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Recalling the spirit of Tiananmen

 
I was thinking, on my last visit to China, how much has changed since I first went there in 1989 to cover the events surrounding the student "democracy movement" in Tiananmen Square.  Today, you can stroll through high-end malls in Beijing in a neighborhood that looks like Beverly Hills's Rodeo Drive on steroids.
 
You can sip a latte at the Starbucks near the U.S. Embassy and watch young Chinese standing in long lines to do the same.  But if you take out your laptop and try to surf the Web there, you'll find that all the sites that might carry any mention of what went on in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago are off-limits.
 
Some things in China have changed and some things haven't.
 
Many Chinese are enjoying a level of prosperity that previous generations never could have imagined.  Young university students are very focused on "making it" in this new China.  The idea of taking to the streets to protest for a greater measure of democracy simply isn't on their "to do" lists.
 
The students 20 years ago had a different set of priorities.  Many of them, eager to use their English, would stop me and discuss at great length how much they admired the U.S. Constitution; its reliance on the rule of law, its separation of government powers and the freedoms contained in the Bill of Rights.  And they would say they wanted the same thing for China.
 
Once, when I was trying to cross a major avenue in the middle of a student march, I literally got swept off my feet by the crowd and was being carried along by the throng. A young woman, about 5 feet tall, named "Mai", who didn't want me to be trampled, went into offensive lineman mode and plowed a way for me to the other side of the street.
 
"Thank you," I said, "I really appreciate that."
 
"Now you're ok," she replied.  "You tell our story."
 
Unfortunately, the story did not have a happy ending as the tanks roared into the square on the night of June 3. Troops of the People's Liberation Army opened fire on the students and blood flowed onto the Avenue of Heavenly Peace.
 
A daredevil NBC cameraman, the late Tony Wasserman, stationed himself in the square that night and captured some Emmy-award winning footage as the troops opened fire.  When the troops advanced on the place where Tony was videotaping, a group of Chinese people grabbed him and hid him in a nearby house.  They wanted to make sure that the documentation of what happened that night found its way to the outside world.

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SLIDESHOW: Tiananmen Square, 20 years later

Later, Tony would set up his camera in a hotel overlooking the square and capture that memorable scene of the lone Chinese citizen standing defiantly in front of an army tank. That one picture said it all: an unarmed civilian quixotically defying the power of the Chinese state.
 
The seeds of discontent that led to Tiananmen 20 years ago may be dormant in today's China, but they're still present. There is still massive corruption in the Chinese government, something that really angered the leaders of the democracy movement. There is a growing disparity between rich and poor in China, and considerable displacement of people who have left rural areas for the cities, looking for work.
 
Twenty years ago, the communist leaders of China sent the tanks into Tiananmen because they feared they were about to lose control of the country.  Nowadays, they try to keep their critics at bay by expanding the economy.  But China's recent economic reversals have thrown many people out of work.
 
So, could history repeat itself in China? 

Msnbc.com's Kari Huus recalls the aftermath in Beijing.