Last week a momentous anniversary passed in Beijing, and no one noticed. The silence tells us as much about the present as about history.

Thirty years ago, on April 5, 1976, more than a hundred thousand demonstrators gathered in Tiananmen Square, ostensibly to commemorate the death of former premier Zhou Enlai, who had died a few months earlier.

But the real purpose of the demonstration was to oppose the “Gang of Four”, the party faction sponsored by Mao Zedong (and including Mr Mao’s wife Jiang Qing) that was running the country – and running it into the ground. Mr Zhou was widely seen as a force of reason and decency in a government that had lost its mind and was bent only on destruction and terror.

As the protest swelled, demonstrators occupied several nearby government buildings. The police and army suppressed the uprising, killing an unknown number of protesters and imprisoning several hundred. The crackdown was swifter and probably harsher than the suppression of the internationally more famous Tiananmen incident of 1989.

Yet the protest succeeded in demonstrating the intense popular dissatisfaction with the regime. By October, Mr Mao was dead and the Gang of Four were in jail. Shortly afterwards the pragmatic programme of “four modernisations” – invented earlier by Mr Zhou and Deng Xiaoping – was official government policy. Within two years, Mr Deng had taken full control and began the economic reforms that produced such spectacular results over the next quarter century.

In a very real sense, the Tiananmen incident of 1976 marked the end of Mr Mao’s China and the beginning of Mr Deng’s. Without that clear demonstration of popular disgust with political extremism, Mr Deng’s China might not have emerged, or emerged later and in a more compromised form.

Were China a free country, the significance of April 5 would be known to every school child. China is not free, but even so one might imagine that the current government, which owes its existence in part to that protest, would choose to commemorate the anniversary in some careful and controlled way.

But of course it is impossible for this government to lend even the whiff of legitimacy to an organised protest against Party authority. So each year this anniversary is passed over in deathly silence, and the first Tiananmen incident – like all of Chinese history after 1965 – is never taught to Chinese schoolchildren at all. Many educated young Chinese do not even know that there was a protest in Tiananmen Square in 1976.

Why does this matter today? Because the continuing effort to erase decades of history gives the lie to the government’s new professed goal of turning China into a society based on “independent innovation.” No longer will China depend on imported technology from advanced countries, we are told. Instead, it will start to develop its own intellectual property and become a world technological leader.

This policy is of a piece with a long-standing fantasy of Chinese conservatives, dating back to the 1840s: that one can create a technologically advanced modern society without adopting any of the social mechanisms that enable autonomous technological advance. Unfortunately for this point of view, the basic principle that makes innovation possible – free inquiry – cannot be arbitrarily confined to the technical realm.

In order to become centres of innovation, nations do not need a full scale Anglo-American democracy, but they do require a far higher degree of openness in society than that which exists in China today. This was true even of the East Asian success stories to which China is often compared. With the exception of a decade and a half of military dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s, Japan has for more than a century been a much more open society than China is now. Its big innovative burst began only in the 1950s, with the re-establishment of a limited but significant form of democracy.

South Korea began to move into the high-tech big leagues only after its democratic transformation in 1988. Taiwan, similarly, began to develop a serious technology industry in the political thaw of the 1980s, and hit technological take-off during the democratic 1990s.

Six years into the 21st century, the Chinese government refuses to permit public discussion not only of the last four decades of national history, but also of such mundane matters as currency policy and the pace of economic reform. For the past month, the mainland media have been forbidden to report on a lively debate about whether economic reform should be slowed and more assistance given to the individual corporate losers in the reform process.

It is possible to argue that China is still too poor, and its institutions too fragile, to afford democracy at present. In this view, China needs another five or 10 years of fast economic growth before it can begin political reforms that will lead to stable democratic government.

If one accepts this argument, however, one must also accept its corollary: that China cannot possibly aspire to technological leadership. If China isn’t ready for open debates about politics and history, it isn’t ready for innovation either.

The China Economic Quarterly is an independent newsletter devoted to analysis of the Chinese economy and business environment since 1997. It draws on the 25 years of combined experience of its editors, veteran financial journalists Joe Studwell and Arthur Kroeber, and also publishes articles by leading China-focused economists and journalists. This column appears exclusively on on alternate Mondays.

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