briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

It’s Tuesday, June 4, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

30 Years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre: One of the Darkest Days of the 20th Century and its Meaning

June 4, 1989, 30 years ago today goes down as one of the very dark days of the 20th century. It was on that day that guns were fired and tanks rolled against students who had assembled in China in historical Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The students had begun gathering in mid-April, sensing what they thought was a season of political openness within China. They thought the Chinese Communist Party at that point in the late 1980s was open to some kind of new reality. They called for a multi-party system. They called for an independent judiciary. They called for rights for students. They called for the freedom of assembly. They called for the freedom of the press.

Over time, the Western media became absolutely fascinated with this brave, very courageous demonstration amongst students that began to number in the thousands. But in the hours of transition between June the 3rd and June the 4th, loudspeakers announced that the Chinese Communist Party, in the name of the nation, was going to eliminate the protest. What they didn’t say in words, but the tanks and the guns said in bullets and in shells, when they said eliminate, they didn’t just mean to disburse the crowd.

Western estimates of the dead students ranged from several hundreds to the far more credible several thousands. But behind this is a huge issue with massive worldview implications, and what we see here 30 years after the event is the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has now decided not only to increase its repression, but furthermore, to erase history. You have to remember that in 1989 the breakup of the Soviet Union was at least coming into view, the end of European communism as a failed murderous experiment. And so the thought was then, especially among Western intellectuals and the hopes of the Chinese students, was that there would be an opportunity to bring about historic transition in China.

But there is one basic historical lesson of Tiananmen Square, and that is this: a Communist party in a one party state does not give up its control without a fight. Orville Schell, writing in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, put it this way: “For the first time since 1949,” and that is a reference to the Chinese Communist revolution, “one could suddenly imagine a China that was both more democratic and more fully integrated into the outside world. But,” he writes, “the moment didn’t last. As we know, in marking this week’s melancholy 30th anniversary. Whatever the power of China’s long suppressed democratic hopes, they could not withstand the ideological determination and brutal might of the Chinese Communist Party. The crushing of the Tiananmen protest movement was a shot not just to all those idealistic Chinese demonstrators, but also to westerns like myself who believed that with our help, China was starting to find its way to being a more modern and open society.”

Shell continues, “The tragedy of that possibly misplaced faith weighs especially heavily today. Under President Xi Jinping, a newly assertive, authoritative China now strikes many in the U.S., not just as a disappointment, but as a threat.”

Now, as you’re looking at this history, we have to recognize that in 1949, when the Communist Revolution established the Communist Party as the sole power within China, this came in the context at what at the midpoint of the 20th century appeared to be a communist ascendancy. If you were looking at the world in 1949 you just might think that what you were seeing is that communism is the coming thing, and democracy was the going thing. This was the confidence of Soviet leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev. It was the confidence of Mao; that is, Mao Zedong in China. It was the confidence of the leaders of their satellite nations. And there were many in the United States and in the West who wondered if they might be right. That inevitably communism would be victorious over democracy and freedom.

But in that strange season of 1989, it appeared that everything was different. That indeed, it was democracy that would win inevitably over communism. Communism had so failed within the European experiment, especially in Russia and its satellites, that it became intellectually discredited throughout almost the entire world. It was thought that China would be included within that realm in which communism had been discredited, and some form of market economy and a democratic liberalization of the culture, an increased respect for human rights and freedom would inevitably follow.

But as much as the Soviet Union did fall, the Chinese Communist Party at the very same time, seemed to learn the lesson from the fall of the Soviet Union, and that was that it was not about to open the doors or the windows to freedom because inevitably it would lead to the Chinese Communist Party’s loss of power, and that they were unwilling to see happen. And so instead the guns and tanks were set loose on those thousands of students in Tiananmen Square. And as Westerners watched as long as they were able to watch from outside the Square and as the sounds were heard, it became very, very clear that a massacre was taking place in the most historic square of Beijing.

Oddly enough, indeed, ironically enough, Tiananmen means the “gate of heavenly peace” in China. It points to the fact that that gate emerged in the 15th century in the Ming Dynasty as the part of the imperial legacy of China. The Chinese Communist Party maintained the name after the revolution, although they changed much of the iconography around the square. But the name Tiananmen originally intended to designate the gate of heavenly peace, now almost universally around the world means government repression. It means the Chinese Communist Party; it means murder on a mass scale. It means the government turning on its own people in a massacre.

