It would have been unrealistic to expect that the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest would be commemorated by China's leaders with public pledges of greater openness and pluralism. Such a prospect, alas, still belongs in the realms of fantasy. But Beijing's continued refusal even to mention the democracy movement or come clean about exactly what happened on the night of 3-4 June 1989 reflects a disappointing sense of defensiveness and self-absorption at the top of the world's most populous and rapidly developing country.
Over the past week, as campaigners for civil rights and free speech around the world prepared to remember those killed or injured in Beijing that night, the Chinese authorities were detaining known dissidents, restricting access to Tiananmen Square, and – a new twist this, 20 years on – shutting down internet websites and search engines. The persecution of those involved in, or believed to have been in sympathy with, the Tiananmen protests goes on.
There remain many questions about the crushing of the protest, not least how many people lost their lives that night, and in what circumstances. The Beijing authorities insist that no more than 250 people died, and that no one was killed actually in the square itself – important, as Chinese regard the square as sacrosanct. For many, these claims are hard to believe. Even if strictly speaking true, however, this does not alter the fact that the Chinese Communist Party applied the might of the country's military against peaceful protests – more than two million people were in Beijing's streets at the movement's height – and, as is now clear, snuffed out the incipient flame of democracy for at least a generation.
Vilified abroad, but not for long, new leaders steered another course, concluding the bargain that so many authoritarian regimes make with their people: higher living standards for the many against the enforced silence of the questioning few. So far, with the occasional ruction – such as last year's protests in Tibet and following the earthquake in Sichuan – that bargain has held. China is richer, more developed and with more global clout than 20 years ago. But as a democracy, it is little further forward.Reuse content