05/20/2014 09:44 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

What Tiananmen Square?


BEIJING –- Twenty-five years ago, anti-government protesters were gathering force in a movement that would end in a bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989, in Tiananmen Square.

Protestors were seeking a more open, Western-style society, with real guarantees of free speech, independent courts and other human rights regarded as universal by much of the world.

They lost, and a still unacknowledged number of them died at the hands of the country’s own People’s Liberation Army.

But a quarter-century later, people in Beijing seem genuinely if somewhat uneasily oblivious to the anniversary, and largely convinced that the China that has arisen in the intervening years justifies the course chosen by the leaders then.

The consensus -– based on interviews with a range of intellectuals, artists, journalists, politicians, government officials and nongovernmental organization leaders –- is that the astonishing economic growth since 1989 was due largely to party leaders, who succeeded in creating and providing Western-level material comforts to hundreds of millions of Chinese.

For now, at least, the material has long since trumped the abstract -– many would say the fundamentally moral. But especially after two centuries of war and turmoil –- everything from foreign invasions to famine and their own Cultural Revolution -– leaders made a bet that what their people most wanted was order, bland politics and prosperity.

They now have all three.

Not taking any chances, a leadership still paranoid about anti-government street movements has taken extra steps to ensure that dissidents are nowhere to be seen, according to numerous press reports in Western media.

But the mood on the streets of Beijing looks to a visitor’s eye and sounds to a visitor’s ear worried not about the issues of Tiananmen, but the more prosaic ones of corporate jobs, quality of schools, the quality of the air and water, the price of rent and new homes and all the other everyday concerns of a modern, prosperous society.

“Frankly, I didn’t even think of the date of June 4 approaching,” said Tara Wang, a successful businesswoman in Beijing who at one point earlier in her life was very much attuned to the issues being raised by the protestors. “I’m too busy.”

As they see their recent history, Chinese officials compare their country's material success and sense of well-being with the chaos, political disorder and rocky economic record of the countries that comprised the collapsed Soviet empire.

As they see it, Communist leaders there did not have the guts to shut down Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform movement. That is the view expressed publicly by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We are not the Soviet Union,” one official said, by way of justifying the tough line on dissent that continues to this day.

But since Tiananmen, the leadership has learned how to mix constant vigilance with more leeway for debate and disagreement in a society that, after all, is worlds away from the days of emperors and the Confucian dictate to “know your place.”

True, the Chinese currently are blocking The New York Times and Bloomberg News websites, and block Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other non-Chinese social media for a mixture of economic and political reasons. Media continue to be censored -– mostly self-censored by a vast and even growing bureaucracy that now not only monitors social media, but also pays citizens to propagandize on it.

But as long as they don’t try to turn their protests into fundamental political movements, the Chinese are free –- increasingly riotously so -– to debate and protest local and even national matters involving everything from taxation to land sales to government corruption to the environment.

“The shape of public debate and media is like a bottle with a big bottom and a tight neck,” said Wang. “The big part is domestic and local; the constricted part is to the rest of the world.”

The new prosperity -– the Chinese are always bragging that they are about to become the biggest economy in the world -– has given them more to talk about at home as they debate the course of a nation that is now a global player.

How they do that without a truly free flow of information from and to the rest of the world is a mystery. They probably can't do it that way.

But they are going to try.



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