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Tiananmen part but not all of modern-day China's legacy

Mike Chinoy

By Mike Chinoy
CNN Hong Kong Bureau Chief

June 2, 1999
Web posted at: 3:37 p.m. EDT (1937 GMT)

Mike Chinoy, formerly CNN Beijing bureau chief, is author of "China Live: People Power and the Television Revolution." He wrote this news analysis for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

The prism of Tiananmen

The 'wiggle room' factor

Process vs. event

Tiananmen Square, filled with student demonstrators, in May 1989

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HONG KONG (CNN) -- At 2:30 a.m. on June 4, 1989, I stood on a balcony of the Beijing Hotel, 300 yards east of Tiananmen Square, watching a scene of horror unfold below me.

Shaking fists and chanting anti-government slogans, a large and angry crowd of demonstrators confronted the first contingent of People's Liberation Army troops to reach the square.

In the eerie light, the soldiers aimed their rifles and opened fire. Amid screams and wailing ambulance sirens, I saw a cluster of people just outside the hotel gate bundle one bleeding body after another into open-backed bicycle carts, bound for nearby hospitals.

A decade later, the Chinese army's bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square remains a watershed, both within and outside the country.

The prism of Tiananmen

Among many Chinese citizens, the brutality of the crackdown shattered the legitimacy of an already discredited Communist Party. The grievances that sparked the student protests in 1989 -- unemployment, corruption, a lack of political freedom -- are still among the most contentious issues in China today.

The leadership's deep-rooted fear of unrest, its determination to stamp out attempts at organized opposition, and its rejection of appeals at home and abroad to reassess the official "verdict" on the 1989 protests all testify to the enduring trauma the episode inflicted.

Who's who
The government
The Activists: Division in the ranks
Chai Ling, Li Lu, Wang Dan, Wuer Kaixi
Families still mourn

Interactive Gallery:
A look back

Modern China
Rural democracy
Military might

Interview transcripts
a crackdown defender
a victim's mother
former Communist Party official
Premier Zhu Rongji

From TIME Asia
We remember
Where are they now?
Memories that won't fade

Message Board
Tiananmen Square anniversary

Outside China, the impact has, if anything, been even greater. The images of a lone man stopping a line of tanks by standing in the road, the Goddess of Democracy statue and others broadcast on CNN and other television networks retain an extraordinary power. They remain among the most memorable symbols of resistance to tyranny this century.

For many people around the world, the Tiananmen crackdown is still the defining moment in how they perceive contemporary China.

Yet a decade after the 1989 crisis, to look at China primarily through the prism of Tiananmen Square arguably obscures as much as it illuminates our understanding, perpetuating a picture of China sharply at variance with the country's vastly more complex and paradoxical reality.

The 'wiggle room' factor

While the events of that time continue to cast a large shadow, arguably the real China story of the 1990s has been the extraordinary process of change -- China's achievements, its difficulties, its potential to reshape itself and its relations with the rest of the world.

In one of the most astonishing spurts of economic development in modern times, the 1990s have seen China's market-style reforms lift tens of millions of people out of poverty and, in some cases, to remarkable wealth.

This process has spurred a broader transformation in Chinese society, making it more open and giving its people an unprecedented degree of personal, as opposed to political, freedom.

It is not unreasonable to argue that, for all the flaws, and despite the enduring scars from 1989, the human rights situation for most Chinese now is better than at any time since the communist revolution.

Put another way, while there remain limits on political freedom, personal liberty -- the "wiggle room" people have to make their own decisions about how to live their lives -- has expanded dramatically.

The Goddess of Democracy statue in Tiananmen Square on June 3, 1989   

When I first visited the People's Republic of China in 1973, the Communist Party controlled the smallest details of daily life, from clothing and hairstyle to jobs and housing. The country was mired in poverty and dour Maoist conformity.

Today, political dissidents who challenge the Communist Party's monopoly still face persecution.

But as the century draws to a close, the transformation of recent years is obvious in numerous ways: the neon advertisements lining the roads of major cities; the well-dressed business people with their mobile phones and beepers; the urban skylines dotted with satellite dishes and shiny new office blocks; the traffic jams; the explosion in the number of discos, bars and Internet cafes; the experimentation with village-level elections; and the relaxation of restrictive travel controls to allow millions of people to move freely around the country.


Process vs. event

These changes have been a process, not an event.

The changes have been confusing and often contradictory, lacking the clear-cut drama that characterized the crisis in Tiananmen Square. And they often take second place to more immediate, headline-grabbing issues such as human rights, trade disputes and, most recently, allegations of nuclear espionage.

But despite the tensions of the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen and the current crisis in U.S.-China relations, the dynamic of change goes on.

To lose sight of it risks missing what historians will likely view as one of the most important developments of the last decade of the 20th century: China's epic search for wealth, power and a new identity in the modern world.

CNN Interactive: Tiananmen Ten Years Later

y: CNN's Rebecca MacKinnon -- Why June 4 will be taboo in China for a long time -- June 3, 1999

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U.S. Embassy in China

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