Just weeks after Deng Xiaoping's passing, China has opened a debate over how to write the history of his decision in 1989 to use troops to retake Tiananmen Square from unarmed students.
The choice of words to depict the event could split the nation or heal it, and make or destroy the fortunes of countless leaders, generals, and reformists here.
The central questions being debated are whether the students who took command of the square were "counterrevolutionary rebels" who aimed to topple the Communist Party or peaceful petitioners for democratic change.
And did Deng's order to open fire to recapture the symbolic heart of China save the nation from decades of turmoil or did it create fault lines in the party, Army, and people that still threaten the country's modern foundations.
In keeping with an imperial practice that dates back millennia, the Communist Party has already begun rewriting the chronicles of Deng's nearly two decades of rule. Among the key questions it faces are whether, how, and at what speed to redefine the Tiananmen Square incident.
The post-Deng Communist Party could use the strategy to rebuild its image and popularity, but it is unclear how far hard-liners who supported the crackdown might go to prevent a reevaluation.
"The June 4 attack destroyed the legitimacy of the party," says a former democracy activist in Beijing. "The only way to restore its image and regain the trust of the people is to admit the party made a major mistake in 1989."
"The death of Deng opens new doors to a reassessment of Tiananmen," says Harry Harding, a China scholar at George Washington University in Washington. "This is a major political issue for the post-Deng leadership."
But in a country whose emerging urban middle class is more interested in making money and in business, nationalism and re-evaluating the events of eight years ago may not be everybody's priority.
But for many intellectuals here, a sense of closure to the event is important. "The Tiananmen issue is always in the back of our minds," says a university lecturer here.
"For most Beijingers, the question is not if, but when, those who died on June 4 will be called 'martyrs for democracy' rather than 'counterrevolutionary thugs,' " says the lecturer, who took part in the uprising.
Admitting to mistakes
Zhao Ziyang, who was stripped of his post as party chief in 1989 for opposing the use of force against peaceful protesters, in the weeks since Deng's death has echoed calls to atone for the crackdown, say Hong Kong press reports.
Yet such a move is likely to trigger a backlash from hard-line party and Army officials involved in coordinating the assault, Chinese and American analysts say.
President Jiang Zemin, who was appointed party chief by Deng on the eve of the Army's march on Beijing, faces a host of both dangers and opportunities in rewriting the chronicles of Deng's rule and the events of 1989.
"A reversal of the verdict on Tiananmen should include spelling out who was responsible for planning, ordering, and carrying out the attack," says Michael Swaine, an expert on the Chinese military at the California-based Rand think tank. "Those in the military who backed the crackdown don't want the finger pointed at them."
Gen. Yang Shangkun, who was "centrally involved in Tiananmen," Mr. Swaine adds, has already been trying to distance himself from the operation to avoid any possible retribution.
Yet even the Army leadership seems to be divided over the legacy of Tiananmen.
The outgoing head of the British garrison in Hong Kong recently quoted his Chinese successor, Gen. Liu Zhenwu, who will take over the post when China regains control of Hong Kong, as saying the Chinese Army wanted to "reverse its image" from the Tiananmen era.
"The military felt it was placed in an extremely difficult position," explains Swaine. "It did not enjoy being called out to deal with ... thousands of demonstrators."
"There were plenty of conservatives in the party who backed sending troops into Beijing in 1989, and they could try to unite to oppose any moves toward calling the attack a crime," says the son of a party secretary in Beijing. Premier Li Peng, who signed the martial-law decree in 1989, "would be the strongest opponent to terming the June 4 attack a massacre," he says.
Yet Mr. Jiang could use such a move to eliminate key rivals like Mr. Li, who is ranked second in the party hierarchy, and General Yang, who was removed from the military high command several years ago in a power struggle.
While alienating party and Army conservatives, rewriting the history of Tiananmen would recapture the loyalty of reformists who helped map out the transformation of China's economy, Chinese and American analysts say .
Liberal Mr. Zhao and his top aide, Bao Tong, remain under house arrest nearly eight years after trying to avert a military solution to the protests. But both "still carry a high degree of prestige and influence in the party," says a government worker here.
And freeing Wang Dan, the history student who hoped to end the 1989 protests peacefully in talks with the government, would end a divide between China's rulers and its leading thinkers, say intellectuals.
"Calling the leaders of Tiananmen 'patriots,' and releasing Zhao Ziyang and Wang Dan, is probably the only way Beijing could ease the minds of all the Chinese students abroad," says a Chinese scholar in the US.
There are 40,000 to 50,000 Chinese studying in the US, and most to date have opted not to return home. Many analysts agree that the next phase of China's development will depend on highly trained technocrats like those currently in the US.
Yet "it seems like Jiang can't decide whether to ally with the reformists to move China ahead or with the conservatives to safeguard stability," says the lecturer.
China after Deng Xiaoping
In mapping out China's post-Deng future, Jiang has sent out mixed signals on the party's handling of the Tiananmen legacy.
At Deng's funeral in February, Jiang downgraded the protests from a "rebellion" to a "disturbance," and also put political reform back on the agenda. Yet since Deng's passing, China's top law-making body has passed tough laws that could be used to punish a wide spectrum of peaceful dissent and amended a law to allow the Army to be used against "domestic armed riots."
"The changes serve as a warning to the people that the Army could be used again as in 1989, and might indicate the verdict on Tiananmen is not going to be reversed anytime soon", says Jim Feinerman, at Georgetown University in Washington.