President Trump’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the G-20 summit in Japan sought to arrive at a satisfactory trading relationship benefiting people of the world’s two largest countries. If we succeed, it may help strengthen human rights in China. Chinese leaders seem determined to bring under totalitarian control two places long enjoying independence and freedom: Hong Kong and Taiwan. After many unhappy wars, how committed are we to risk another conflict in the  defense of these two countries?

When I was sent to Taiwan in 1963, the U.S. had a huge military presence there: Taiwan Defense Command. The U.S. then recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s claim to be the rightful president of all of China after he and his remaining forces fled there in 1949. Finally, in 1979, we bowed to the reality that the People’s Republic of China ruled mainland China, and used the same terminology — “one country, two systems” — to retain democracy for Taiwan as the British did for Hong Kong. Enjoying freedom, these two little territories far surpassed Mainland China in development and wealth. Taiwan’s per capita GDP is 250% that of China. 

The U.S. continued to support Taiwan militarily, supplying equipment and U.S. Navy control of Pacific waters. However, commanders did not visit Taiwan or include them in naval exercises. Taiwan’s top leaders were not invited to the U.S. Newly in office, President Trump shocked everyone by ignoring decades of careful restraint to telephone Taiwan’s president, angering Beijing. Chinese President Xi has become increasingly aggressive, creating islands as military bases. He resents our navy’s presence and says force is an option to retake strategically important Taiwan.

Taiwan’s citizens are anxiously watching developments regarding continuing protests in Hong Kong. Seeing as there are millions demonstrating, would even a country like China court worldwide condemnation by  confronting them? A lengthy documentary on the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago showed even larger crowds and demonstrations lasting an incredible seven weeks!  Finally, they clamped down.

It began with masses of university students seeking changes in brutal policies. When not suppressed, their faces became jubilant, thinking they were succeeding. They created a large statue, Goddess of Democracy, in a prominent place. Student leaders met with Communist Party leaders, some of them receptive to reform — but not all. Martial law was declared, but the People’s Liberation Army was blocked by thousands of protesters (including adults and families supporting the students).Young soldiers were reluctant to harm the crowds, some of whom were giving them food.

 It was like a huge celebration — and a shock when new forces arrived with rapid-fire automatic weapons mowing them down; it was either flee or be killed. Tanks followed clearing the square. The Party now denies everything that happened and blots out the history. Brave mothers keep the memory alive and say, “The West has done too little to hold the Communist Party accountable.” It’s true that Western leaders kept channels open with the Chinese, hoping they would “integrate into the family of nations.” 

 China’s economic miracle grew from American willingness to trade. Prosperity gained support of many. The government learned never again to let protests swell out of control, and new face-identification technology helps them keep a tight lid on a vast population. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, leaders felt vindicated in their crackdown: “See what happens with Communist states that open up politically?” Brutality continues with Tibetans, Muslim Uyghurs and Christians. There is now a move to “eliminate unregistered churches,” that is, many that meet in homes. 

Summing up, the Chinese system and its values are totally antithetical to our core values of freedom: to live (not be tortured and killed), to speak (think for ourselves, write, exert influence), to worship without persecution, to vote. An ancient Chinese man named Sun Tzu offered advice for confronting challengers: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

As we move toward possible confrontation with the Chinese, it’s disquieting that we can’t even understand Americans of opposite political persuasion, much less the Chinese. This Fourth of July, can we forget conflicts long enough to appreciate our good fortune in having basic freedoms? Many can only long for them — while we take them for granted.

Verna Benham, who lives in Kerrville, worked for the U.S. Foreign Service, which took her across the globe, including to Argentina, Taiwan and Chile.


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