In 1988 Attorney General Edwin Meese and I both had the remarkable experience of speaking from a lectern at the front of the main dais in The Great Hall of the People in Beijing – the very spot where you see Xi Jinping standing in the attached photograph.

We addressed 3,000 assembled lawyers, judges, and legal academics, half American, half Chinese, on themes of the rule of law, individual liberty, property rights, and the efficiency of free markets.  Our messages were endorsed from that platform by Mr. Meese’s counterpart, the Chinese Minister of Justice, and by my counterpart, the Assistant Minister of Justice with whom I had worked for more than a year in organizing the conference.

For the next three days, the 3,000 delegates met in smaller groups and workshops as we worked on various ideas about how to help China restructure its laws, build an independent judiciary, and establish law schools worthy of the name.

Among the Americans who took part in our conference in Beijing were well-known legal figures of both American political parties, including Archibald Cox, Solicitor General under President Kennedy and, later, the special Watergate prosecutor investigating President Nixon. Delegates came from all over the United States, including District Judge Marvin Aspen from Chicago and the then-Attorney General of Illinois, Neil F. Hartigan.  

The Americans pulled no punches, at least with each other, and in one break-out session Mr. Cox and I got into an impromptu debate over the wisdom and constitutionality of “independent prosecutors” in the United States.  We got rather heated, but at the end of the discussion, we made a point of shaking hands and embracing each other to show that an important part of democracy and self-government involves being able to disagree strongly yet respectfully.

We went to great lengths to explain the logic of Western ideas like federalism, involving the over-lapping sovereignties and legal systems of state and national governments, to our Chinese friends. Most of the American delegates, recognizing the unique opportunity to gain real insight into China and make history in the process by helping China move away from communist totalitarianism, traveled to the conference at their own expense.

At the end of the conference we were joined by Zhao Ziyang, then the General Secretary of the Communist Party as Xi Jinping is today. Zhao had authorized the conference as part of his efforts to change China’s direction, in truth to “decommunize” his country peacefully while continuing its economic development and opening to America and the world.  He thanked Mr. Meese and me for coming to China and posed for a memorable group photograph (taken by a 360-degree panoramic camera) with all the delegates, Chinese and Americans alike.

The speeches by Mr. Meese and me were instantly translated by interpreters on the spot and televised nationally throughout China.  In the following days as we walked streets in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai we were recognized by ordinary Chinese people who would throng around us and cheer. Reform was in the air in China and a path forward to freedom, free enterprise, and the rule of law was taking shape.

Yet change often comes slowly, particularly in a place such as China with its strong traditions of respect for the past and history of authoritarian rule.  While China was on a path to reform in the late 1980s, some grew impatient with the slow pace of progress and on-going problems of corruption and repression.

So it was about a year after our conference that enthusiastic advocates of reform, led by students, assembled in Tiananmen Square, the central plaza just outside The Great Hall of the People, to express that impatience.  The rally quickly grew.  It continued for days and soon echoed in hundreds of town squares, city centers, and other places throughout the vastness of China.

Zhao Ziyang argued that the rallies were harmless and perhaps even helpful to his reform agenda, reason enough for him to quietly encourage the protests.  This horrified China’s hardline communists, who exploited the situation to wrest power from Zhao.  A crackdown ensued that culminated in the bloody events of 35 years ago this week, in early June of 1989.  We remember these events in the West as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

In the wake of the brutal crackdown, Zhao Ziyang was bundled off into forced retirement in short order; the Assistant Justice Minister with whom I had worked, escaped into exile, eventually finding asylum in the United States;  and the man who had invited us to China, Mr. Meese’s counterpart, the Justice Minister, disappeared from the face of the Earth.  We were later told he had been seized in his office, marched to the basement of the Justice Ministry’s building, and, as with countless others who had been taken there over the years for “interrogation,” shot in the back the head.

Those events set China on the path to the present, with Xi Jinping tightly controlling an increasingly aggressive Chinese totalitarian state, enslaving Uyghurs, encouraging the adventures of Russia and Iran, and threatening countries including not just Taiwan but also the Philippines, Australia, and even the U.S. itself.

In the years following Tiananmen Square, Western intelligence services gained access to Chinese archives that included minutes of the internal deliberations of the Chinese leadership at the time of the events of Spring 1989, later published by Foreign Affairs in 2001. 

The portrait of the CCP’s leadership painted by “The Tiananmen Square Papers” reveals the different attitudes towards the protesters held by senior members of the Chinese government. While some, like Zhao Ziyang favored compromise with the protesters, the then still-influential Deng Xiaoping was determined “not give an inch on the basic principle of upholding Communist Party rule and rejecting a Western multiparty system.” 

Though the hardliners won out in 1989, this does not mean that Chinese history is predetermined. While Xi Jinping may wish to project backward an image of Chinese unity in the face of invasive Western ideas such as separation of powers and federalism, the truth is that democracy and its corollaries have long been objects of fascination and admiration in China. 

The continued authoritarian rule of the CCP over China is not a natural law precept but rather the result of a few powerful deciders moving against democratic reform at key moments. But, with the passage of time, Providence may yet allow for a few more key decision-makers to choose differently. The sparks of liberty I saw feeding into a flame of republicanism 35 years ago have not been extinguished, and someday China will know what it is to be a republic of, by, and for the people.