Today marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic climax of the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It has been a long decade. The world is much changed, as is China. Deng Xiaoping, “the Little Helmsman,” the man who set China on the path to economic transformation, is dead. His legacy survives him, however. China continues to grow and modernize, and its climb toward regional power — and the country’s thirst for the recognition that comes with it — is unabated.

But “the new China” also shares many features of the China of 10 years ago. In this, too, Deng’s legacy looms large. The main continuity is the very foundation of the system. Deng offered the Chinese people a simple bargain: economic opportunities in exchange for political submission. Wealth and prosperity were available, but at the price of unquestioned domination by the Chinese Communist Party. It was a cynical bargain, and it seems to have paid off — at least temporarily. But quiescence will not last.

There is no doubt that the vast majority of Chinese people enjoy better lives than any generation before them. Today’s Chinese are richer, better educated and more worldly than their parents and grandparents. This new sophistication is sometimes manifested in cynicism, but that is only skin-deep. The reaction to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade is proof of the powerful emotional currents that have survived the assault of materialism and prosperity.

Indeed, the Beijing government’s manipulation of public reaction to the bombing is testimony to the lingering concern over Tiananmen. May and June are thick with dates commemorating efforts to reform and democratize China. Yet the Beijing leadership gambled that the protests outside the U.S. Embassy could be used to channel public frustration into politically acceptable forms. It is a dangerous tactic, because it sustains the fiction that Tiananmen is settled. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Questions about what transpired in the streets of Beijing 10 years ago have not been answered. To this day, the exact numbers of dead and missing are unknown. The Chinese Red Cross originally estimated about 2,600 dead and another 7,000 wounded, but under government pressure, the organization later disavowed those figures. Other sources say that over 1,000 people died when the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the protesters. The Chinese government has never released a figure and has even, on occasion, denied that any one was killed in Tiananmen Square at all — technically true, since the deaths occurred on the streets near the square.

The families of the missing are still waiting for an accounting. Last month in Beijing, some of them filed suit against the government, demanding that the individuals responsible for the killings be brought to justice. Few demands are more worrisome to the Chinese leaders, since it strikes at the fundamental premise of their rule: infallible governance by a united party.

The rest of the world may consider the events of 10 years ago a tragedy, but the Chinese leadership is unrepentant. The official version argues that a heavy hand was necessary, violence was unavoidable and the blame lies with the protesters, not the government. Any deviation from that line would force a search for the responsible parties. That, in turn, would fracture the leadership.

Since single-party rule leaves no room for dissent, Deng’s deal, ironically, looks more and more like a Faustian bargain. It locks the entire Chinese Communist Party into an unflinching defense of the Tiananmen killings, even though the hardliners who ordered the PLA into the square are also the biggest obstacles to the reform upon which the party has staked its future.

Economic and political reform are indivisible. The competition that reformers are slowly bringing to Chinese markets inevitably erodes the power of the political elites. It exposes their foibles and their failures: What is now considered corruption — deemed the chief threat to the CCP’s legitimacy — was once a natural part of socialist rule. Moreover, complaints against economic mismanagement shade imperceptibly into political criticism. There is no such thing as a little free speech.

It is hard to believe that China’s leaders do not understand this. Yet they persist in the fiction that they can embrace economic reform without commensurate political liberalization. The mistake is not theirs alone, but the consequences of the failure to accept the truth will be greater in China. Human rights and democracy can be suppressed, but they cannot be denied forever. The day of reckoning will come.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.