Tea Leaf Nation
China’s Youth Think Tiananmen Was So 1989
Leery of anything political, young Chinese elites are helping the government banish the student massacre from memory.
I still remember the first time I talked about the Tiananmen incident with my university roommates. It was the eve of the 20th anniversary of June 4.
“Do you girls know what day is it today?”
“I know what you mean,” said the girl whose bunk bed lay under mine. “It’s the anniversary. But what can we do?”
That passivity is no exception among young people in China today. It’s fashionable to hope that China’s young and educated want to keep the flame burning for the protesters who called for democratic reforms in summer 1989, only to suffer in deadly clashes with soldiers in and around central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4. But from all I have seen and heard, China’s young elite aren’t interested in preserving the memory of Tiananmen, which official press shuns discussing and which the ruling Communist Party has nearly erased from public discourse. The country’s youth just want to focus on making money and staying out of trouble.
In the run-up to this year’s anniversary, I broached the topic with five of my Chinese friends and colleagues, who were either young children or not yet born when the events of 1989 unfolded. (All agreed only to give their surnames.) None of them said they plan to commemorate what was among the most traumatic events in China’s recent history. Four of the five described June 4 as “not important.” While the youth of the 1980s held high the flags of democracy and idealism, the new generation doesn’t seem to care. What happened?
It’s not that these five don’t know what Tiananmen was. They all do. Although there is no open discussion on June 4 in China, there are no details in school textbooks, and the Great Firewall, a government censorship program, blocks foreign websites like Facebook and the New York Times, it is not impossible for young Chinese people to have access to richer information if they want it. Hundreds of thousands of them study abroad, and millions more could download so-called virtual private networks that would allow them to “leap” the Great Firewall.
It’s also not true that these five have been so exposed to state media that they lack the ability to think for themselves. All five have degrees from elite universities; they all have either studied, traveled to, or lived in other countries.
But young people in China today are defined by two major characteristics: caution and ambition. Cui, a young auditor working for accounting firm Ernst & Young, told me the anniversary “isn’t directly related to me or to my life. I don’t know any young people around me who care about the June 4 anniversary either.” Instead, Chinese youth “think about how to set our roots in the big cities and grab a better position for ourselves in the future. China is still developing fast, and the opportunities to have a better life are now or never,” Cui explained. “Who wants to risk losing everything we have achieved for a vague dream?”
Cui isn’t exaggerating. Openly commemorating June 4, in person or online, carries real risks. The Chinese government considers such actions harmful to national stability; indeed, every year some who hold even private memorials in mainland China are punished; at least three activists were reportedly detained this May for plans to commemorate the anniversary in Beijing. Another risk, according to Cui, is the instability China would potentially face once June 4 were allowed to be discussed openly, which would likely lead to a wider conversation about the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Cui won’t do anything that would lead to the former, and he doesn’t want to see anything that would lead to the latter. “I believe in a strong government,” he said. “To maintain the stability and achieve a larger goal, I think some sacrifices are acceptable.” In other words, China can’t both become strong and reckon with Tiananmen at the same time.
Young Chinese people are generally more liberal and more individualistic than previous generations, but even so, it’s not rare to hear opinions like Cui’s among their ranks. Three out of the five people I interviewed told me they believe that in today’s China, social stability should reign. One, named Hu, said it’s fine to keep “disputes over certain historical incidents” like June 4 on the back burner for now. I asked him when he thinks would be a proper time for an open discussion. He said he was not sure.
Hu is just the sort of person who, in theory, should care about Tiananmen. Hu graduated from Peking University, an elite college in Beijing that was a hotbed of protest in 1989. He told me that “almost every student” there knows June 4. But “every year, around this time, the students’ supervisors remind them, ‘Watch your behavior.’ Today’s Peking University students are different from those of 1989. Some of the students simply don’t care about politics; some don’t agree” with what the protesters did; and some “dare not do anything publicly.”
These attitudes reflect the official rhetoric that we young Chinese have been exposed to throughout our lives. Students here are called upon to sacrifice their petty individual interests for the greater good. In party newspapers, it is common to find editorials that argue that because Western countries acted oppressively a century or two ago, they have no right to criticize China’s recent past or its present. Social Darwinism prevails. Cui said he is disturbed by corruption and is unhappy with how things work in China sometimes. But his solution is “to adapt to it and try to climb to a better position” rather than becoming a change agent, because “unfairness is an inevitable part of the human condition and there will always be some in human society who are less lucky.”
People like Cui sometimes care about politics but only when it directly intrudes upon their individual concerns and only after careful calculation to make sure they won’t suffer for raising complaints. “Yesterday, I just made a decision to buy an apartment in Shenzhen,” Cui said. It was more than $450,000. “I borrowed [more than $300,000] from the bank and will pay the debt for the next 20 years. Of course, I can’t stand for any social instability or instability in my own life.”
Only Sun, a 24-year-old student, seemed to care about politics at all. “The government has done a good job over the past two decades in backing politics away from visibility in day-to-day life,” Sun told me. “But politics is everything.… June 4 should be mentioned and remembered.” He added that his generation wants change. But Sun said he feels helpless. “What can we do? When people have urgent things to deal with, they don’t see the importance of some issues.”
Sun said he rarely talks about Tiananmen with his peers. But that’s not primarily due to worries that such discussion would get him into trouble with the authorities. Rather, Sun explained, it’s because people have differing opinions about it; discussion can easily create discord among friends.
The danger of becoming politically active is a lesson that this generation of youth has studiously taken to heart. One of my roommates, from Beijing, once told me her father in the 1980s was an idealistic young man who listened to rock music and grew his hair long. “But he changed after 1989,” she said. “He warned me before university started, ‘Never get involved in any political movements.’ He told me he would try to protect me no matter what, but there were some things that he could not do anything to prevent once it was too late.”
Another friend, 27-year-old Qiao, a mainlander now studying in Taiwan, told me he was also warned from a very young age about the dangers of politics. Qiao’s uncle and aunt were both university students in 1989, and they participated in hunger strikes in the days before soldiers descended on the square.
“I think I was liberal. At first, I learned of it from family, then I tried to look for information from books and on the internet,” Qiao said. “June 4 helped people to be aware of the democratic spirit, but after it failed, the democracy supporters within the Communist Party lost their power. I don’t think June 4 was a blessing for China, and I don’t want to praise it.”
Everyone in China tries to figure out where the line is between what’s allowed and what isn’t; no one really succeeds. As a solution, we draw a large circle around ourselves and stay far away from the edge. A vague line is far more powerful than a clear one.
I, too, am among the careful ones. This year, I first thought I would hold conversations about Tiananmen in the street, at a park, or at a restaurant — only with close friends, of course. But as I planned this article and lined up people to talk, I found myself growing ever more discreet. I remembered how, several years ago, when I was still a college student, one of my classmates sent a text to another friend as a joke: “Let’s go to Tiananmen and burn ourselves in protest.” Thirty minutes after the message was transmitted, a row of police cars and dozens of policemen swarmed the dormitory building. Fortunately for my friend, the university president vouched for his innocence.
I was worried that I would be reported to the police for my online conversations. So I messaged trusted contacts via Facebook, rather than Chinese social media, which is heavily monitored. We used agreed-upon code words, referring to “that thing” when we needed to say “June 4” and “that place” when we needed to say “Tiananmen.”
One of my five contacts later changed his mind and told me he planned to do something small to mark the anniversary. “I will probably post something ironic, but indirect, like, ‘The week of deleting posts on the Chinese internet comes again, cheers,’” he wrote, sending me a wry smile on Facebook. “Nothing else.”
Photo credit: Getty Images