China's 25-year-olds ambivalent about the 1989 Tiananmen protests

The popular narrative is that many Chinese are angry over the Tiananmen crackdown and the lack of remorse from the Communist Party since June 4, 1989. But interviews with youth born in 1989 show many do not care. ST’s Kor Kian Beng and Rachel Chang examine how pivotal the Tiananmen incident is today and the impact of the ambivalence over the event especially among Generation Tiananmen.

Undergraduate Ma Yan proudly lays claim to having taken part in a political demonstration - before she was even born. 

And not just any protest. It was the one at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that started in April 1989 and ended in a bloody crackdown by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on June 4.

At the end of May that year, her mother was six-months pregnant with Ms Ma and was our for a stroll with her father when they found themselves at the Square. The nearly 100,000 people – undergraduates, unionists and others – were still in a festive protest mode against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Just days later, Chinese leaders ordered troops to clear the square, and the bloodshed began. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to thousands when the CCP used weapons on its people for the first time since taking power in 1949.

But, even though she was there in body, if not yet consciousness, to Ms Ma, now 25, “liusi” (June 4), as the Chinese call it, is just a story, and not one that much at all is known about in China.

She likens the protesters to China’s best-known assassin Jing Ke and his failed attempt in BC227 to kill the king of Qin, who later became the first to unify China.

“Jing Ke knew he could not kill the king, but he wanted to die as a symbol of his effort to be remembered by other generations. But who among my peers remembers the effort of the Tiananmen protesters? That's the irony.”

Why don’t they care?

Ms Ma’s knowledge and thoughtfulness about June 4 is unsual for Chinese her age. Eleven others in their early to mid 20s that The Straits Times interviewed who mostly displayed little knowledge and even little interest in learning more about what many outside China consider as one of the watershed events in its modern history. 

It is not as if that is a a tough task in today’s wired world. Her generation is simply too plugged in for significant information to be completely kept from them.

A few who spoke to the Straits Times said they only did research into the incident after receiving the interview request. 

Ms Zeng Xiaomin, 25, a Guangdong native who is in between jobs, knew it was a political incident and looked it up online to find out more. But within the Great Firewall, the Party's limited and controlled narrative reigns.

“There is very little information about it,” said the accounting graduate. “It's something about a guy named Zhao Ziyang and how his policies went against the party.”

Interestingly, they showed no fear in discussing it. Almost none were worried about having their names published, and several consented to having their pictures published as well.

Surprisingly, their lack of knowledge is not a simply case of political amnesia or being scared into silence; these young people just seemed to be indifferent. To them, the Tiananmen incident was just one of many tumultuous political struggles in China’s 5,000 years of civilisation. 

They were more concerned about recent injustices like the "tofu buildings" that collapsed on schoolchildren during the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, or the 2011 Wenzhou train crash.

Part of their disinterest can also be attributed to their preoccupation with materialism. They freely admit that they do not think that their generation would ever rise up the way the June 4 students did. 

“The standard of living and the development of policy that impacts their living is what the people care about now," said Mr Shen Zi, 25, a Jiangxi native who works in the entertainment industry in Beijing. “The economic stratification among the Chinese people is what has caused this. Our thinking is twisted, because unlike before, there is no possibility of being united because everyone is competitive with each other, for better jobs and better lives.”

Why couldn’t they care?

Observers, however, say the key factor is their lack of knowledge of what happened at Tiananmen.

The incident was sparked by the death of former CCP leader Hu Yaobang on Apr 15, 1989, who had been forced from his post in 1987 for his liberal streak and failure to control previous student protests. People began gathering at Tiananmen Square to pay tribute to him. Their numbers swelled as the tribute became an occasion to vent frustration at official corruption and an income gap between the ruling elite and the rest. 

Furious that the protesters had embarrassed the country with a hunger strike when then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing in mid-May, a faction in the CCP, headed by Premier Li Peng, considered using force. General secretary Zhao Ziyang, who believed in dialogue, was opposed. But the hardliners prevailed with tacit approval of late strongman Deng Xiaoping, and troops entered the square.

On its 25th anniversary, the Tiananmen incident remains controversial. The CCP is determined not to let its people commemorate it. More than 20 Chinese activists and dissidents have been detained since April, and Internet censors are in high-gear wiping out any references to June 4.

Professor Steven Levine, who founded the Tiananmen Initiative Project to mark the 25th anniversary, said Chinese are, in fact, aware of its taboo status. They have also “accepted the false official version that it was a counter-revolutionary riot,” which was how an editorial in the People’s Daily on Apr 26, 1989, described the protests, says the retired Montana University professor of Chinese history and politics.

“Propaganda and fear engender caution and most people living under authoritarian systems disengage from politics in order to pursue normal lives.”

This effect trickles down and is magnified among the young, who did not live through the time and are taught one version from birth, notes Dr Rowena He, who teaches a course on the Tiananmen incident at Harvard Univesity and has written a book titled Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of Struggle for Democracy in China.

“In order for youth to be interested in something they have to know about,” she says.

