A group of mainland students studying in the United States has published an open letter to President Hu Jintao and Vice-President Xi Jinping calling for a reassessment of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and advocating reform in the run-up to the senior leadership reshuffle this autumn.
'It's rather puzzling to us why such an obvious mistake or even crime has been covered up for 23 years rather than being reflected upon and corrected,' the letter states. It was published on an online mainland news portal and then carried on other websites.
'We hope that the Communist Party will vindicate June 4 during the 18th National Congress of the Party [in the autumn], hold decision-makers accountable and compensate the victims, which could be a first step towards political reform that could shift China from the rule of man to the rule of law and democracy.'
The letter, issued by eight students, reflects an apparent rising tide of opinion in society daring to call for a new look at the student-led pro-democracy movement.
Such a rehabilitation of the 1980s generation is simply a matter of time, most analysts agree, but exactly how much time depends more on the growing pressure from society than on the central authorities' will to implement their decisions.
The recent downfall of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and the house arrest and dramatic escape to the United States of blind rights activist Chen Guangcheng are seen as indicators of a new political and social crisis, by exposing fault lines within the party leadership as it struggles to use a decade and more of economic progress to reverse growing income inequality, rising corruption and the lack of serious political reform. 'The uncertainty and conflicts in the top leadership provides more chances for civil society to [voice its political agenda],' said Zhang Lifan, a historian and political commentator.
Tiananmen pro-democracy movement leader Wang Juntao, in exile in the United States, noted that several incidents this year, in conjunction with rising civic power in recent years, had boosted the possibility of a power reshuffle.
'The weakening of the once-dominant voice of the Communist Party has allowed the growth of other voices, from the leftists to the liberals,' Wang said.
Chen Ziming, sentenced to 13 years in prison for 'counter-revolutionary' activities after June 4, 1989 and released on medical parole in 1994, said many party officials were well aware that calls for vindication had been stronger than before.
'Just after June 4, many thought the vindication would come soon. The economic rise shifted people's attention away from this expectation, but acute social conflicts have brought it back,' Chen said.
Calls for political reform have also been made by Premier Wen Jiabao, who said during this year's National People Congress that tragedies such as the Cultural Revolution might happen again without it.
Gao Yu, a journalist arrested on the night of June 3, 1989 and jailed for 15 months without formal charge, said vindication of the Tiananmen Square protesters, and political reform were closely related. 'If there is no political reform, then there will be no vindication of June 4,' she said.
Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, a student at the protests in 1989, said the fall of Bo and his right-hand man, Wang Lijun, had weakened confidence of the state's security arm apparatus, resulting in an apparent relaxation of control. However, this did not mean there was a fundamental change in the authorities' view of June 4.
A protest calling for the vindication of June 4 protesters went ahead peacefully in Guiyang in Fujian province last Monday, without immediate police interference. More than a dozen rights activists held up a banner in front of a courthouse in support of Wen's call for reform, and asking for a June 4 reassessment.
More moderate political control demonstrated by Guangdong's relaxed rules toward registering NGOs, and the positive developments after the Wukan protests have highlighted the conflict between maintaining stability and safeguarding human rights. In Wukan, residents last year staged demonstrations against land seizures by the local government and were eventually successful in securing democratic village elections and ousting corrupt officials.
But the road to progress has not been smooth. Some of the protesters in Guiyang were later questioned or taken away and there have been reports that right activists were forced to travel or were confined to their homes.