The bloody scars of the past have been airbrushed out of the photo and those who try to draw attention to that cleansing of the historical record have been hustled away.

Consider the case of Liu Xiaobo, one of the leaders of the Tiananmen protests in 1989. I met him a year ago, just after the 19th anniversary of the crackdown.

Liu hadn’t been available in the run-up to the day. Chinese security police had locked him in his apartment and cut him off from the rest of the world. When they did eventually let him out, they drove him to his meetings.

Liu was sardonic about his treatment.

As a result of his role at Tiananmen, he had been tried for counter-revolutionary activity and jailed three times.

Still, he said, last summer as the Beijing Olympics beckoned, things were improving.

“When I was arrested in 1996, they ransacked my apartment and left a mess. When I was arrested a decade later they came with white gloves, and when they left, they put things back.”

That was then

There will be no interviews with Liu this year, however. In December 2008, he led a group of intellectuals in drawing up and publishing Charter 08, a petition calling for respect for human rights, representative government, an independent judiciary and a federal system for China.

The petition was an updated, condensed call for democracy that was last heard loudly in public in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Right after the publication of Charter 08, Liu was promptly arrested and taken away. His wife has seen him just once since then. The authorities won’t say where he’s being held.

Charter 08 was consciously modelled on Charter 77, the Czech call for freedom and human rights drawn up by playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel in 1977 when the Communists ruled Eastern Europe.

It also echoed the call for a “fifth modernization” during the Democracy Wall period in Beijing in 1979. Its author, Wei Jingsheng, was arrested and held in prison for almost 18 years.

The previous year, 1978, Deng Xiaoping came to power, calling for the “four modernizations” to transform a socialist peasant society into an economic power. The “fifth modernization” demanded by Wei was human rights.

Count to four

After 1979, and even more so after 1989, the unwritten rule in China was “count to four and forget five.” Transformation would take time.

The Beijing I saw in 1989 during the Tiananmen demonstrations was visibly similar to the capital I worked in the early 1980s — a city of bicycles, dowdy clothes, few gadgets and fewer foreigners.

The military crackdown that June was followed by a greater loosening of economic control. An unspoken quid pro quo. As a result, the Beijing of today is a world away, a capital with all the trappings of a modern consumer city.

An average economic growth rate of eight per cent per year over 30 years can do that.

That astonishing development has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese out of the grinding poverty of peasant farming, though at the cost of punishing hours of factory work for low wages.

The export-driven boom, coupled with a careful husbanding of the mountains of cash that flowed in, means that China today has foreign currency reserves of more than $2 trillion.

In recent years, the Chinese have been turning that cash into economic and political clout.

For example, they have become the chief bankers of a new East Asian version of the International Monetary Fund, putting more than $40 billion into it.

They have pressured trading partners like Indonesia and Argentina into doing business directly in renminbi, the Chinese currency, rather than in U.S. dollars.

In Africa their influence is expanding as fast as their investments. In 2007, the Chinese invested almost $5 billion in infrastructure in Africa. That’s more than the total of the G8 countries combined.

Chinese companies paved or re-paved 80 per cent of the roads in Rwanda and they are building railways in Nigeria and military bases in Ethiopia. Chinese companies own one of Zambia’s largest copper mines and run a huge timber operation in Equatorial Guinea.

All this at a time when countries like Canada are turning away from that continent.

Day of reckoning

The Tiananmen protests in 1989 broke out just before then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was to make a state visit to China.

To the acute embarrassment of Chinese leaders, he actually saw the students in the square and, having just lived through enormous street demonstrations in Moscow, he counselled moderation and more openness to his Communist colleagues.

At least one senior Chinese leader, Zhao Ziyang, agreed with this advice, but was overruled. The bloody crackdown took place and Zhao was removed and put under house arrest until he died 16 years later.

Two years after Tiananmen, the Soviet Union collapsed and I listened to a KGB colonel rail against Gorbachev for not following the path of Deng Xiaoping — count to four and forget five.

The irony is that now, with a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, in charge for the past nine years, Russia has been trying to do just that.

In China, more than 8,000 people have signed Charter 08, a respectable number at first glance, but pitifully small in a country of 1.3 billion people.

Most people have never heard of Charter 08 or Liu Xiaobo. Airbrushing the photo has worked. Young people in China today have a hazy understanding at best of the Tiananmen protests.

Getting rich is glorious, decreed Deng, and that is still the password embraced by the large majority.

For their pains, Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08 signers are offered foreign consolation prizes: the PEN American Centre award for Liu and a human rights award in Prague for Charter 08.

For the Prague ceremony, Vaclav Havel wrote a letter. The message from the Charter 77 dissident who went on to become his country’s president was sobering:

“One may never reckon with success, one may never reckon with the situation changing tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or in 10 years. Perhaps it will not. If that is what you are reckoning with, you will not get very far.

“However, in our experience,” Havel went on, “not reckoning with that did pay in the end; we found that it was possible to change the situation after all, and those who were mocked as being Don Quixotes, whose efforts were never going to come to anything, may in the end and to general astonishment get their way.”