Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

Thus Wordsworth, on the fall of the Bastille in 1789 — explaining a cause he later betrayed. Bliss was it also two hundred years later, when the students and workers of China rose in rebellion, in one of the largest mass political movements in history.

Their demands were simple, as they always are — freedom, democracy and end to corruption and repression. For seven weeks, the world watched spellbound as they played out a deadly conflict of wills with the regime.

But Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was a better tactician than Louis XVI.

With an astute combination of stubbornness and conciliation, he held his ground until the protests started to lose momentum. Then, bringing in more reliable troops from the provinces, he crushed the remnants in a bloody confrontation in and around Tiananmen Square.

Deng’s example haunted the rest of 1989, that Year of Revolutions, as eastern Europe’s leaders contemplated the “Chinese solution” to resist anti-communist insurrection. But none of them had the support to be able to pull it off; the only one who tried was Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and he paid for that mistake in front of a firing squad.

Some thought that the events of 1989 would put an end to Chinese liberalisation and that further unrest would soon follow. I recall suggesting that Deng would come to regret having massacred so many of his natural supporters. But again his skill showed: economic reform continued, and growing prosperity gradually quieted popular disaffection. Although the dictatorship remains firmly in place, China today is not just wealthier, but also freer and more open than in the years before Tiananmen.

Nonetheless, if we know anything from history we know that bread and circuses cannot keep people quiet forever. “Goulash communism” kept the peace in Hungary for thirty years after the 1956 uprising, but the reckoning eventually had to be made.

So China will one day have to deal with Tiananmen, and it’s impossible to say how long that might take. The current leadership hope they can put it off for their lifetimes and they may be right. As Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen said this week, “It may happen tomorrow or still take 20 years.”

Chinese democratisation, and how it happens, will be the biggest story in this part of the world for the next few decades. We try to avert our eyes from it, but Deng’s successors know that they are sitting on a powder keg. Economic crisis could set off another rebellion, but so could continued prosperity: no modern government has ever been able to provide material comfort to its citizens without ultimately provoking demands for liberty and democracy.

None of this, of course, registers on western diplomacy. China’s rulers are treated as if they are a civilised government like any other, rather than a regime held in power solely by military force. But that too is not unusual; historically, outside help for the oppressed is the exception rather than the rule.

Most people have had to fight alone for their freedom. China’s did twenty years ago, one day they will again.