There are many worldview lessons to learn on this 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. One of them is that many stories do not have happy endings. And that is profoundly the case when you consider the hopes of those students who filled Tiananmen Square and really did believe that their mass efforts could bring the attention of the world upon China, and the Chinese Communist Party would respond with the respect for freedom. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party responded with oppression and crackdown and massacre.

A second lesson to learn here is that Western idealistic hopes very common in the foreign policy establishment and amongst the intellectual elite, that China would inevitably modernize, even as its economy grew. Well, it turns out that those hopes, those aspirations, those confidences were severely misplaced. Looking 30 years later, China has continued along the path of economic modernity. But what it has created is a market economy within a one party communist state. State control, control by the Communist Party remains the one bare, nonnegotiable fact of life within the People’s Republic of China.

By the way, another lesson to learn from history: any country that names itself the people’s republic of X or Y or Z is almost always profoundly not a people’s republic. When you name yourself a people’s republic, as was the tradition in so many communist examples, you were claiming to establish a government in the name of the people, but the people had no say in their government.

Part II

Totalitarian History: The One-Party Chinese State Rewrites the History of Tiananmen Square

Next, another lesson to be learned on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, is that the United States government then did not respond in a way that was morally right to the massacre that was undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party against its own young people. The United States government, hoping to maintain a relationship with China, having experienced almost 20 years of what was called triangulation, trying to balance China over against the Soviet Union—the United States did not want to lose its relationship with the leaders of the Communist Party, and thus they responded with a very weak and tepid response to a mass murder undertaken by the Chinese government against its own people.

Gerard Baker, explaining this in the Wall Street Journal, wrote, “Though President George H.W. Bush initially denounced the crackdown, suspended arms sales to China, and announced some other sanctions, the administration decided early on that it wasn’t going to allow Tiananmen to become a turning point in U.S. policy. It became clear that the official response would be essentially to pretend that nothing had happened.”

President George H.W. Bush, often referred to as Bush 41 said, “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States.”

President Bush 41 deserves high praise and credit for his handling—very delicate, expert handling—of the Soviet Union and its transition and breakup, but he must also get a very low grade for his handling of China after the Tiananmen massacre. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the Chinese government had confidence that the American administration would not respond strongly, and that might have given license to the party to crack down on the students.

But another insight into what took place 30 years ago in Tiananmen Square is the fact that history is indeed contested territory. If you’re going to talk about the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, you’re probably going to have to have that conversation outside of China. A recent study indicated that only about 15 of 100 current university students in China recognize the iconic photograph of a lone student standing bravely in front of a tank. That actually became one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century—a young man, whose identity is still unknown, bravely standing before a tank, atanding as a symbol of freedom and the defiance of a repressive regime.

But even as that photograph is so well known to Westerners, it is not known to young people in China. Why? Because even as the Chinese Communist Party responded with a brutal oppression and crackdown of the students, it has also been incredibly successful in cracking down on history.

If you control history, you control the narrative. You control the current understanding of meaning. And in many ways, you can control the future. That was a point made brilliantly by George Orwell, one of the most prophetic voices of the 20th century when he wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” That’s a very dark but realistic assessment of what happens when history is under the control of a totalitarian regime.

We saw this in the Soviet Union, but that experiment came to an end. We see it right now in China. Before the digital revolution made such manipulations easier to spot, in the old days, the Chinese Communist Party would just cut people out of photographs. When they were in the party’s favor, they were in the historic photograph. You knew that they were out of favor when their silhouette simply disappeared from a photograph. In some of the ludicrous photographs that are still available from this point in communist history, there would be mutual handshakes, but there would be more hands than there were people.

The editorial board of the New York Times responded yesterday, “Even after 30 years, erasing the history of the massacre in Tiananmen Square remains an obsession of the Chinese Communist Party. To a degree, it has succeeded,” said the editors. “The Chinese raised in the extraordinary boom time since that day often know little about what happened on June 4, 1989, or accept the official line that curbing the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ was needed to facilitate the economic miracle.”

In a very important article also published at the New York Times, Chris Buckley wrote, “One by one China’s shaken leaders spoke up, denouncing the student protestors who had occupied Tiananmen Square until the army rolled in. They heaped scorn on the current communist party leader, purged for being soft on the demonstrators, and blamed the upheaval on subversives backed by the United States. This scene was played out,” he wrote, “among Chinese Communist Party leaders soon after troops and tanks crossed pro-democracy protests on June 3 through 4, 1989, according to a collection of previously secret party speeches and statements published just last week in Hong Kong. Wang Zhen, a veteran communist described as having a famously fiery temper, said of the students, “Kill those who should be killed. Sentence those who should be sentenced.”

