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China tilting toward a deeper authoritarianism under leader Xi Jinping.Jason Lee/Reuters

In Beijing, in the spring of 1989, history was preparing to happen. As a university instructor with no classes to teach, I watched it unfold.

Students, first in the thousands, then in the tens of thousands, occupied Tiananmen Square for weeks on end, turning the massive concrete field into a campsite and forum. With campuses shut down, I was on the square most days, astonished and awed, including on the gorgeous afternoon in May when one million Chinese peacefully protested everything from one-party rule to cafeteria food.

Most observers agreed that what was occurring was not an insurrection led by discontented youth. Rather, it was the street-level culmination of a decade-long rethink about economic and social reforms. At the time, the two were believed inseparable.

But if the events of 1989 did make history, it was for the opposite reason many of who were watching had hoped. Authorities crushed the protest movement and punished its leaders, including the general secretary of the Communist Party. Then they simply erased a heavily documented event from their official record.

Equally distressing is what China has done to a popular idea of the late 20th century. Around the time of Tiananmen, the collapse of many single-party states, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union led some to declare the triumph of social democracies – the "end of history."

Instead, China's rise to superpower status has proved a happy model for authoritarian governments hoping to pull their economies out of poverty without sacrificing control or conceding ground to notions of civil society. It has delinked prosperity from democracy. Post-Soviet Russia and parts of Africa have taken note.

The China that could have been

Emerging from the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, China debated at the highest level the need to change political direction. Marxism, it turned out, made for a disastrous economy; successful Western models had to be emulated and adapted for the East.

No less than supreme leader Deng Xiaoping declared that it scarcely mattered if the cat was black or white – so long as it got the mouse. Mr. Deng promoted the careers of Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang, senior party faithful with reform instincts. He also encouraged artists to travel abroad, among them Ai Weiwei and Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, and permitted "democracy salons" at universities.

Charles Burton, a political science professor at Brock University with deep connections to the country, summarizes the thinking in the lead-up to the spring of 1989: "If you change the economy, you change the government. It was that simple."

Prof. Burton shared the optimism of Chinese friends. "I was convinced that market economics had to have liberal institutions in order to function," he says. Cheuk Kwan, then an IT expert in Hong Kong and now the chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, thought the same. "There was a natural progression. Deng Xiaoping planted the seeds himself."

Then came the death of Hu Yaobang in April. Students gathered to commemorate the former general secretary and issue modest requests for reform. Forgotten now is that Mr. Hu's replacement, Zhao Ziyang, visited them on Tiananmen Square to show support. No social democrat, Mr. Zhao also wanted the country to function better – closer in model to Singapore, perhaps, than Taiwan.

But Deng Xiaoping quickly came to regret the forces he had unleashed, especially once workers started to dominate the movement. "He cut down his own tree," Mr. Kwan says.

Martial law was declared and Zhao Ziyang placed under house arrest. Army divisions moved into Beijing the night of June 3 with orders to clear the square and the surrounding streets.

Though shocked by the massacre, Prof. Burton assumed the process would continue. He accepted a position at the Canadian embassy in Beijing in 1992, where he helped assemble a civil-society program, using CIDA money to train judges, among other projects.

"We thought that civil society was inevitable," he says. "The new middle class would want a say in their society. I had the illusion that if I could get a few genuinely non-governmental groups started, they would develop a sense of themselves as citizens, rather than passive recipients of orders from higher-ups."

De-incentivizing democracy

Since that time, the Chinese have come to define themselves as having individual economic agency. But significant material prosperity has been achieved without the underpinnings of a civil society once believed to be essential.

Brute force helped. China cracked down "on all forms of dissent," Mr. Kwan says, "both physical and thought control."

And Prof. Burton sees China tilting toward a still deeper authoritarianism under leader Xi Jinping. "[Mr.] Xi is explicitly opposed to any expansion of civil society," he says. "He prefers to increase the security sector."

Some insist this leaves China vulnerable. "China has built a big, splashy house on quicksand," Mr. Kwan says.

But others see China's success as proof that we can no longer assume social democracy to be the inevitable outcome of history.

"The China model could de-incentivize democracy movements," Prof. Burton says. "This should be troubling to political scientists and supporters of human rights."

Troubling as well to the memory of the thousand or so who died in Beijing on June 4, 1989. And for the many thousands of Chinese whose nascent hopes of being citizens of a society, as well as of an economy, died with them that spring. It's hard to know how they feel about anything now. China has silenced them.

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