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Kudos to Winston Peters

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 7 June 2019

Winston Peters’ comments on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre were candid. Where Western politicians have turned not upsetting China over its human rights record into an art form, the Foreign Minister left diplomatic niceties behind.

In an interview with Magic Talk radio on Tuesday, the Foreign Minister was blunt. “Thirty years ago, about 10,000 people – we don’t know how many – lost their lives when Chinese army’s guns were turned on them, which is very, very unforgettable,” he said.

He then went on to explain that the students who protested in 1989 were striving for freedom which was “a very hard thing to repel”.

Peters expressed his disappointment that three decades since Tiananmen Square, “there hasn’t been progress [in China] one would have hoped in respect to freedom itself.”

That was not what the Western world had hoped for, as Peters readily acknowledged: “The theory was that economic freedom or economic liberty would lead to political liberty. And in the case of China it has not,” only to add “I can’t say much more as Foreign Minister than that.”

We wonder what else Peters would have liked to say which his position did not allow him. Because what he said was blunt enough.

In China, any reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre has been eradicated. It is an event removed from history as if it had never happened.

The Chinese leadership’s panic is understandable. In the year of the massacre, a peaceful revolution had brought down the Berlin Wall. It demonstrated to Beijing how pro-freedom and pro-democracy protests can overthrow a police and surveillance regime.

The Chinese leadership drew its conclusions from both these events. They believed that their brutal oppression of dissidents was necessary for stability. And they set out to strengthen their grip on every aspect of life to prevent a repeat of the Berlin Wall experience in their country.

In this way, the end of communism in Europe had an anti-freedom effect in China. It made the Chinese leadership more suspicious of any activity that might call the Communist Party’s rule into question. This included purging the memory of the Tiananmen Square massacre and embedding strict controls in all media and communication channels.

Beijing’s repressive policies have an internal logic of their own. But that should not stop Western politicians from speaking out freely against them. Kudos to Winston Peters for daring to.

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