Three decades ago this month, the world was horrified by a great and grave tragedy marking the loss of a glorious opportunity to bring the blessings of liberty and democracy to the world’s largest population.

On June 4, 1989, a blossoming of democratic ideals in China was brutally quashed at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. We remember the picture of a young man standing down a column of tanks at the square. No one knows who he was. No one believes that he is still alive. Thousands of those who demonstrated for freedom in China that day were mercilessly mowed down and killed by the armed forces of tyrants.

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Changan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989. (AP Photo / Jeff Widener, File)
A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing’s Changan Boulevard in Tiananmen Square, June 5, 1989. (AP Photo / Jeff Widener, File)

We may, however, reflect on one success resulting from that fearful day: The passage of the Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992 that has made citizens of the United States out of thousands of students who were here at the time in our country with their talents and at the same time penalizing the People’s Republic of China by depriving it of their talents and services. Even those students who ultimately returned to the PRC are soft-voiced but eloquent carriers of the seeds of a free society.

Last week, on that solemn occasion, survivors of Tiananmen and other supporters of democracy for communist China gathered at Westlake Plaza in Seattle to remember the people and the ideals slaughtered at Tiananmen, to renew our own dedication to the freedoms they died for, and to pledge that we will not give up their cause. Later that week, they gathered again, in solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong, who courageously held a candlelight vigil that night, commemorating their countrymen who were brutally suppressed 30 years ago. We hope — but without confidence — that they will not meet the same end as those they honor.

The People’s Republic of China continues to substitute arbitrary rules over the rule of law. It engages in extensive surveillance and control of its citizens. It bars the free flow of ideas and honest political and social debate. It encourages the systematic and consistent theft of intellectual property. It propagates the myth that democracy is not suited for the Chinese character, in face of the lively and highly successful example of the Chinese people on Taiwan and their fine democratic society.

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We celebrate the virtues of democracy, in which all citizens have a voice in selecting those who represent them. And even when it seems slow and messy and subject to criticism, we respond with the comment of Britain’s great Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the others that have been tried” … and failed.

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We believe in the rule of law, not autocratic dictates, in open debate and in honest competition, all based on the fact that our laws are written by freely elected representatives of the people whom those laws govern. It is that system that we seek for the people of mainland China. The road to success is likely to be long and tortuous, but the prize is of infinite value. Let us continue to seek it, without doubt and without pause.