Buckley then summarizes, “The new published documents laid bare how after the massacre, party leaders quickly set about reinforcing a worldview that cast the party and China as menaced by maligned and secretive forces. It is an outlook that continues to shape Chinese politics under Xi Jinping, the party leader facing off with President Trump in a trade war.

All of this makes even more important our responsibility to tell the truth, because the truth isn’t know inside of China. And it’s important to recognize that the current administration has responded with a very clear moral statement against the Chinese Communist Party. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, “China’s one party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests.” The Secretary of State continued, “The events of 30 years ago still stir our conscience and the conscience of freedom-loving people around the world. We urge the Chinese government to make a full public accounting of those killed or missing to give comfort to the many victims of this dark chapter of history.”

In China, there is no freedom of the press, there is no allowance for students or others to gather in Tiananmen Square to protest. The one party state has become even more oppressive, now backed up with all the draconian powers of a surveillance society. And the Chinese Communist Party controls virtually everything, including the official Chinese internet, and even the history textbooks that are taught to school children.

The protest and the massacre in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago are completely missing from those history books. But here’s something else that Christians understand. You can rewrite history, you can lie about history, you can repress the truth, you can even make it illegal to speak the truth, but eventually that truth will come out even if it comes out on God’s own day of judgment. But at that point, all the books will be open, all the secrets will be known, and there will be an accounting. If it doesn’t happen in this life before a human court of justice, it will happen one day.

But there must also be the recognition among Americans and particularly among thoughtful Christians that the ordered liberty and the freedoms, the respect for human dignity that we know, all of these were an achievement. They didn’t happen by accident, they didn’t come from just any cultural background. They didn’t come without being driven by very important commitments. Moral commitments, ideological commitments, political commitments, and yes, theological commitments.

But just remember that our founding documents speak of the fact that our rights were granted to us by our Creator. In the Chinese Communist worldview, there is no Creator. There is no God. There is no power about the state, and the state decides what is and is not a right. We really do know that worldviews have consequences, but the consequences of the Chinese Communist Party’s worldview became murderously apparent 30 years today. Lest we forget.

Part III

Kamala Harris’s Abortion Proposal Subverts Federalism: Abortion Extremism in a New Form

But next while we’re talking about ordered liberty, in the United States we have a constitutional system of government. The Constitution says that we are a government by the people and of the people and for the people. We haven’t named ourselves a people’s republic, but we have a people’s constitution—at least we do in theory. But a news article that appeared just in recent days in the New York Times tells us just how fragile our own system of government might be. And the catalyst for this conversation, once again, is the issue of abortion that just keeps coming up, day after day, repeatedly, in dozens of stories every day in the headlines.

This article is by Matt Stevens. The headline: “In Harris Plan,”—that means Senator Kamala Harris, running for the Democratic presidential nomination—in her plan, “Abortion Laws Would Require U.S. Approval.” Now, what does that mean? Well, what it means is the denial of federalism. And here is something really, really important. This article in the New York Times by Matt Stevens, says that Kamala Harris has said that the way to prevent states from being able to pass laws restricting abortion, or in her case, laws that conflict in any way with Roe v. Wade is to require prior approval from the Justice Department of any law that would be passed against abortion from any state that has ever passed a law restricting abortion.

As Stevens writes, “Senator Harris called for what is known as a pre-clearance requirement in a plan released last Tuesday afternoon. The requirement would apply to jurisdictions with a history of violating Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court landmark decision in 1973 that established the constitutional right to abortion. These jurisdictions,” said the paper, “would have to clear new abortion laws with the Justice Department before putting them into effect.”

Now one thing we have to note is that this is a news story in the New York Times. A news story is supposed to at least present a balanced, if not objective, understanding of the events or the issues at stake. But notice the language that was used by the New York Times in this news article. This isn’t the language of Senator Harris; this is the language of the Times. Referring to jurisdictions “with a history of violating Roe v. Wade.” That’s very interesting language. It seems that in this case Roe v. Wade is the absolute standard against which everything has to be thus considered or justified. What’s important to recognize here is that even if just for example, you don’t accept any authority beyond or higher than the Supreme Court of the United States, you have to remember that the Supreme Court allowed restrictions on Roe v. Wade in the Casey decision from the early 1990s.

