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Why Tiananmen is not forgotten

From CNN Senior Asia Correspondent Mike Chinoy

Protestors in Hong Kong call for democracy in China.
Deng Xiaoping
Beijing (China)
Civil Rights

(CNN) -- What is it about Tiananmen Square?

Why, even after 15 years, do the images and the story retain such enduring power?

Such is that power the subject remains taboo in China, and yet even on this distant anniversary the event is still remembered.

It was partly the times.

The optimistic and innocent students who occupied the heart of Beijing in the spring of 1989 represented the first stirrings of the winds of change that was to sweep through the communist world later that year.

Regimes were toppled in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and East Germany, setting the stage for the end of the Soviet Union.

It was also partly the debunking of so many stereotypes about China, a nation so regimented by Mao Zedong's communist revolution that such a desire for freedom and a better life came as a shock.

For Chinese so traumatized by Mao's relentless political campaigns it was a revelation that such desires had not only not been extinguished, but burned as fiercely in China as anywhere else.

In many ways, Tiananmen represented a revolutionary challenge to China's communist hardliners.

And the way it was witnessed around the world represented a revolution too.

When the Chinese authorities pulled CNN off the air as martial law was declared, it underscored the arrival of a new phenomenon: 24 hour a day global TV news.

It was the first time an epic event in what had been, for many, a distant, impenetrable nation, was beamed into living rooms and foreign ministries around the world -- live, as it happened.

Tiananmen Square, 15 years on.

And, of course, it was the bloody, horrifying end with the People's Liberation Army occupying Tiananmen Square, gunning down unarmed protestors and toppling the Goddess of Democracy.

Against the awesome apparatus of state repression, the demonstrators never had a chance.

And yet one man gamely stood his ground, in a gesture of defiance as moving as it was futile.

The man in front of the tank -- his identity and fate still unknown.

But his picture will go down as one of the great images of the 20th century, an enduring tribute to the power of the human spirit to confront the power of the state.

And even though his cause failed, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe fell.

There was a sense that the Beijing movement helped to light a fuse that would, one day, come back to explode in China.

But in that, those of us who covered Tiananmen, and many others who watched, were wrong.

The Chinese Communist Party did not collapse. It weathered years as an international pariah. And, ironically, in the early 1990s, the man blamed for the Tiananmen crackdown, senior leader Deng Xiaoping, orchestrated a revival of market reforms.

Throughout the decade, China experienced one of the greatest economic booms of modern history.

Hundreds of millions were lifted out of poverty. The corner where the man stopped the tank became the site of what was at the time the largest McDonalds in the world.

Ghosts remain

The political repression continued. But for most ordinary Chinese, there was more hope, and greater personal liberty, than at almost any other time in Chinese history.

Yet the Communist Party's decision to crack down in 1989 is so sensitive that even today --even though every leader involved from Deng Xiaoping to former Premier Li Peng is either dead or retired -- the government bans all public discussion.

Mothers who lost their sons are harassed and prevented from mourning in public and their demands for the government to reexamine the tragedy are rebuffed.

For the Chinese Communist Party, "reversing the verdict" on Tiananmen would be like pulling a bandage off a still-unhealed wound.

Because in the end, for all the progress since then, Tiananmen showed that the party still rules by repression and by fear.

That's why, while for ordinary Chinese Tiananmen is now largely forgotten, for the ruling elite -- and for many of those who were there -- the ghosts have not gone away.

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