Today is the anniversary of the earthshaking election victory of Solidarity in Poland—and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In his speech in Poland last week, President Obama noted the role of successful transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe as “an inspiration to change around the world,” including, but not limited to, the reforms currently underway in the Middle East.
“Solidarity . . .launched a peaceful revolution that’s had ripple effects and ramifications around the world, not just in Central and Eastern Europe,” the president said. “Your actions charted a course for freedom that inspired many on this continent and beyond.”
When Obama first visited Eastern Europe in 2009, he celebrated the Velvet Revolution that had occurred two decades before in what was then Czechoslovakia. But he noted that had only occurred because of the seeds of liberation planted even earlier, in the 1968 protests.
“We are here today because of the Prague Spring –- because the simple and principled pursuit of liberty and opportunity shamed those who relied on the power of tanks and arms to put down the will of a people,” the president said.
But on the very day of Solidarity’s earthshaking election victory—June 4, 1989—the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square because the Chinese regime was not at all ashamed to order the People’s Liberation Army to fire on the Chinese people. So the Beijing Spring ended the way the Prague Spring had—in regime inflicted gunfire, explosions, and carnage.
As much time has now elapsed since Tiananmen as the two decades that passed between the crackdown and the Communists’ eventual demise in Czechoslovakia. But, unlike their East Europe comrades, China’s Communist dictators remain in power.
The president thanked the Polish people for showing the way “as we face similarly transformative moments around the world. Poland has gone through what so many countries want to now go through. Your actions charted a course for freedom that inspired many on this continent and beyond.”
The Chinese people were clearly among those inspired by East Europe’s transformation.
The Polish president thanked him for acknowledging Solidarity’s “anti-communist position” and for “reinforc[ing] the world of Western values.” But Lech Walesa, Solidarity’s leader, was out of the country and missed the historic meeting.
President Obama should invite Walesa to Washington, along with Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, and, to demonstrate the universality of the democratic aspiration, Nelson Mandela from South Africa. The Dalai Lama would be a fine representative from Asia.
As it happens, all but one of those legendary figures, like the president himself, are recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, a shared honor that could help provide context for such a gathering.
The president should also invite the younger set of Nobel laureates from the present generation: Aun San Suu Kyi and Liu Jiaobo. Their attendance would be problematic, of course, since Suu Kyi is under close surveillance in Burma and subject to a return to house arrest at the whim of that regime, while Liu presently resides in a Chinese prison. But their conspicuous absence would shine a spotlight on the human rights situation in their countries.
China won’t like any of this and will accuse President Obama of confrontational “interference” in its domestic affairs. Yet, after a shaky start on human rights and democracy advocacy, the Obama administration has been edging closer to the more forthright moral position of some of his predecessors. It is time for the clean stroke like Kennedy’s in Berlin and Reagan’s in Moscow—and he doesn’t need to leave home to do it. In fact, the entire meeting could be done through a televised conference call.
The president acted bravely in ridding the world of Osama bin Laden, the personification of evil and inhumanity. He needs to show the same boldness in promoting the heroes at the opposite end of the moral spectrum before that generation of giants passes from the scene.
If June 4 is seen as a bit too much in China’s face, he could hold the Freedom Summit on July 4.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer from 2005 to 2006 and previously taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.