For far too long after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, an air of political unease and restlessness has prevailed in Hong Kong and Beijing this time every year. The politically sensitive season began on April 15, the anniversary of the death of late Communist Party general-secretary Hu Yaobang 18 years ago, which prompted tens of thousands of students to take to the streets. Originally aimed at mourning the death of the reform-minded leader, the student-led initiative erupted into a pro-democracy, pro-reform movement. Next Friday marks another turning point in the history of the 1989 democracy movement when People's Daily branded the student protests as 'counter-revolutionary turmoil'. On Youth Day, which falls on May 4, this ill-thought-out verdict stoked student clamour for democracy, a free press and a corruption-free society. The chain of breathtaking events ended, as we know, brutally on June 4 when the People's Liberation Army quelled the protest by force. Since then, June 4 has become a political taboo. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, which has been branded by Beijing as subversive, remains a thorn in the side of those in the pro-Beijing circle. Calls have been made by prominent pro-Beijing figures for the Alliance to be disbanded to help minimise tension between democrats and Beijing. The annual candle-light vigil at Victoria Park has been a sad reminder of the long shadow of history. Eighteen years on, the official verdict of the 1989 student-led protest has remained the same. The wind of change towards a more open, liberal and tolerant China, is blowing, albeit gently. Last week saw the visit of two veteran mainland intellectual-dissidents deeply involved with China's ill-fated democratic movement since the 1970s. Back then Ren Wanding was a key figure in the Beijing Spring movement. Chen Ziming was branded by Beijing as one of the two 'black hands' behind the 1989 pro-democracy movement. Despite their sensitive backgrounds, their visits have not caused turmoil in the political waters. Both have apparently been given free access to any people - including journalists - they want to contact during their stay. The pair has spoken on sensitive issues such as human rights and democracy at university seminars. As Mr Ren observes, China's hosting of the 2008 Olympics has become a catalyst of positive change towards a more relaxed atmosphere. During the past few years, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have also spoken highly of the importance of the development of democracy in speeches during state visits overseas. Admittedly, China's record on human rights still leaves much to be desired. Yesterday's second anniversary of the jailing of Hong Kong journalist Ching Cheong - who was convicted of spying charges he repeatedly denied - is a case in point. From giving the green light for Hong Kong visits by dissidents to the embrace of democracy - at least in rhetoric - it is clear the Beijing leadership is anxious to grapple with the burning issues of democracy and freedom. Taking note of the twists and turns in China's contemporary history and the deep-seated deficiencies and problems in its systems and society, the road to democracy and freedom is bound to be fraught with uncertainties and contradictions. But as Mr Ren has indicated, there are good reasons to believe a new verdict on June 4 could happen in the not-so-distant future. When dissidents like Mr Ren and Mr Chen can walk and talk freely not just in Hong Kong but on the mainland and democracy is no longer a taboo subject among Beijing leaders, hopes for a democratic, free China are perhaps not a pipe dream. Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.