I worked at a Japanese company’s Beijing office during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. Our office was in the Beijing Hotel, 800 yards from Tiananmen Square. The hotel was completely inaccessible after the massacre on June 3rd. My colleagues and I couldn’t return to work until June 12th. There was no talk of business that day. The office was under a shroud of sadness and despair. We sat silently in the lobby, clicking the remote control for our TV. Back in the 1980s, foreigners were only allowed to set up shop in designated hotels, and in those hotels they had access to TV channels from all over the world. I learned two important things that day.
First, I learned that on the morning of June 3rd, the old Japanese prime minister had stepped down due to an insider-trading scandal, and a replacement had been sworn in. Since the protests began in April, my world had revolved around Tiananmen Square. To me, only one thing happened on June 3rd, and that was the massacre. To my Japanese colleagues, an equally important thing had happened the same day. Realizing that Tiananmen wasn’t the center of the universe eased the pain slightly.
Second, I learned that the day before, Michael Chang, an American-born Taiwanese tennis player, had won the French Open. He was now the youngest men’s champion in Grand Slam history. In his victory speech, he declared, “God bless each and every one of you, especially China.” Those words sent a crack ripping across the city’s obsidian sky. As I looked out the window at those bleak streets, I didn’t feel as claustrophobic anymore.
Information is power. My own lived experience can attest to that. The more people know about the world beyond them, the more choices they have and the less susceptible they are to propaganda. When I was living in China, I benefitted greatly from access to information from the outside world. However, in recent years, my friends who have stayed in China have increasingly lost access to uncensored information. The Chinese party-state is well aware of the power of information and has built The Great Firewall to shield the Chinese people from communicating with the outside world. Once upon a time, I cheered the arrival of the internet era. I dreamed that people would finally be able to circumvent state control on publishing and distributing and directly share information online. But I was wrong. Technology only made censorship easier and more thorough.
In 221 BC, China’s first emperor Qin Shi-Huang decided to burn any books he didn’t like. But no matter how hard he tried, there were always a few copies that escaped the flames. In today’s China, one click can take down every unwanted word from the web. The Great Firewall has proven to be more efficient than the ancient Great Wall.
In 2019, I published a memoir entitled Inconvenient Memories. It details my coming-of-age during the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989. The protests are still a taboo topic in China. When I posted about my book on WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform, my account was suspended. I was informed that “This WeChat account has been suspected of spreading malicious rumors and has been permanently blocked.” Since I was only “suspected” of spreading rumors, I called their customer service line to argue my case. I was met with a pre-recorded message explaining that they made final decisions even if they only suspected wrongdoing. There was no appeal process.
I wasn’t particularly angry. In the spring of 2019, as the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests was fast approaching, it became common for people to lose their WeChat accounts. Almost every day, I heard of someone else’s account getting shut down. I gave up on WeChat and came to accept that this was the new normal. After all, as China’s leaders put it, it is China’s internal affair that all 800 million Chinese netizens only get access to a highly restricted internet. If the Chinese government decided that its citizens didn’t deserve to know of the truth of 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, how could an American or a Canadian criticize them?
The COVID-19 pandemic proved that China’s censorship not only harmed the Chinese people, but also endangered global health and the global economy. The death of Dr. Li Wenliang provoked considerable grief and anger on social media all over the world. Li had warned his friends of the spread of a suspected new strain of SARS in a private WeChat group. His warning leaked and was circulated publicly, after which he was admonished by the police for spreading rumors. Li later contracted COVID-19 on duty and died at age 33. Those who mourned the death of Li Wenliang also demanded freedom of speech in China. Many believed that early recognition, transparency, and freer circulation of information could have triggered a quicker reaction both in and outside of China.
The impact of restricting the flow of information in China goes well beyond China’s borders. That is a major lesson we’ve learned from suffering through this most recent plague. Trump said in a recent interview that he was considering restoring tariffs, which he called the “ultimate punishment.” Trump only seems to be interested in narrowing the bilateral trade deficit between the U.S. and China. Yet the forty-year history of China’s reform and opening has proven that fostering free citizens is equally important as, if not more important than fostering a free market. If U.S. officials, including President Trump, want to hold China accountable as the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, I think they ought to pressure China into tearing down the Great Firewall.
On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke at the Brandenburg Gate in West Germany and called on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall.” Even after so many years, watching clips of Reagan’s speech still brings tears to my eyes. “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union & Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” Reagan says calmly. The audience responds with stormy applause. Two years after that speech, the world finally saw the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Chinese consumers deserve to enjoy things like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Line, WhatsApp, YouTube, Netflix among so many. Tearing down the Great Firewall will enable Chinese netizens to finally connect to the world. It will benefit the Chinese people at absolutely no cost to the United States. It will be a true win-win.
I wish that Trump would address China’s president in the same spirit that Reagan regarded his Russian counterpart. I wish that one day, Trump will tweet, “If you seek prosperity for China… If you seek liberalization… Mr. Xi, tear down this wall.”