From Beijing to Bear Stearns, with love

When the People’s Liberation Army crushed the students in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, it ended one event in a year of international drama. Followed by the dismantling the Berlin Wall, 1989 marked the “collapse of Communism” in many Western eyes. Marking the end of the Cold War, these events ushered in the dawn of global hypercapitalism and swept the world into rising tides of economic prosperity—for some. But what of democratic freedom in the same era?

We capitalists have less call to be smug these days, after a year of collapsing international markets. As the apparently solid American finance system crumbled, we taxpayers have been bailing out our own capitalist system in part, with cash borrowed from Chinese capitalists. Indeed, Chinese capitalists played a role in the rapidly expanding economic boom that preceded last year’s bust, buying up dollars and helping fuel our own seemingly insatiable lust for more stuff.

Some have gone so far as to blame the Chinese for our economic woes, but that is just plain silly. They simply understood us better than we understand ourselves and worked that understanding to their—and our short-term—advantage.

Twenty years ago, my traveling companions and I encountered that understanding as we talked with students in Tiananmen Square. Movement leaders spoke more fluently to us in our own political philosophies than we could, quoting Thomas Jefferson. Others grasped the essential economic link in our traditions of liberty, perceiving, as my friend wrote, “Our revolution was fomented by a bunch of land-owning white guys who didn’t want to pay taxes. Out of that longing for economic freedom came the political freedoms we hold so dear. Who knows? I heard one student say something along the lines of ‘once their rice bowls are full, their minds will wander to things political.’ ”

Last week I caught up with Craig, a fellow traveler to Tiananmen, for the first time in 20 years. “Hearing that guy quote Thomas Jefferson is why I went to law school,” he said. “It changed my life.” For my own part, I saw the power of history to move people, and it sealed my own fate to study and teach American history.

But what about the big picture? Many analysts argue that after the massacre, the Chinese government granted the students’ wishes: economic restrictions loosened, and profits from the subsequent growth flowed into universities. Restrictions lifted on scholars’ professional and personal lives, as well. In return, says Shanghai writer Mara Hvistendahl, intellectuals willingly participated in “the great forgetting.” Wu’er Kaixi, one of the movement leaders, said, “It’s a deal the Chinese Communist Party made with the people: We’re going to let you get rich, but you have to surrender your political freedom.”

Wu’er should know. He is one of several Tiananmen leaders who went into banking and international finance. This makes me wonder—how many of those students in 1989 grew up to be those “infamous” Chinese capitalists?

Having had the Chinese hold a mirror up to my culture, I wonder if we might turn around to learn a few things about ourselves from them. Is there a connection between personal wealth and willing self-censorship? Perhaps the story of the rice bowl has it all backward. With the comfort and security of the overflowing rice bowl (and SUVs and Nikes), Americans seem bored to tears by Jefferson’s philosophies. Are we all that different from today’s China, where, according to Tiananmen dissident Liu Suli, “An idealist … is a word that stinks up the streets. ‘Idealist’ equals an insane person … or an idiot?” Then again, Obama’s election rode in on an unprecedented wave of youth activism. Perhaps all is not lost, after all. When asked if he still calls himself an idealist, Mr. Liu responded, “Of course.”