Twenty Years Ago: Beijing, Warsaw, and History's Fork

On June 4, 1989, history forked.

In Poland, voters went to the polls to give the anti-communist opposition a sweeping victory in the country's first, partially free elections in ages. It was the first sign of the revolutionary changes that would sweep through Eastern Europe that year, knocking down the Berlin Wall and changing the face of the continent. On the other side of the world, on that same day, the Chinese government sent tanks and troops into Tiananmen Square and crushed the student-worker demonstrations. This was the anti-revolution of 1989. Communism collapsed in one place; communism continued in the other.

Twenty years later, it seems as though both countries took different paths to the same economic endpoint. Poland has become a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO. And China, after its own long march to capitalism, has become the largest holder of U.S. treasury securities.

In both countries, the populations live better on average today than 20 years ago. But increasing inequality suggests that the two movements -- the Solidarity trade union in Poland and the Communist party in China -- ultimately betrayed their core constituencies of workers and peasants. At the same time, the fervor for democracy that animated Polish voters and Chinese protestors in 1989 has subsided as corruption and commercialism has driven people away from politics and into IKEA. Nationalism has become more important as a unifying ideology in both countries, expressed either in the form of the clericalism and anti-German sentiments of the Kaczynski twins in Poland or the Han chauvinism and anti-Japanese sentiments so prevalent in Chinese chat rooms.

We don't, of course, live in a flat world leveled by technology and driven by the market. There are still important differences between the paths taken by Poland and China, between the social market of the EU and the market socialism of the "Beijing consensus," between the corrupt but functioning democracy in Poland and the corrupt but functioning oligarchy in China.

The sharpest contrast between the two countries, however, lies beneath their routine proclamations of a desire to improve relations with Washington. The Polish government has campaigned hard for a U.S. military base that would be part of the missile defense network. Fearful that the Obama administration might change its mind, Poland is lobbying for Patriot missiles stationed outside Warsaw by the end of the year. China, on the other hand, is distressed about U.S. missile defense plans, so much so that it is reportedly undertaking the largest increase in its nuclear-tipped ballistic missile program since the late 1980s.

So, in 20 years, we really haven't fully escaped the shadow of the Cold War. Poles and Chinese can suck down frappuccinos as they trade funny videos on Facebook. But nuclear weapons still hang over us all like a guillotine blade. And we have yet to escape, fully, our global bipolar disorder. "Even if China and the United States make nice in bilateral meetings, they are spending as if a new Cold War is just around the corner," I write in The G-2 Paradox.

There will be many commemorations of June 4, some joyous, some sorrowful. Many courageous people sacrificed so much to change the world. And much did change. But 20 years later, I'm still waiting for my invitation to the Cold War's funeral.

Crossposted from Foreign Policy In Focus where you can read the full post.

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