China’s dictatorship, America’s democracy

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I almost always focus on recent books, but this month I want to mention one from 2014 that’s received new life because of—to quote last month’s University World News headline—“Dismay over university’s sacking of scholar denied a visa.”

Rowena Xiaoqing He, author of Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy (Palgrave Macmillan), currently lives in Austin and until recently had a post at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. CUHK, though, fired her two days after Hong Kong officials denied her a visa.

That made headlines around the world. City Journal: “Hong Kong’s Deteriorating Academic Freedom.” Financial Times: “Hong Kong Denies Visa to Scholar.” France 24: “Hong Kong Sacks Tiananmen Scholar.” South China Post: “Historian Sacked from University.” Al Jazeera: “Hong Kong Denies Visa to Prominent Tienanmen Scholar.”

Amid this spurt of attention, Rowena came to my house on Nov. 8 for dinner with my wife and me. She’s very nice and was also very tired since journalists from multiple time zones were calling her at all hours of the day. But it’s an important story, one more indication that Hong Kong’s governmental and academic leaders are now puppets of China’s rulers in Beijing.

Tiananmen Exiles tells what happened almost 35 years ago. Thousands of people, mainly students, assembled in the vast square that includes the mausoleum of Mao Zedong. They protested corruption and authoritarian rule. Officials could have dispersed the crowd either by agreeing that changes were needed or by using tear gas.

Instead, as protests spread to 400 cities, officials decided to make an example of the Beijing protesters. They called in thousands of soldiers and had them fire on the unarmed civilians, killing at least hundreds and probably thousands. Chinese who know what happened often refer to “June 4” the way Americans refer to Sept. 11—but in China the terrorist leaders came from within the halls of government.

Rowena eloquently tells that story and focuses on the memories of three student leaders who survived the massacre and managed to escape to North America. They show that it’s hard to be in exile, and Beijing dictators could use their sad stories to discourage others. Instead, China’s leaders continue to pretend that the massacre never happened, or that only a few people conspiring to overthrow the government received their just punishment.

Happily, the United States is still different, but we are in danger if we forget what Brook Manville and Josiah Ober call The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives (Princeton, 2023). They emphasize “Good Faith Compromise: prefer common good compromise in political decisions over unilateral demands for perfection.” We also need “Civic Friendship”: don’t treat others as enemies, and renegotiate agreements as needed. 

The Civic Bargain is well worth reading, but putting it into practice is easier described than done in our current environment of polarized media and politics. It’s hard for Republicans to get along with each other, let alone Democrats. It may be too much to think of “enemies” as friends, but here’s a start: think “opponent,” not enemy, and leave the word “enemy” as a descriptor of tyrants like Saddam Hussein.

But when should we declare war on real enemies? For those still puzzled about why the U.S. invaded Iraq two decades ago, Melvyn Leffler’s Confronting Saddam Hussein (Oxford, 2023) is the best book I’ve found that offers a judicious look at George W. Bush’s management. As president, Bush displayed many fine qualities, but “when weapons were not found [in Iraq] neither his goals nor his strategy appeared to make sense.”

Leffer rightly calls Hussein “a murderous dictator… who cultivated links with terrorist groups.” Nevertheless, Bush needed advisors “inclined to argue openly and honestly with one another.” Without that help, “he was unable to grasp the magnitude of the enterprise he was embracing, the risks that inhered in it, and the costs that would be incurred.”

Bush as executive, Leffler writes, was “straightforward, unpretentious, level-headed, honest, and easy to work with.” I saw a bit of this in domestic policy concerning poverty. Leffler notes that Bush had many positive qualities, but he “disliked heated arguments, and, therefore did not invite systematic scrutiny of the policies he was inclined to pursue. He did not ask his advisers if invading Iraq was a good idea.” It turned out to be a bad one, but we’ll never know whether not invading would have been worse.

By the way, switching gears only slightly, Christmas is the story of a benevolent invasion: the Creator enters his creation. Hope you have a joyful holiday.

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Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.