There is a weird circle here. I’m writing from Cambridge, Mass right now at wikimania, and this is also where I was in the spring of 1989. During the Tiananmen demonstrations, I was a student at MIT, and those ghosts are some of the one’s that I see when I walk around here.
My own political views are shaped highly by the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. I was reasonably close to overseas student politics at the time, and the one paradox that I’ve always tried to figure out is how did a student movement that was so devoted supposedly to free speech become so intolerant of any real discussion and utterly incompetent and self-destructive in just a few years. It was scary to see how quickly this process of degeneration took place.
The basic lesson I’ve drawn is that bureaucratic structures are inherently hostile to free speech. So if you create a “good guy” bureaucracy to fight the “bad guys,” then very quickly the “good guys” will become the “new bad guys.” (See the history of the Communist Party of China itself). Also organizations that are based on “us-versus-them” are inherently hostile to free speech, since you don’t want “them” to know what “we” are thinking.
The other problem (which seems still a problem) is that groups made of young people tend to be a little insecure and inexperienced, and getting an audience with “people with power” is a very heady experience. The problem here is that then access to money and power because an internal power issue that then becomes really nasty.
One question that I have conscious made a decision not to think too much about is “what-if” the tanks hadn’t been sent in on 6/4. Based on how much I supported the student movement, and how badly I saw it degenerate in the 1990’s and what has happened to Russia and Iraq, when I start think of this, I start thinking “maybe the government was justified in ….” at which point I literally get sick to my stomach that I’m even starting to think that thought……
The one “emotional snapshot” that I have is how it felt in May 1989 when it seemed for a moment that everything was possible. Sometimes I look at that mental image and I try not to think about anything that happened afterwards and just hold on to the “purity” of that moment. I should point out that in the spring of 1989, I was a student at MIT, and being at Wikimania, I see a lot of the “ghosts of 1989”.
I can’t change the past, and as far as historical judgment, it’s better that I leave that to future historians who are more dispassionate than I am. The one thing that I do believe is that I want to do everything in my power to prevent another Tiananmen incident, and the Communist Party also has that goal in mind so there is some basis for cooperation.