Today marks the 17th anniversary of the violent suppression of China's pro-democracy movement by the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army. If Beijing is anything like the city I lived in during the 7th anniversary of those sad events it is very quiet. I was quartered in a foreign dormitory of Beijing University at the time, and the silent stillness combined with the massive presence of soldiers and police created a claustrophobic atmosphere even in what is normally a beautiful, expansive campus. Rigid precautions against anything that might hint at the repression of 1989 have become a yearly ritual in Beijing, creating a postmodern tradition in which the event is commemorated in the very effort that must be expended on forgetting.
This sad irony is made doubly tragic by the opportunity that is lost in such bouts of Orwellian doublethink. The need for political reform becomes more evident every year in the PRC. Increasing rural violence and successive ecological crises make evident the degree to which the current system is incapable of responding to China's needs. The students of Tiananmen may have been naive and idealistic, but it becomes harder and harder to escape the conclusion that they were right.
Reforming a political system as complex and vast as that of China will not, assuming it is ever possible, be easy. It would be comforting to assume that reform has not happened because the CCP leadership are hidebound ideologues or power-mad despots. Even if China's leadership were exclusively composed of visionaries, statespersons, and patriots (and there is no reason to assume that China lacks enough of these to get the job done) the necessary reform would be excruciatingly difficult and could easily degenerate into cataclysmic violence despite everyone's good intentions. Though the reasons for China's political stagnation are obviously diverse and complicated, one powerful factor is the fear that any proactive step could set off a violent chain reaction leading to anarchy or worse.
Given both the acute risk and urgent necessity of reform no opportunity should be lost that might forestall or ameliorate the crisis toward which China is heading. Though nothing will serve as a magic bullet to make change easy or painless, one "baby step" that might ease the system onto the road to redemption without violence would be the rehabilitation of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstators and a reversal of the official verdict on that movement as a "counterrevolutionary" putsch. The time is past to "re-remember" Tiananmen. If the CCP had the courage to admit that the student protesters of 1989 were sincere patriots and that the repression of their movement was wrong it could set in motion a constructive dialogue about the system's problems and necessary change. Though admittedly an incremental move, such a dialogue just might set China on the path toward enduring stability and prosperity.