June 6th marked an anniversary that is big in American and Western history. We rightly honor the brave veterans that invaded Hitler’s empire. There are more anniversaries to consider of even braver actions. About 80 years ago on June 7, the Nationalist government deliberately broke the dikes on the Yellow River to slow down the advancing Japanese army. The resulting flood killed 400,000-800,000 people and displaced millions more while having little strategic effect on the war. That’s why it’s even more important to remember this contribution from a once-upon-a-time ally. During the war, the Chinese bravely resisted Japanese aggression long before the Western powers joined the war against Japan or Germany. China had to fight with extremely limited resources and through great suffering such as the flooding victims of June 7th.
But just a few days ago, Western audiences remembered the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. On the night of June 3rd into June 4th in 1989, hundreds and possibly thousands of activists were brutally suppressed by the military. This year China cracked down on activists, arrested musicians that sang about the event, and even turned off the chat features on popular apps. Thousands of people in Hong Kong gathered to commemorate the event. But their unique rights are being eroded. Many activists have been jailed in the past, and China is seeking to streamline extradition which will enable easier transfers of Hong Kong citizens to courts in mainland China, with fewer protections for the accused.
So which China should we really remember? How should we view them? The answer is that China is really both. The Communist government is a dictatorship which gets especially insecure at pro-democracy demonstrations and remembrances of Tiananmen Square. They practice censorship, dubious human rights manifestations in their Muslim-majority provinces, and continue to aggressively pursue their interests abroad. Since this is more recent and done by those who are still in power, it remains important to remember the massacre.
But we must also remember that enemies today are often yesterday’s and tomorrow’s friend. China was a vital ally in the war against Communism, bravely fought the Axis powers, and because of the cruel twists in history —a bitter American general, hostile American press, and victory of the Communists in their civil war— their contributions in World War II are largely forgotten. In assessing potential Chinese threats such as seemingly aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, it’s important to consider more of their history and their potential to be an ally against a resurgent Russia and nuclear North Korea. At the very least, Americans shouldn’t ignore China’s contribution to freedom from the past because of their current government. In 50 or 100 years, the Chinese government that massacred its own people at Tiananmen Square could be in the dustbin of history.