The last century in China has presented a minefield of violent political events that have been expunged from history books and public discourse by a Communist party intent on denying its more painful mistakes.

So it was astonishing to hear Premier Wen Jiabao at his annual press conference last week say the country and the party must confront the legacy of the 1966-76 cultural revolution or face the possibility of repeating that disaster.

Mr Wen’s persistent mentions of the violent chaos unleashed by Mao Zedong were a clear rebuke to populist “princeling” politician Bo Xilai, who was purged a few hours later as party chief of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities.

Mr Bo’s critics had slammed his “cultural revolution” style policies in Chongqing, which involved the revival of Mao-era revolutionary songs and propaganda and a vicious crackdown on anyone he accused of being a “gangster”.

But for those reading between the pauses in the premier’s painfully deliberate oratory, the speech signalled more than the downfall of the maverick Mr Bo, who may still be charged with unspecified crimes.

According to people close to top-level internal party discussions, Mr Wen was tentatively laying the foundation for a move that would blow apart the established order in China and kick-start the political reform he has agitated for in recent years.

That move would be the rehabilitation and re-evaluation of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests and the massacre that followed on June 4, when party elders ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.

To this day the party officially regards the democracy protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot” and the entire episode has been painstakingly scrubbed from the collective consciousness of the nation.

In calling for a re-evaluation of the cultural revolution, Mr Wen was in fact signalling his intention to do the same for Tiananmen in order to finally begin the healing.

Mr Wen has already suggested this on three separate occasions in top-level secret party meetings in recent years, according to people familiar with the matter, but each time has been blocked by his colleagues.

One of the most vehement opponents of this proposal was Bo Xilai.

Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, was a revolutionary hero and a senior Communist official who came to be known in the 1980s as one of the “eight immortals” – the party elders who ruled the country from behind the scenes.

As the student protests centred on Tiananmen Square in Beijing spread across the country, Bo Yibo was one of the elders who repeatedly pressed Deng Xiaoping to take a hard line and send in the troops.

Many other former senior leaders and their offspring are also tainted by the decision to kill unarmed civilians and some, such as former President Jiang Zemin, were only promoted as a direct result of the turmoil of 1989.

Mr Jiang was catapulted from Shanghai party chief to the presidency when his predecessor, Zhao Ziyang, was arrested for refusing to declare martial law. Zhao remained under house arrest for 16 years until his death in 2005.

In a famous photo that can only be viewed outside the Great Firewall of Chinese internet censorship, Mr Wen stands at the shoulder of Mr Zhao in his last public appearance in 1989 as he visited the students in Tiananmen Square to express his support and warn them of the impending crackdown.

Although it has been quite successfully blotted from the national memory, the Tiananmen massacre remains the single most divisive and controversial event within senior party ranks.

Cadres at the top of the hierarchy can be roughly divided into those who advocated for or benefited from the massacre and oppose any kind of re-evaluation, and those who were hurt by it or were not affected either way.

As time passes the first group is naturally shrinking – Bo Yibo died in 2007 at the age of 98 – and so too is the institutional resistance to revisiting the events of 1989.

As Mr Wen prepares to step down at the end of this year as part of a once-in-a-decade political transition, he may be gambling that the time has come to right historical wrongs as a way of launching political reform.

The potential reputational damage to powerful interest groups, particularly within the military, could still easily block such a spectacularly bold manoeuvre.

But in purging Mr Bo the Chinese leadership has cleared away a major impediment and sent a signal to others that spring could be in the air again in Beijing.

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