We should remember 1989’s protest movement, as well as the massacre

It’s inevitable that we view the past through the lens of the present. It’s odder that we tend to regard our current picture as the only possible one, and to believe that we can see the future with equal certainty. Revulsion at the bloody crackdown on pro-reform demonstrations in Beijing, on the night of 3-4 June 1989, has obscured memories of the protests themselves. But in China, some still grieve for lost hopes as well as lost friends and children.

The weeks of demonstrations in Beijing and other cities proved the people’s desire for change. Millions – including police, judges and naval officers – were drawn in, prompted by anger at corruption and inflation, but also the hunger for reform and greater liberty. China was negotiating a period of social, political and artistic ferment, deeply questioning itself as it recovered from the traumas of Maoism and reopened to the world. The protests crystallised the possibility of China taking another path after 40 years of tight control by the Communist party. Instead, the killing of hundreds of students, workers and other residents confirmed its course. Many of the students simply could not believe their leaders would turn guns upon them. Even when the shooting started, they assumed the bullets were rubber. But China had a choice, and the authorities picked terror.

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