Steve Chapman

Spring always brings new blossoms, but 20 years ago, spring brought to China an unprecedented flowering. In hundreds of cities, citizens took to the streets in peaceful protests to demand freedom, government accountability and an end to corruption -- and the government, once among the most repressive on earth, stood by and let them.

It was an intoxicating moment that didn't last. By the morning of June 4, the government had reversed course, sending the army to crush the long-running student demonstration in the capital's Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds dead, and the Beijing Spring was over.

Since that day, China has undergone such a broad transformation that it is almost unrecognizable. The economy has opened up to markets, private property and foreign trade. Living standards have soared. The government that once preached world revolution now provides credit to sustain American consumption. Chinese students go abroad to attend universities in bastions of capitalism.

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But the bloody events of 1989 are still a live issue in China. Last month brought forth the posthumous secret memoir of Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party chief removed because of his sympathy for the protesters. In it, he denounced the crackdown as "a tragedy to shock the world" and said his country deserved "a state more suitable to a democratic society."

Naturally, the book is not available in China, except to those who elude Internet censors. The government has gone to great lengths to suppress any discussions of the anniversary, even blocking Internet services like Twitter and Flickr.

The sensitivity of the topic, even though most young people know little or nothing about it, is a measure of the impact the 1989 protests had on the people in power. Even today, it troubles their sleep.

But the episode was not what it initially appeared to be: the end of China's evolution toward a more liberal system. It was only an interruption of that process. In the aftermath, the Chinese Communist Party grasped that it could hold onto power only by delivering a better life to its people, which it could achieve only by loosening its grip on their lives.

By now, it has had to abandon its own ideology and invoke Western principles. In his 2007 speech to the national party congress, President Hu Jintao used the term "democracy" some 60 times, while calling for the government to be more open, accountable and limited.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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