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Obama Makes Rare Mention Of Tiananmen On 25th Anniversary (UPDATE)

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WASHINGTON -- In Castle Square in Warsaw, Poland, President Barack Obama eloquently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the dawn of modern democracy in Eastern Europe.

His Wednesday speech was noteworthy as a whole, especially for Europeans. But in China, President Xi Jinping and his Politburo will focus on just one paragraph, added to the speech in final drafts.

Poland is a "wonderful story," Obama said, "but the story of this nation reminds us that freedom is not guaranteed. On the same day 25 years ago that Poles were voting here, tanks were crushing peaceful democracy protests in Tiananmen Square on the other side of the world. The blessings of liberty must be earned and renewed by every generation -- including our own."

The Chinese masses likely won't see that passage, if they are given any news of the speech at all. But dissidents and those interested in the real history will find it. And the leadership in Beijing is sure to be angry -- privately, if not publicly -- after they've read it.

Tiananmen is the Great Unmentionable in China, its memory scrubbed from history books, the mere discussion of it at a dinner party a dangerous act. No Chinese leader dares talk about it except in quick, dismissive terms as he hurries on to economic issues.

American critics don't often note that, for the most part, our own presidents don't mention Tiananmen either. The very word, so fraught in China and elsewhere, rarely passes their lips.

Recent presidents, especially Obama, have complained about Chinese hackers, Chinese "aggression" in the South China Sea, China's voracious trade practices and sundry other matters. But he and his predecessor, George W. Bush, rarely if ever mentioned the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, according to a Huffington Post survey of official statements. Obama's national security staff could not furnish any example of his having brought it up before as president.

On Wednesday, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to have marked the anniversary in at least 14 years.

Politically, China is a contradiction, mixing top-down one-party control with surging forces of economic and social freedom. It's as though the leaders fear that the very mention of Tiananmen could cause that contradiction to explode. And American presidents -- who want to do business in every sense with China, soon to be the biggest economy in the world -- do not care to risk the possibility that their Chinese counterparts are right.

But having decided to "pivot" toward Asia, and confronting China economically and militarily on a rising number of fronts, the White House concluded it was time to mention the unmentionable. Now officials will wait to see if and how Beijing chooses to react.

In China, dissidents have been jailed and websites widely blocked to avoid comment about Tiananmen. That the Chinese leadership is so fiercely antagonistic to any mention -- let alone serious public investigation -- of the events of a quarter-century ago speaks volumes about the fragility of their system.

Like Deng Xiaoping, who "opened" China to the West in the late 1970s and early 1980s, President Xi is a combination of economic liberalizer and hard-headed foe of the idea of universal human rights, such as free speech, freedom of assembly and the rule of law through an independent national judiciary. Since his ascent in 2012, Chinese dissidents and American experts say, the human rights situation in China has worsened, even as the young generation adopt social media and Internet-based life.

"They are going backwards," said Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China and a lifelong advocate of closer ties to that country. "It's very bleak."

The comparison with a quarter-century ago is illuminating.

Twenty-five years ago this week, a genuinely anguished President George H.W. Bush denounced China for "brutally suppressing popular and peaceful" human rights demonstrations.

A student of China and the first U.S. representative to the People's Republic, Bush had predicted the rise of democracy as the Chinese became more prosperous and market-oriented. Instead, economic reformer Deng, who had once been Mao Zedong's political enforcer, ordered the crackdown.

"The United States cannot condone the violent attacks and cannot ignore the consequences for our relationship with China, which has been built on a broad foundation of support by the American people," a chagrined Bush told reporters in 1989.

He ordered a carefully calibrated series of protest measures, including suspension of weapons exports and visits by military leaders, and a "sympathetic review" of requests by Chinese students to extend their U.S. stays. But Bush One also expressed confidence that China would move past Tiananmen, and he counseled -- inevitably for him -- "prudence."

"I believe the forces of democracy are so powerful," he said, "that they are going to overcome these unfortunate events in Tiananmen Square."

We're still waiting.

David McCabe contributed reporting.

This story has been updated to reflect President Obama's comments on the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.

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