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Managing social change after Tiananmen

Published on Jun 7, 2014 11:03 AM

The China of the Tiananmen crackdown a quarter-century ago this week and the China today of brash materialism and global orientation are different worlds. The epochal change, however, does not seem to have given a new cohort of Communist Party leaders the confidence to ease up on a policy of erasing the trauma from the people's collective memory and of denying future generations access to the facts.

It may be because the leaders are aware that discontent over corruption, inflation and widespread abuses, which largely fuelled the 1989 protests, trouble China not any less today, a generation later. For a continent-size nation with a huge, diverse population, these are forbidding obstacles to navigate.

The conversion of the national psyche - from the stoicism of intergenerational poverty to an impatience to get rich - has made corruption at all levels of officialdom more graphic and daring. It is threatening the future of the party, President Xi Jinping has warned. It is nevertheless an academic argument whether it is necessary, or unwise, to whitewash the decision made by Deng Xiaoping and his premier Li Peng to send in the army to quell the rebellion. Future leaders must decide, in the context of the kind of society they will be presiding over.

It will be decades before a judgment can be made on whether killing innocents to save the country, from what the leaders believed would be the chaos of the inter-dynastic past, gave China decades of room in which to grow, as Deng said, or that it impeded the emancipation of a civilisation. No one can honestly claim to know the answer.

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