Tiananmen Square, June 4 1989. Click for more photos

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square, June 4 1989.

  • Tiananmen Square, June 4 1989.
  • Hundreds of thousands of Chinese students demonstrate in Tiananmen Square. May 17 1989. Photo: REUTERS/ Ed Nachtrieb
  • A student leader borrows a phrase from the American Revolution as he addresses his comrades in Tiananmen Square. May 16 1989  REUTERS /Carl Ho
  • Dissident student leader, Wang Dan, conducts a news conference in Beijing's Tiananman Square. May 27 1989.  Photo: AP /Mark Avery
  • Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, centre, who fell from power for sympathising with pro-democracy demonstrators, speaks with university students in Tiananmen Square. May 19 1989. Photo: AP/ Xinhua
  • Students protesters in Tiananmen Square. May 1989.
  • Chinese citizens gather near Tiananmen Square,  where soldiers in army tanks continue to patrol against pro-democracy protesters. June 6 1989
  • Students died with their collapsed bicycles near Tiananmen Square after the Chinese army forcefully ended pro-democracy demonstrations. June 5 1989. Photo: AP Laser Photo

Observers say China is approaching another dangerous turning point, writes John Garnaut.

BEIJING: Ho Pin was an up-and-coming reporter within the Communist Party's security apparatus when he watched the Tiananmen protests pan out beneath him in 1989, from the 15th floor of the Beijing Hotel. He spent the last 10 days of May watching the protests, mixing with officials and soldiers and sending reports that his party newspaper would not print to the Hong Kong media.

''After the Goddess of Democracy appeared in Tiananmen Square I judged the armed crackdown would come,'' he says, referring to a statue built by demonstrators.

''The square at the time had been robbed by the fanatics and wildly ambitious and nobody could prevent the tragedy from happening.''

Crossroads ... Ho Pin says China s brutal response to the protests of 22 years ago cost the country an opportunity for healthy development.

Crossroads ... Ho Pin says China s brutal response to the protests of 22 years ago cost the country an opportunity for healthy development. Photo: Reuters

On the night of June 3, 1989, the reform-minded party chief, Zhao Ziyang, had already been purged and was sitting in his courtyard with his family when he heard ''intense gunfire'', as he recorded in memoirs smuggled out of the country and published after his death in 2005.

His book, Prisoner of the State, records a letter sent but probably not delivered to China's leaders, outlining why the history of 1989 had to be re-examined. What happened on June 4 had killed the process of political reform which, in turn, had allowed all manner of social ''defects'' to accumulate, he wrote.

''Social conflicts have worsened and corruption within and outside of the party is proliferating and has become unstoppable,'' he wrote. ''We have no alternative but to admit that the people, the army, the party, and the government, indeed our entire country, have paid dearly for that decision and action.''

Fourteen years after Zhao's letter to the leadership, and 22 years since he and others such as Ho listened to soldiers mow down hundreds of students and workers around Tiananmen Square, the party has partly succeeded in airbrushing those events and also Zhao from public history.

Ho believes the extent of the party's efforts to construct a new history and reality betrays the depths of its vulnerability. He slipped beyond the mainland in July 1989 and used his connections in Beijing to feed political news, insights and innuendo into a small but flourishing Chinese language news website, Duowei. But even there, at his home in exile in New York, he has felt the force of the party's post-Tiananmen insecurity.

His media investors, who had interests in China, came under pressure to ''sell themselves out to the Chinese government'', he says. Rather than change the editorial line, he sold the business and ploughed the money into a different publishing and news company, Mirror Books, which is also making waves in the opaque world of elite Chinese politics. The company specialises in publishing memoirs of retired leaders.

''I know what I lost, Duowei, but I gained freedom,'' he says. Ho, like Zhao did, sees June 4 as a momentous wrong turn in China's development that has bred corruption, injustice and social conflict on an enormous scale.

''The suppression of June the 4th lost China its opportunity for peaceful transformation and led the country down an abnormal development path. An unfair society is bound to be unharmonious,'' he says, subverting the language of China's current leaders.

''And an unharmonious society makes the regime lack a sense of security. How can a government that lacks a sense of security practise policies that make people feel secure?''

He believes the party's deep insecurity is the cause a new wave of repression since February, which the Hong Kong organisation Chinese Human Rights Defenders says is the most severe since 1989.

''Reports from individuals who have been detained or disappeared in recent months indicate that torture and mistreatment have been routine,'' it said this week.

Like many who remember Tiananmen, the question for Ho is whether the party, when backed into a corner, will have the ruthlessness to shoot its way out like it did 22 years ago. Many believe it will not. But the events of recent months have led Ho to believe China's cycle of political violence has not stopped turning yet.

''I believe China today faces a new turn of the vicious cycle,'' he says.

''If police cannot suppress large-scale protests then an armed crackdown may take place again. The Communist Party did not spare any armed force when taking power and nor will it spare armed force when defending its state power.''