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Unforgettable Tiananmen

It's not surprising that the Communist Party of China has worked so hard to eradicate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre from public memory. History – including the horrors of Mao Zedong’s rule – is too volatile a substance for the Chinese dictatorship.

LONDON – Thirty years ago this month, I was in Beijing as a British development minister for the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank. But what took place at that gathering – including the seating for the first time of a delegation from Taiwan – was overshadowed by what was happening across the city. And what happened in China in 1989 continues to resonate deeply today, not least in Hong Kong.

The big event in Beijing in late May of that year was supposed to be a state visit by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev; the Chinese leadership was keen to show him how an orderly communist regime ran a great country, in comparison to the dissolution occurring in the Soviet Union under perestroika. But like an enormous unexpected firework display, an almost festive explosion of yearning for freedom greeted both sides.

Prompted by student demonstrations, much of Beijing’s population seemed to turn out in the streets to call for greater liberty and more democratic accountability. The show of people power spread to other cities. It was exuberant and spontaneous. And no one – neither the regime nor the demonstrators – seemed to know what to do next.

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