June 4, 1989, was the day China took a huge step backward, a generation of Chinese people lost the chance for democracy, and Deng Xiaoping forfeited an opportunity to share the Nobel Peace Prize with the Dalai Lama.

Deng’s remarkable economic reforms in the early 1980s—after Mao Zedong’s calamitous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution—raised hopes in China and the West that political reform would not lag far behind. That was how South Korea and Taiwan moved from authoritarianism to democracy. Their common experience exploded the myth, perpetuated by Asian dictators and accepted by many in the West, that political freedom and Confucian traditions are somehow incompatible.

Deng’s economic reforms not only unleashed the energies of individual enterprise. They also opened China to foreign investment and freed thousands of Chinese students to travel abroad, exposing them to the subversive influence of Western ideas. Deng knew the risks he was taking, given the dramatic events unfolding in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Yet, he bravely pushed forward.

The Chinese people responded enthusiastically to Deng’s initiatives. In the spring of 1989, millions gathered peacefully to support his program and urge further political reforms. Led at first by students, the demonstrations soon drew in peasants, workers, professionals, people from across Chinese society. They called for evolutionary change, not political revolution.

But frightened Communist Party hardliners knew that real political reform would lead China inexorably along a democratic path and end their monopoly on power. The symbol the students erected in Tiananmen Square, the paper-mache Goddess of Democracy with torch held aloft, bore an unmistakable resemblance to America’s Statue of Liberty.

Deng was China’s paramount leader in name and in fact. He had bested the old-line Communists who opposed his economic reforms and was now at the peak of his popularity and power. As Party leader, he enjoyed the loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army. The entire nation was poised to take the next historic step with him.

But then Deng flinched, disastrously. He would not cross the democratic Rubicon, and ordered the People's Army to violate its sacred tradition of never turning its guns on the Chinese people. The attacks in Tiananmen Square and in other cities killed thousands of demonstrators and denied subsequent generations of Chinese their long-sought chance for equal democratic citizenship in the international community.

The world was shocked by what it witnessed on live television. The Nobel Prize Committee awarded that year’s Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama for his lifetime of peacefully opposing China’s brutal repression of the Tibetan people and culture. Had Deng reciprocated the Chinese people’s faith in him and in themselves, he almost certainly would have won or shared the Prize for putting China on a democratic course.

Instead, China’s political development regressed from the peak years of Deng’s openings, and Beijing intensified its collaboration with like-minded dictatorships such as North Korea and Burma. The Nobel Committee continued to recognize and encourage those in Asia fighting for freedom and human rights. It awarded the Peace Prize to three present or former political prisoners, two of whom were victims of Chinese, or Chinese-supported, tyranny.

In 1991, it honored Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the democratic opposition under house arrest in Burma, whose military junta enjoyed the patronage of the People’s Republic. In 2000, it chose South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung, formerly jailed for his democracy and human rights struggle. In 2010, the Prize went to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

The international community also tried to cajole China’s leaders toward reform with positive incentives. In 2001, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing in return for China’s commitment to begin instituting political changes. The Olympics have come and gone but China’s promises remain unfulfilled. The same is true of Beijing’s assurance s that it would not harm the family of the blind dissident lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, after his migration to America last year.

Almost a quarter-century after Tiananmen, a new set of Chinese leaders faces another generation’s yearning for political change. Their voices are amplified by the Internet and social media even as the authorities strive to censor and block those outlets of free expression.

So far, Xi Jinping and his colleagues continue to disappoint hopes for political reform. Instead, Xi emphasizes military prowess as a test of China’s greatness. Communist Party media warn the public of “the dangers posed by views and theories advocated by the West.”

The world can hope that Mr. Xi will keep his own promise to the Chinese people to govern under the rule of law and will broaden that commitment to include political freedoms. Then, one day a Chinese leader will equal the moral stature of the Chinese dissidents and earn the Nobel Peace Prize that Deng Xiaoping sadly squandered back in 1989.

Joseph A. Bosco is a national security consultant. He was China desk officer in the office of the secretary of defense from 2005 to 2006.

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