The fourth day of June – written as "6.4" in Chinese – never used to
have any special significance. But in the last twenty years, since
the events that culminated in the early hours of 4 June 1989 in
Beijing's Tiananmen Square, it has acquired particular import. For the
authorities it stands for resistance and turmoil; for the people it
represents the democracy movement, and also suppression and slaughter.

There is a paradox in the commemoration of 2009. A rigorous clampdown by the authorities means that on the internet a search in China for reference to the Tiananmen events
returns not one search result; yet in other ways the comparative
silence of years past has been lifted. Some intellectuals even risked holding
a "Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary seminar" – on the grounds that, as
one attendee said, "if we stay silent, we become accomplices to the
authorities' concealment of the crime."

But the biggest stir has been caused by the posthumous publication (in both Chinese and English) of the memoirs
of the Chinese Communist Party's former general-secretary, Zhao Ziyang.
An electronic version of the book is rapidly circulating among
Beijing's intellectuals. Some compare its publication to that of the
memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev
after he was deposed as leader of the Soviet Union: both figures, after
all, were reformers who lost internal party struggles and went on to
dictate to tape memoirs which were published abroad after their death.

The hard debate

Such uncomfortable reminders have led an edgy Chinese government, aware
of the potency of a "round figure" anniversary, to continue with the
precautionary measures
it started to put in place in early 2009. It has confined many
"potential troublemakers" to their homes, and sent Zhao's former
secretary Bao Tong
on an enforced "trip". Some Beijing employers, responding to rumours of
a "white memorial" on Tiananmen Square on 4 June, even forbade their
workers from wearing white clothes that day.

The mix of fear and farce here is revealing. For two decades the
government has prevented any record of the incident in the media, with
the result that young people today do not even know who Hu Yaobang (the former party head whose death on 15 April 1989 sparked the first student protests) and Zhao Ziyang
are. But the government officials themselves cannot forget, and every
year impose severe measures nationwide to prevent real or imaginary
"mishaps". It is the political elite, the "victor" of the 1989 contest
of nerves and (in the steel), that finds itself sick with nerves.

It is left to the defeated – the former student leaders, the party reformers, liberal intellectuals and exiled democracy activists – to examine
in retrospect the surge of public protest of these unforgettable weeks.
Why did it fail? Why were the students and party reformers unable to
communicate? Could the political deadlock have been broken, and
everything ended differently?
Can China's government and people ever be reconciled, and how? Such
questions suggest that the "losers" have long moved past anger and onto
rationality. Amid sometimes sharp internal criticism, they are
deepening their understanding and drawing lessons.

The debate continues outside the circles of power. One conclusion is
that the tragedy of 4 June 1989 was unavoidable, in part because of the
effects of the the sheer longevity in power (in some cases almost five
decades by that point) of the first generation of party leaders. Deng
Xiaoping saw
himself as part of a second generation, but in reality was an important
member of the earlier cohort; before the cultural revolution he had
been more powerful than Zhou Enlai.

A common characteristic of the first generation was familiarity with
violence. Their political experiences – be it the war with the
nationalists, or political struggles within the party – never
considered compromise and mutual benefit. Differences were always
irreconcilable, fights always to the death. When the party arrived at
the pinnacle of state power in October 1949 that culture permeated
society – including the education system. This culture inflected (and
indoctrinated) too those who opposed the party, among them some of the
university students demonstrating for democracy on Tiananmen Square for
whom compromise was anathema and death in the pursuit of justice (even
at the cost of bloodshed) could be glorious. 

The root of reform

In this absolutist environment, it is harder than it looks to identify the true architect of the decade
of change and reform in China that contributed to the events of 1989.
Deng Xiaoping's blueprints have not been found in the archives, nor any
reform proposals he originated. His role in reform is more complex than
is often recognised.

Deng Xiaoping had had a turbulent career. He fell from power (along with Liu Shaoqi) at the start of the cultural revolution
in 1966, was reinstated in 1973 and established his authority within
the party and society with a series of order-restoring
"rectifications". But in 1976, he was again stripped of power by Mao Zedong
following mass protests on Tiananmen Square, an event that became the
political capital on which he would base his future rise. This
political experience meant that by the time he acquired supreme power he had come to understand the need for urgent reform – albeit to maintain party rule.

The people were poor, and thirty years of communist government had only
made them poorer. A public that dared to protest at Tiananmen was
clearly running out of tolerance for its leaders. Deng often said that
a failure to reform would lead to disaster; he knew the people had to
get richer, and quickly. But he did not know how to make that happen,
or what to do afterwards. Like Mao, he was no economist.

It was Zhao Ziyang,
of the second generation of party leaders, who had both the best
understanding of economics and the strongest ability to learn. In his
time in Sichuan he had made a reputation for policies that increased
industrial and agricultural output (a local pun on his name had him as
the "go-to" man for grain). The historical evidence suggests that the
real architect of China's reform was Zhao Ziyang, with Deng's
contribution to history the provision of support.

Moreover, Deng's approval for economic changes was combined with
consistent upholding of Mao's one-party rule. Deng, after all, had been
part of the first generation of party leaders and shared its errors and
even crimes. He maintained, for example, that the "anti-rightist"
campaign was not an error but merely too wide in its scope (so wide
indeed, that all but the five most prominent "rightists" were
eventually rehabilitated). The Deng era also saw the end of the Xidan (democracy wall);
the campaign against "spiritual pollution"; the denunciation of
"bourgeois liberalisation"; opposition to the separation of powers; and
violent suppression of peaceful public protest.

The long aftermath

Hu Yaobang and
Zhao Ziyang are emblematic of the second generation of party leaders.
Their experiences taught them that there must be limits to the power of
the ruling party – for example, that the party should have no role in
"approving" works of art. They also knew that the public's rights
should have legal protection. On different occasions in the mid-1980s,
both Hu and Zhao said that the party must learn
to rule even amid demonstrations and during periods of "small or medium
disorder". This acceptance of public protest was one of the most
important shifts in thought between the two generations – but
unfortunately it was never consolidated.

The people paid for their protests in blood, but it was the party
and the army that were most deeply damaged. No longer could they claim
to be the "people's government" or the "people's army". No government
can slaughter its citizens and escape opprobrium from the democratic
world, and the atrocities committed then – despite the efforts to suppress their memory – will never be forgotten. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for both the ruling party and political leaders.

A baleful legacy of 4 June 1989 is the habitual use of violence by
local governments faced with difficult issues – there have been many
subsequent "Tiananmens", large and small. Just as the party's culture
of intolerance implanted itself into some of its student opponents in
1989, so official violence has to a degree generated a similar response
from elements of the public. Yang Jia, who killed six Shanghai policemen, and Deng Yujiao,
who killed a local-government official, received support and praise
online. The inclination to meet violence with violence is growing.
Tiananmen casts a long shadow.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. This article has been reproduced under a Creative Commons licence from openDemocracy.net