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Demonstrations at Tiananmen 20 years ago grew out of a paradox that had been building in China since 1978, all through the era of rapid economic reform. To achieve its aims, the Chinese Communist Party wished to liberate people economically while continuing to constrain them politically. A version of this same tension persists today.

Following the disastrous Cultural Revolution (1965-1970s), the party no longer could base its legitimacy on Maoist socialism. Marxist-Leninist ideology was virtually dead. The party's solution was to find its real legitimacy in the moral goal of lifting the Chinese people out of poverty. Leaders took one step at a time and put ideology aside. Who cares if the cat is black or white, asked Deng Xiaoping, so long as it catches mice? "To get rich is glorious" was a slogan of the time.

The crucial paradox was that to achieve prosperity, the party needed to free people to pursue educational and economic goals that would contribute to the state-approved "Four Modernizations" - in agriculture, industry, defense and science/ technology. Accordingly, it broke up the communal farming that had been painfully imposed in the 1950s, provided incentives for individual performance in industry and made self-employment in small-scale private enterprise possible. International business and investment reappeared, along with foreign visitors and tourists. Chinese university students were free to study overseas.

Thus, in various ways, the authorities relaxed their grip on society. But these bold actions also caused the party's own search for new solutions to spread to would-be participants in politics in ways that the party could not control. People who were experiencing significantly more say over their own lives wanted a say in politics too; some even talked about a Fifth Modernization - democracy.

After weeks of student-led, pro-democracy demonstrations had drawn sustained Chinese and world attention, a crackdown at Tiananmen on June 3-4, 1989, resulted in at least hundreds of deaths. Those who perished were mostly Beijing residents, students, soldiers and police. This horrific ending may not have been intended but rather a result of the army's meeting unexpected and violent popular resistance, in which citizens took weapons from soldiers and threw pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. The massive movement of tanks and armed soldiers into a crowded city where local sympathies favored the demonstrators proved lethal.

The party declared the Tiananmen demonstrations a "counterrevolutionary rebellion" - a verdict that still stands - and arrested 2,500. Afterward, reaction both in China and beyond was grim; many took these events as the end of all hope.

By ordering 200,000 troops to clear the square, though, Deng Xiaoping had gambled that the continuing success of economic reform would distract people from the Tiananmen events and from interest in democracy. In the 1990s and after, he seemed to win this gamble as high growth rates continued and the attention of the populace shifted to material advance.

Beijing itself changed drastically. In 1989, officials still were rationing food by means of household registration, choosing jobs for college graduates and assigning housing based on work unit. By the turn of the 21st century, food was relatively abundant, graduates chose their own jobs, housing was becoming a market commodity and the automobile was replacing the bicycle. Malls and supermarkets, some with foreign ownership, encouraged shopping. The Internet broadened minds in an unprecedented way.

Economic growth and social development have intensified the paradox characteristic of the Tiananmen demonstrations. The more control people have over their occupational lives, the more property they have to protect, the wider their view of the world - the more they wish for comparable freedoms in the political and cultural realms.

Apart from getting rich, another reason for the popular turn away from political reform after Tiananmen was revulsion at the brutality that had ended the demonstrations. Many seemed content to wait longer for democratization that would come peacefully, not through the violence that traditionally has accompanied China's political transitions. Indeed, the intra-party controversy revealed by Premier Zhao Ziyang's recently published secret memoir suggests that competition within the Communist Party may offer a path to peaceful political change and eventual resolution of the paradox of Tiananmen.

Alison J. Dray-Novey is a professor of history at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and co-author of "Beijing: from imperial capital to Olympic city." Her e-mail is

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