When the protests arose in Beijing's Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, it was easy to believe that China was on the brink of political liberalization. The world was clearly moving in that direction. Autocratic regimes in South Korea, the Philippines and Chile had given way to democracies. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was relaxing repression and pursuing reform.
China itself had abandoned the communist economic model in favor of market-oriented policies, allowing considerable more personal freedom in the process. The courage and vision of the protesters inspired people in China and around the world to think a new era was at hand.
In the end, those Chinese activists were crushed by the government in a brutal crackdown. But it's a measure of how potent their example was that it continues to suppress all discussion of the events of 1989 even today. The effort has been so successful that most Chinese who grew up after the Tiananmen Square massacre know little if anything about it. Chinese leaders fear that any acknowledgment of this chapter of history could unleash forces they can't control.
The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the French Revolution: "Youth was at the helm in that age of fervid enthusiasm, of proud and generous aspirations, whose memory, despite its extravagances, men will forever cherish: a phase of history that for many years to come will trouble the sleep of all those who seek to demoralize the nation and reduce it to a servile state." After all this time, China's rulers still aren't sleeping easy.