BEIJING — Don’t hold your breath waiting for any kind of Occupy Beijing movement to set up camp. Visitors to Tiananmen Square must pass through airport-style security checkpoints, and nobody is likely to try smuggling in a protest sign, much less a tent. The vast, wind-whipped plaza is a quiet place. China’s leaders intend to keep it that way.

Walk away from the square in any direction, however, and soon you find yourself amid a raucous riot of commerce. Whatever you’ve read about the speed and scale of development here, you have no idea until you see it with your own eyes. The contrast between China’s uninhibited economic life and its repressed political life could not be more stark.

The iconic portrait of Chairman Mao that looks out over Tiananmen seems anachronistic. At least in the urban centers, today’s China has abandoned communism in favor of a kind of hyper-capitalism. Even officials acknowledge Mao’s mistakes, especially the ruinous Cultural Revolution.

Yet Mao’s portrait remains. The government has essentially rebranded him as a nationalist who put a definitive end to centuries of imperial decadence and foreign domination, elevating a sovereign China to its rightful status as a great power.

“We have been very candid,” said Hong Lei, the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. “We admit that he made serious problems for the country. But we never give a 100 percent disavowal of Chairman Mao’s accomplishments.”

And in any event, Hong said, the way to look at China’s evolution is that the country has now moved into a new phase of the transformation that Mao’s revolution began. Never mind that China is speeding down a road Mao never would have taken.

It makes sense that a government seeking to maintain the monopoly of power that Mao established would want to keep the chairman’s legacy alive. But many of the sightseers at Tiananmen on Thursday afternoon were recent arrivals from the hinterlands — among millions of migrants who leave the countryside to flock to China’s cities this year — and they seemed to gaze upon Mao’s visage with a sense of awe, not of irony. It was a reminder that for all the sophistication of the big cities, most of China remains rural and poor.

Living in a communist country without communism requires a finely tuned sense of what is permissible and what is not. Journalists acknowledge they practice self-censorship and, when necessary, toe the party line. A businessman will reach the brink of explicitly denouncing a government policy but not take the leap, instead lapsing into awkward silence. Commentators know they can criticize officials by name for incompetence or corruption, but only up to a certain level; an expert on the Chinese media said that such attacks against the president, the premier or other top-rank officials would be unthinkable.

“We have a red line,” said Hong. “No media can violate the basic laws and constitution.” He said this meant that “the basic political system should be kept. You cannot overthrow the government.”

To me, there’s an obvious difference between criticizing any official, even a head of state, and advocating a new revolution. A Chinese journalist might see the distinction, too — but might be ill-advised to assert it.

Still, history does matter. I had dinner one night at the home of Hao Jiang Tian, an acclaimed opera singer who performs at the Metropolitan Opera and other great venues around the world. He is in his 50s, and it was fascinating — and harrowing — to hear him and several of his contemporaries describe how they survived the years of the Cultural Revolution.

They were of high-school age, but instead of being able to continue their educations they were sent to menial jobs in construction, or forced to join the army, or banished to toil in the countryside. They were hungry, exhausted, always fearful. When the nightmarish upheaval finally ended, they had to rebuild their lives from scratch.

I heard these stories while we sat around a table groaning with exquisite food. Tian’s large and elegant apartment is in a new high-rise — all the high-rises in Beijing are new — that has the distinction of being one of the city’s few “green” buildings, making innovative use of geothermal energy. Among our company were two prominent architects, who also live in the building, and a famous artist.

No, China isn’t free. But yes, it has changed.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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