Harris supports what is known as the Women’s Health Protection Act, that’s a law that has been passed by the Democratic majority in the House, although it faces almost no likelihood of passing in the Republican controlled Senate. It’s a law that would codify Roe v. Wade at the federal level. Kamala Harris explained that her system would work because any abortion law adopted in “a covered jurisdiction would remain legally unenforceable until the Justice Department determined that it adhered to the standards laid out in Roe and by the Women’s Health Protection Act.” That’s that law that she fully supports that would codify Roe v. Wade at the federal level.

You see how this system works. But here you have to recognize that this is a basic subversion of the principle of federalism built into our Constitution. The Constitution did not allow for a national government that would simply run roughshod over the states. Rather, we are a union of 50 states, that is 50 states now, and we have a federal government that serves with respective constitutional limits, but does not violate the responsible legislative powers of the states. And in this case, the states have the power to control abortion.

But here you see what’s going on in national politics. The Democratic left, which increasingly speaks for the entire Democratic Party, especially in the presidential campaign, but also in the party’s national platform, is now saying that there must be, in the name of abortion rights, a basic revision of our constitutional system.

And here you note something else. You have here a call for a national government that would increasingly marginalize the authority of the states. And that’s a basic violation, not only of our constitutional logic, it is a violation of the principle of subsidiarity. That’s a very important principle of Christian reasoning, of the Christian worldview that tells us that government, or for that matter, any social structure, is likely to be most effective and efficient at the smallest possible level. Which is to say, that when you look at the states and the national government, anything that should belong to the states that is usurped by the federal government is likely to be so in some form of oppression that will also turn out to be hauntingly inefficient.

Part IV

Nationalizing Abortion Laws? A New Threat to Both Unborn Life and Constitutional Order

But finally, on yesterday’s front page of USA TODAY, there as a headline that repeats something we see all too common the media, and it’s time we address this issue. The headline is this: “Most Oppose Anti-Abortion Efforts in States.” Well, what’s the bottom line in this article? We are told that poll after poll— and here USA Today cites a new poll—we are told that a majority of Americans oppose at least some of the laws that have been adopted in some states restricting abortion.

Susan Page, writing for USA Today, reports, “Most Americans are dismayed by the intensifying efforts across the country to limit abortions, a new USA TODAY/Ipsos poll says, and the issue is energizing democratic voters for the 2020 presidential election.”

The article goes on to say, “By 55 to 45%, those surveyed opposed the so-called fetal heartbeat bills passed in five states that bar abortions after the pulsing of an embryo can be detected, which can happen as early as the sixth week of pregnancy. By nearly 3 to 1,” writes Page, “73% to 27%, they oppose seeing all abortion facilities in their states closed, a possibility now in Missouri.”

There’s a clear party distinction, that’s not news in America, with the Democrats trending in a very pro-abortion direction, and Republicans trending in an anti-abortion, pro-life direction. But there’s so many numbers in this article. 57 and 43—those are the respective percentages, we are told, of those surveyed who say the renewed debate about abortion is bad for the United States.

But here’s the most important sentence in the entire article: “The nationwide poll of 1,005 adults, taken online Friday and Saturday has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.5 points.” So what’s so important about that sentence? Here we are told at least a couple of things. Number one, that it was a nationwide poll. Why is that important? Well, it is because it is the responsibility of the states to adopt legislation about abortion. And thus, when you have a nationwide poll, it becomes something interesting, but not particularly informative. It really doesn’t tell us what the state are or are not going to adopt when it comes to legislation concerning abortion.

It really matters state by state. You have a state like New York moving in a radically pro-abortion direction. You have a state like Alabama moving in the opposite direction. What meaning does this kind of national poll have, when the laws are established not in Washington, but rather in Albany, New York, or in Montgomery, Alabama? It turns out that distinction is absolutely crucial. It’s not an exaggeration to say it is a matter of life and death for the unborn.

But when you consider that fact, the proposal made that we discussed in that New York Times article by Senator Kamala Harris begins to make sense. If you can nationalize this issue, well, perhaps you can usurp the authority of the states. And that’s why the Democratic Party, so committed to abortion, is now willing to buy into the logic of nationalizing this question through legislation. But that is not such a radical jump for the pro-abortion movement in the United States, that after all, went to the Supreme Court of the United States and demanded and received the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, taking that authority away from the states and investing it in the national government.

With the abortion debate in the United States becoming so radicalized, the very least we can do is understand what’s really at stake.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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