On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. For nearly 30 years, the wall had been a daily reminder of the deep division between communism and liberalism, a physical barrier to keep Western ideas, people, and resources from threatening the ironclad grip of the totalitarian government.
The wall separated families, friends, lovers. The wall separated people from their jobs. The wall kept people trapped in the stagnating, oppressed, desperate communist state — it had to, or else there would have been no one left to rule. Some were still so desperate to flee that they attempted to escape, and upwards of 200 people were murdered trying.
For many in the West, the breakdown of the barrier between the free and oppressed people of Berlin symbolized the triumph of liberty over totalitarianism. We thought that the rising standards of living, entrepreneurial spirit, and increasing wages in West Berlin and the complete economic disparity of East Berlin would cause a universal recognition that liberty were more conducive to the wealth and health of the people. After all, nobody was fleeing West Berlin.
But now, 30 years after the fall, the continuing existence of socialism and communism abroad would suggest otherwise.
In our celebration of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we cannot overlook another 30th anniversary this year — that of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In the same year that liberty triumphed in Berlin, the Chinese government brought in military men and tanks to quell student-led pro democracy demonstrations asking for free speech and free press.
Tiananmen, in stark contrast to the liberation of the people of Berlin, demonstrated the persisting willingness of totalitarian regimes to oppress and even murder their own people to remain in power.
In mainstream culture, we are led to believe that China is not an ideological threat to the West, that it will liberalize with economic prosperity, that the lives people live in China are not all that different from those we will live in the United States.
This is a lie.
The citizens — rather, the subjects — of China are not able to enter a church until they’re 18 years old, they are required to profess their atheism to hold certain jobs, and they are only permitted to attend services that have been approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Muslims in China are being targeted and arbitrarily detained in “re-education” camps, where they are forced to renounce their religious beliefs, mandated to assimilate into Han Chinese culture, and coerced into singing the praises of the CCP along the way. The Falun Gong Practitioners, another spiritual minority in China, have been the targets of forced organ harvesting for decades, with an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 victims each year.
The development of China’s surveillance technology has allowed the scope of surveillance to expand exponentially in the last decade. In some regions, the CCP has travel checkpoints every few miles, surveillance cameras on every corner, and facial recognition which allows them to monitor where you go, what you say, and whether you behave.
And this is only the beginning. The “court system” is merely an extension of the will of the CCP. The government mandates when and how many children you are allowed (a policy enforced by involuntary abortions). The Chinese people are interrogated if they leave the country for “national security reasons”— and if your social credit score is too low, you aren’t allowed to travel at all.
The scariest part is that the West has grown indifferent to China’s actions, so long as they say the right things and promise future change.
We need to recognize that when the CCP claims to value the rule of law, promote national security, and work for the betterment of the Chinese people that they don’t mean these things in the same way that Westerners do. To the CCP, the establishment of the rule of law does not involve a reflection of the laws of nature and nature’s God, but an arbitrary enactment of the will of the Communist Party. To the CCP, promoting national security means protecting the totalitarian authority of the communist government from Western ideas which would threaten it. To the CCP, working for the betterment of the Chinese people means mandating assimilation to their model of a perfect citizen who does not speak, act, or think out of turn.
Just because there’s not a wall doesn’t mean there’s not a difference.
We cannot make the dangerous mistake of believing that the fight against communism has already been won. To believe that the fall of the Berlin Wall signifies the ultimate victory of liberty is to ignorantly overlook the reality of the world today and underestimate the strength of our adversary.
What we need is a new generation that is willing to pick up the torch, act in accordance with the principles we profess to believe, and stand up to totalitarianism in all forms, in all places. The people trapped under communist regimes today are equally as deserving of the ability to exercise free speech, practice their religion, and govern themselves. And we need to be equally as willing to fight for their rights as we would be to defend our own.
Gwen Hellickson is a George Washington Fellow and a senior studying economics.