Mao Zedong standing atop Tian’anmen pronouncing the foundation of the People’s Republic of China — October 1, 1949

The Chinese People Have Finally Risen Up

65 years ago on this date, Mao Zedong stood proudly upon the terrace of Tian’anmen and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. After a century of humiliation suffered at the hands of imperialist powers from both East and West, Mao proclaimed, “the Chinese people have finally risen up!” Indeed, at the time, many Chinese viewed the consolidation of power under the Communists as a definitive step towards liberation and the re-establishment of Chinese sovereignty in its own homeland.

Still, many others saw the raising of the five-starred red banner over Tian’anmen Square as an ominous sign. China might be free of imperialism, but what new scourges awaited its people? Had the democratic aspirations of Dr. Sun Yat Sen and other activists who ushered the demise of the last imperial dynasty been lost for good, sullied as they already were by a protracted period of internecine warfare and repression by both Chiang and Mao’s camps?

China also wasn’t yet entirely free of imperialism: Hong Kong and Macau remained as bastions of West, a thorn in the side of the newly invigorated Chinese state. These became the closest portals to the Chinese realm that westerners could access as China cloistered itself from the world, a process that mirrored the deepening paranoia of its charismatic cult leader. We witnessed with horror the increasingly erratic machinations of the Communist state produced ever more tragic, self-inflicted catastrophes upon its people: the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the ill-fated Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution.

Humiliation of class enemies during the Cultural Revolution
Burning cultural relics — standard practice for the Cultural Revolution

When Mao died in 1976, despite putting on the airs of a state mourning the greatest hero of its era, it was plainly evident that the leadership was ready to turn the page on an arguably disastrous chapter. Deng Xiaoping and his cadre launched China into uncharted territory with the Open Reforms. Economic controls were loosened; private ownership of the means of production was reinstated. China began the arduous process of climbing back to the apex of the global economic system, reclaiming a place it had held historically for centuries.

As economic freedoms and prosperity grew, some of China’s people began to yearn for political freedoms they believed would strengthen the nation, transforming it into a truly open society. In 1989, a mere 40 years after Mao stood upon Tian’anmen, masses of demonstrators thronged the Square, petitioning their government for democratic reforms. For a moment, it appeared as though the light of democracy first kindled in the hearts of the Chinese by Sun Yat-sen nearly a century before might once again shine upon the Middle Kingdom. Instead, in the same place where Mao said the Chinese people had finally arisen, columns of tanks and soldiers now mowed those very same people down in the thousands, making them pay for their insubordination to the state with blood. As Deng Xiaoping himself said, “Kill 200,000 to preserve order for 20 years.”

Democracy Wall in Beijing — August, 1979
Tian’anmen Square — Spring, 1989
Tian’anmen Square — eve of June 4, 1989

Every year since then, the people of Hong Kong have kept vigil, memorializing a massacre that has been systematically eradicated from the memory of the Mainland, and keeping the flame of democracy lit. When it was decided that the United Kingdom would hand over Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the right of the people of Hong Kong to self-determination and full suffrage was naturally considered non-negotiable.

Today, nearly 20 years after the transfer, the people of Hong Kong find themselves on the cusp of democracy, and yet while it appears so close at hand, it is in danger of once again becoming a dream deferred. The paranoia of the Communist state continues to eat away at its core, leading it to renege on its promise to grant Hong Kong full democracy. Being able to vote only for puppets selected by the Communist Party is no different than eating gutter oil and being told it’s a delicacy.

The people of Hong Kong are rightfully incensed, and I hope they stay out on the streets as long as it takes for them to secure their freedoms. The Communist Party may try to drown the flame of democracy in blood once more, but they will only erode their own legitimacy while firing up their enemies. No one knows how much longer will we have to wait for the dream of democracy to become a reality in China. But we do know this: this is the people of Hong Kong’s moment to use their power to realize that dream for themselves.

Hong Kong — October 1, 2014
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