Managing social change after Tiananmen

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.

What could matter is the pragmatic view held by the Chinese people that working towards global economic eminence and urbanisation to end a link with an agrarian past is the right direction the party has set the nation on. Mr Xi's campaign to control corruption is integral to their acceptance of a bargain struck with their leaders. There is no certainty he can succeed in this as graft is deeply entrenched, but his accumulation of executive powers in heading national security and reform commissions gives him additional tools for the job.

China's challenge is that a new generation has come of age since 1989, to whom prosperity and liberty are a composite whole and not a duality which can be negotiated. Ease of travel, made available to the Chinese for many years now, will accelerate demands for "normal" liberties as a right. Chinese leaders have been putting the screws on dissent, and this will put them at odds with the aspirations of the new China. As the barrel of a gun becomes a less tenable option to curb urban unrest, fresh ways will have to be found to accommodate these new impulses.