“Tiananmen occurred before the current generation of youth were born so it is not something which they can have direct knowledge of. Through the Patriotic Education Campaign in schools, they are taught the CCP's version of history and denied access to other sources of information that contradict that official version.”

Some young Chinese agree. 

Ms Cui Xiaocha, 25, found out about June 4th from the Internet, like most of her peers, whose history textbooks and teachers never mention it throughout their formal schooling years.

“I think if it was included in our history in textbooks, I would have greater affection for the CCP,” says the fashion executive from Hubei. “Because that would be acknowledging what happened and admitting missteps. Instead, they try to cover it up.”

The CCP’s post-Tiananmen de facto social contract – party rule in exchange for economic and social improvement - has achieved its aims, says Nottingham University political analyst Steve Tsang.

Graduate student Ms Luo, 25, who did not want to give her full name, fits the typical profile of the “amnesiac-turned-ambivalent” Chinese youth.

Now studying for a Masters in Education at the University of British Columbia in Canada, it was only when the Guangdong native moved over late last year that she realised that the rest of the world saw June 4th as an event of exponentially more significance than she and her peers realised.

Once, during a class on the education system in Canada, a discussion on how the aboriginal people in Canada had been forced to adapt to the colonial system started, and the teacher had asked her about repression in modern China and specifically about June 4. 

"I didn't have much to say," said Ms Luo. "How many people died? What were the reasons? I don't really feel the responsibility to find out. This is the majority view of everyone I know.”

Why should they care?

Beijing-based writer Eric Fish, who has interviewed hundreds of young Chinese for an upcoming book on youth and politics in China, believes it is exaggerated to say there's a complete blackout of Liusi in the official narrative as some students remembered reading about it in textbooks, though it was very brief, vague and explicit that the crackdown was necessary.

“I don't think many people buy this narrative, but the lack of images and detailed education I think has left the event pretty removed from young Chinese emotionally,” he adds.

“To make a sweeping generalisation, it seems most urban youth see it vaguely as just another example of government wrongdoing and cover up, but not necessarily any more emotive than say the Wenzhou train crash or the poorly built schools that collapsed during the Wenchuan earthquake.” 

This indifference among the young is worrying for China, observers say. Prof Tsang believes it a deep loss is in having people caring enough “to search for the truth, not just a convenient and personally satisfied life, and for an instinctive embrace of the need to stand up for human rights and dignity”.

“Human society progresses by individuals and peoples having the courage to stand up for such values. Forsaking them is not a positive development,” he adds. 

Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam, who said most mainland undergraduates or graduates he speaks with know little about the Tiananmen incident, finds the depoliticisation of the Chinese society most worrying.

“The June 4 students were very eager to change the society and to make some degree of self sacrifices so as to bring about real reform, economic or political,” he adds. “Now, the great majority of young men and women know it is dangerous to get into politics.”

But teacher Daniel Cao, 45, who was a student organiser during the protests, is relieved that China’s younger generation are depoliticised. The price he and his peers paid was too high, he says. 

“I was lucky that I escaped with my life,” says the father-of-two, who was blocked from a job opening in Xiamen University due to his involvement. That played a part in his leaving the country in 1996 for Singapore, where is now a citizen.

Now he believes that “the political game is not something for a small character like me”. He added: “I would tell my son, if he were ever interested in politics, to leave it alone.”

Could they care more?

Perhaps worse than the status quo is the way that ambivalence towards the Tiananmen incident looks likely to deepen over time, as June 4 survivors fade away and the pursuit of a material life intensifies. 

Asked whether her generation of young people could fathom coming together like the Tiananmen protesters, Guangdong native Ms Zeng says: "I wouldn't rule it out. But actually any revolt would be crushed. And I do feel that our lives are fine. They're enjoyable. There's nothing bad happening to us, we're not angry, so why would we do that for?"

Even if a political awakening of this generation’s young Chinese looks unlikely, there was initial optimism among Tiananmen protesters and relatives of those killed that President Xi Jinping, given his late vice-premier father Xi Zhongxun’s opposition to the 1989 crackdown, might at least allow a fairer official appraisal of the Tiananmen incident.

But such hopes have been dashed early with the Chinese leadership carrying out a harsh crackdown on any discussion or events on the 1989 event.

Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, finds this year's wave of repression “unusually harsh, affecting more than the usual number of people and beginning even earlier than is typical”.

“Then again, the whole period since Xi Jinping took power has seen a tightening of controls on various kinds of critical speech and collective action, showing that it was mistaken to imagine, as some people did, that he would be a liberalising figure,” he tells The Straits Times.

To Ms Ma, who experienced those heady days in 1989 in the womb, that Chinese youth might one day learn about what happened as a legitimate part of their country’s history is a possibility she believes in, although she knows the chances are slim. 

“It should at least be recorded in our history. And every year on June 4, Tiananmen Square should be closed in commemoration and vehicles not allowed to go through that area. The bodies that were stepped over and crushed under tanks were also lives.”

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

rchang@sph.com.sg