TEN YEARS AGO, China's Communist regime began its bloody crackdown against peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Beijing and many other cities. What is striking on this anniversary is not the by-now-familiar history of that horrible event, but the regime's continuing inability to face that history. China's Communist dictators revealed to the world that night, and perhaps for the first time to themselves, that nothing but armed force was keeping them in power. Their behavior since proceeds from that realization.
At least hundreds and probably thousands of Chinese remain in prison because of their peaceable participation in the 1989 protests. Many more who escaped abroad, or who were abroad at the time, are blacklisted from returning. Those not in the Chinese gulag nonetheless remain the victims of vindictive government behavior. One famous example is Fang Zheng, in a wheelchair since a People's Liberation Army tank ran over his legs. The government barred him from international competitions for the disabled when it realized why he was in a wheelchair.
Now, in the days preceding the anniversary, the regime has staged another wave of arrests. Jiang Qisheng, for example, who spent 17 months in captivity after the 1989 crackdown, has been rounded up again. His crime this time: Mr. Jiang, now 50, had announced that he would walk around Tiananmen Square on June 3.
The regime has done everything it can to erase and conceal the history of the massacres. Family members of victims were bribed and threatened to list their relatives' cause of death as car accidents; otherwise, in some cases, they could not receive the remains for a proper funeral. That is one reason the true number of victims likely will never be known. China's defense minister, visiting Washington in 1996, denied that anyone had been killed in Tiananmen. "The problem occurred," he said, in surrounding streets, where "there was some pushing." Those who try to write a more accurate history are treated as criminals no less dangerous than those who advocated democracy in 1989. Li Hai, for example, is in prison for compiling a list of Tiananmen demonstrators still in prison. On the eve of the anniversary, the regime has taken CNN off the air, closed Internet chat rooms and intimidated journalists and relatives.
That CNN and Internet chat rooms exist in China is a sign that the past decade has not been a time of political repression only. There has been tremendous economic growth and economic dislocation. In many ways, ordinary Chinese, as long as they do not challenge the Communist monopoly on political power, are freer than ever: to move, to start businesses, to choose their jobs and friends and spouses, to watch foreign films and read foreign books.
One view of China's future puts its emphasis on these changes. A civil society is rising that can help China move gradually from its Communist past to a more pluralistic future. Another view sees more cause for alarm in the regime's continuing intolerance of dissent. As unemployment, inequality and economic insecurity all grow, many people will demand more accountability from their leaders and a greater political voice. If the Communist Party continues to squelch all competing voices, such demands could easily turn violent. This is the dilemma of a ruling class whose ideology has been discredited and whose power rests on historical lies and brute force.