Echoes of Tiananmen Square

By Yang Jianli
Sunday, September 30, 2007

In the early hours of June 4, 1989, I was on Chang'an Street, just west of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, when I saw Chinese soldiers open fire and kill many of my fellow protesters. I barely escaped the same fate. The horror of that day is seared in my mind like it was yesterday.

In recent days, my memories of Tiananmen have come rushing back as I have watched the mass demonstrations in Burma and the junta's bloody crackdown. After decades of military dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of the people of Burma -- a diverse outpouring of Buddhist monks, democracy activists and ordinary civilians -- are standing up to confront the country's brutal regime.

All of us in the Chinese democracy movement stand in solidarity with the Burmese people, who are engaged in a life-or-death struggle to free their country from years of oppression and decay. Everything is at stake for the Burmese, but the outcome in Burma will also have a major impact on our struggle in China.

The Burmese junta has chosen to face the uprising with violence because it is losing its grip on power and because it is convinced that China will come to its aid in the U.N. Security Council and suppress any meaningful international response. So far, those calculations have proved correct. Last week, China, together with Russia, prevented the Security Council from even condemning the violence inflicted on the protesters. In January, the two countries had vetoed a non-punitive Security Council resolution urging national reconciliation.

China has a parasitic relationship with Burma. Beijing sucks out Burma's natural resources -- especially oil, gas and timber -- at heavily discounted prices, which it obtains because so few countries are willing to do business with a regime that manages its own economy so poorly and that has such a terrible human rights record. China views the junta's preservation as in its own interest, to ensure that competition for those resources remains minimal. To this end, China is the principal arms exporter to Burma, providing 90 percent of its weapons. Without $1.6 billion in past military assistance from China, Burma would not have been able to create a 400,000-member army, the second-largest in Southeast Asia, behind only Vietnam. And this Chinese support is provided despite the quiet complaints of Yunnan province officials about the massive outflow of drugs and HIV-AIDS from Burma into China.

While China's initial response to the protests has been to defend the junta vigorously, it is unclear how long that support will last. The more that the international community highlights the blood on China's hands -- for arming the junta and steadfastly defending the regime's tactics, which include systematic rape and murder -- the less likely it is that Beijing will stand firm. Particularly when combined with activists' efforts to highlight China's role in funding the Sudanese regime and thus the atrocities in Darfur, China's culpability for the violence in Burma will only reinforce attempts to brand the 2008 Olympics in Beijing the "Genocide Games."

There is a bright side to China's communist government being driven not by values but by pragmatism. Not only does its support for the Burmese junta contradict the image of a responsible power that China has tried to project in recent years, but if the junta falls, Beijing will want to be on good terms with a new democratic government lest it try to cancel or renegotiate China's massive contracts for natural resources. While Beijing will hold on as long as preserving the junta seems possible, it will also abandon the Burmese generals the moment preserving its own interests requires doing so.

The stakes in Burma are huge. The Burmese people peacefully elected a democratic government years ago, and the junta has not allowed those leaders to take office. The U.N. Security Council needs to demand the cessation of violence and a return to a meaningful, U.N.-supported dialogue between the junta, the National League for Democracy and ethnic groups. Such a dialogue must have benchmarks to measure progress and must result in the restoration of democracy to Burma. Until the Security Council acts, the United States and other freedom-loving countries should provide China with a stark choice: either use its leverage on Burma to ease a democratic transition or be held publicly responsible for its failure to do so.

Yang Jianli is president of the Foundation for China in the 21st Century. He was released last month after completing a five-year prison term in China, where he was sentenced for attempting to observe labor unrest in 2002.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company