to suppress serious social eruption – not only around Tiananmen Square but elsewhere in China. Beijing’s judgment was that it had no other way to forestall impending civil war. The head of the government then was Deng Xiaoping, by any rational assessment the greatest Chinese leader of modern times.
Who’s to say he was wrong? Answer: Many in the West; and some (quietly) in China. Even today, China, while celebrating historically unprecedented economic success, is haunted by the ghost of that dark moment. Stable and just nations should not have to push the panic button of pure military force to maintain stability. The best social order is more or less of the consensual kind. However momentarily effective, brute force invariably signifies underlying failure and is designed to conceal.
And around this time every year, in the West predominantly, the international, if informal, Never-Forget-Tiananmen commentariat gears up for its ritual piling-on of political piety. In wailing cascades of long-form print, as well as staccato tweets and videos, it strives to keep the global memory of that crackdown in active mode. It’s just possible that this show of unctuous concern will fade this year – suddenly overtaken by ugly events at home in the U.S., the would-be model nation.
Throughout the West, major metropolises and minor cities – from Berlin to London, from Los Angeles to Portland – have exploded into street protests, violent as well as peaceful. The past seven days, many de-quarantined Americans, sick of the sight of arresting police officers who kill black citizens (not to mention sick of extended COVID-19 house self-confinement), have been pouring, in waves, into urban arteries (not unlike those of pent-up and fed-up Hong Kongers), full of rage at inept law-enforcement governance that was criminal.
The immediate trigger was an utterly incomprehensible police arrest in Minneapolis that was conducted with all the tender Constitutional care of police-state storm troopers on amphetamines. This is not unusual in America, but in our age of video cameras all but everywhere, the image of the black American suffocated in the course of an arrest came quickly to light – an overnight hit, as it were: yet another black American rough-housed by police to his death. This time, the victim of deadly violence under the cover of law enforcement was a man named George Floyd. I predict that more Americans will wind up remembering that name than will ever know – or care — about Tiananmen.
Yes, America has its own, very serious internal problems, as does Hong Kong – which surely could author a most authoritative guide to contemporary political street protest. Until the cruel, shocking death of George Floyd of Minneapolis, the HK turmoil was of particular personal interest to the Trump administration, now on an anti-Beijing binge as the President’s team musters up for the re-election campaign. Political adverts would be tricked up to depict why China is so bad and America under Trump is so wonderful. But that’s harder to do now.
The American president has told the nation’s 50 governors not to go “weak” on the protesters – but to get tough on what he termed the “scum” protesters. Whether those simplistic thoughts originated within his own basic instincts or through chats with PRC Chairman Xi Jinping (whose own red lines about HK seem, to me at least, arguably a bit Trumpian) is not known. But the tough-guy approach is bad policy, especially for a demographically diverse country that baldly brands itself the “exceptional” and/or “indispensable” nation. On a moral level America needs to lead not by following the questionable practices of others but by offering truly enlightened governance born in its own heart.
In this age of instant communication and chatter and clutter and all that clings to it, governance is anything but easy; surely governing Hong Kong is no weekend at Disneyland. So, for the Trump administration to plant the big feet of the outrageous Mike Pompeo, U.S. secretary of state, on Hong Kong, on the grounds that it is no longer sufficiently separate from the PRC, is quite amazing — like blaming the victim for the use of murderous police force.
The legacy of Deng Xiaoping is anything but pure. No leader can pass through the top job without dirtying her or his hands. The legendary Thomas Jefferson had slaves; the Tiananmen decision remains a severe black mark on China’s past. But great reformer Deng got many tough issues right. The notion of one-country/two systems was his best, well-considered advice for handling the takeover of Hong Kong, which he preferred done with finesse. It was a marvel of the middle-way: move history forward, but without tears.
American policy should reflect on that wisdom rather than intrude on an internal Chinese matter. Put bluntly, the U.S. sticks its nose into the affairs of too many situations globally, with neither the sincere intent nor required resources to follow through – almost like international political consumer fraud, with no lifetime guarantees. Morally, it is vacuous. As the saying goes, “Those in glass houses should not throw stones.” Dear Americans: For the foreseeable future, focus on George Floyd, not Tiananmen Square. And do something about that.
Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate is the author of 13 books, including two on modern policing.