“The Tiananmen Question”
It is probably one of the most iconic protest photos in history. A single human facing down a huge, ugly symbol of totalitarianism. China’s recent history has shown that capitalism is more than capable of thriving in the absence of human rights and freedoms that many in the West have long contended go hand in hand with economic liberalism.
It certainly used to be the prevailing narrative that you either had a planned economy through authoritarianism or a Liberal Democracy; free markets alongside free speech. But in Tiananmen Square and the decades that have followed that assumption has been shown to be false. There are two possible conclusions: that there simply isn’t a correlation between free markets and human rights or that there is a negative correlation, whereby free markets thrive in authoritarian regimes.
If the latter is true, then the Tiananmen Question is simply this: should a country allow human rights at the peril of the market economy, or put the market first and hold back human rights to protect business interests?
The US PATRIOT act amongst other Western legislation in the last decade has sought to classify an attack on business interests as an affront to national security, and thus, by implication, business interests trump human interests. The trade agreements of the last two decades almost all contain clauses that restrict or prevent government’s from acting in the interests of their citizens or the environment if a (usually foreign) business deems it a barrier to profit.
Against a backdrop of rhetoric of expanding freedom and democracy, America and Europe appear to be giving a rather different answer to the Tiananmen Question. Kettling and threats of water cannons being brought into Central London to punish protesters plus the rising use of CCTV cameras that form part of traffic observation systems to catch dissidents (the method employed by China to crackdown after Tiananmen) should cause us to wonder whether quietly, behind closed doors, a completely different answer is being given to the trade off between human rights and profit.
I suspect my outlook on this issue is partly generational: I did not grow up aware of the Cold War, where leftwing ideology was pitted against the values of “Liberal Democracy”. Those who appeal to the notion of a Liberal Democratic Ideal tend to get laughed at by many, especially those not familiar with the academic arguments for such a thing. For the ordinary 20 something in the street, it doesn’t look like free enterprise as a human right, so much as business interest as a barrier to progressive, socialist, humane, community-oriented values.
Far from the ideological discourses of Anarchism, Communism, Socialism and so forth, this is a question we can and should raise amongst everyone, before it is simply too late. It should be a question anyone can understand, no matter their knowledge of Marx or their following of world politics. It has been presented time and time again to the British public in the media and in everyday lives. The Tesco store opening in a community with plenty of local shops, the imposition of Starbucks and McDonalds, the recent revelations of police infiltration of protest groups on both sides of the Atlantic.
With pro-democracy protesters in Egypt being condemned by Hilary Clinton, who seems quite happy to support the dictator Mubarak, it becomes a question we must be not only quick to answer, but also proactive over. We can be fairly certain from recent behaviour that the government of Britain has its own priorities, and in choosing differently we may pay a high price. Not stepping up to the challenge, however, will do us no credit in the eyes of future generations.