Twenty-five years have passed since the Tiananmen Square crackdown on June 4, 1989.
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 on June 4 that year.
At the end of May 1989, her mother was six months pregnant with Ma and was out 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 mood as they protested against the Chinese Communist Party.
Chinese workers filling the streets of Beijing to support the students’ pro-democracy movement on May 18, 1989. ( AFP)
Days later, on June 3 and June 4, Chinese leaders ordered troops to clear the square, and the bloodshed began. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to thousands. It was the first time the CCP had used weapons on its own people since taking power in 1949.
But for Ma, now 25, the crackdown ― commonly referred to as liusi (June 4) in Chinese ― is just a story, and a little-known one at that.
She likens the protesters to China’s best-known assassin Jing Ke and his failed attempt in B.C. 227 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 is the irony,” she said.
Ma’s knowledge and thoughtfulness about June 4 are unusual for a Chinese her age. Eleven others in their early to mid-20s The Straits Times interviewed mostly displayed little knowledge, and even less interest in learning more about what many outside China consider as one of the pivotal events in its modern history.
It is not as if that is a tough task in today’s wired world. Her generation is simply too plugged in for significant information to be kept completely from them.
A few who spoke to The Straits Times said they did research into the incident only after receiving the interview request. Interestingly, they showed no fear in discussing it. Almost none was worried about having his or her name published, and several agreed to have their pictures published.
Surprisingly, their lack of knowledge is not a simple case of political amnesia or being scared into silence; these young people just seemed to be indifferent. To them, the Tiananmen incident was one of many tumultuous political struggles in China’s 5,000 years of civilization.
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 their generation would ever rise up the way the June 4 students did.
“The standard of living and the development of policy that impact their living are what the people care about now,” said Shen Zi, 25, a Jiangxi native who works in the entertainment industry in Beijing. “Our thinking is twisted, because unlike before, there is no possibility of being united because everyone is competitive with one another, for better jobs and better lives.”
Observers, however, say the indifference of these Chinese youth stems from a lack of knowledge or a colored perspective of June 4, 1989.
On its 25th anniversary, the Tiananmen incident remains controversial. The CCP is determined not to let its people commemorate the event. 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 the Chinese are, in fact, aware of its taboo status. They have also “accepted the false official version that it was a counter-revolutionary riot,” said 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,” he said.
This effect trickles down and is magnified among the young, who did not live through the time and are taught one version from birth.
“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,” noted professor Rowena He, who teaches a course on the Tiananmen incident at Harvard University and has written a book titled “Tiananmen Exiles: Voices Of Struggle For Democracy In China.”
“I think if it was included in our history in textbooks, I would have greater affection for the CCP,” said Cui Xiaocha, 25, a 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, said Nottingham University political analyst Steve Tsang.
Graduate student Luo, 25, who did not want to give her full name, did not realize that the rest of the world saw June 4 as a significant event until she went to Canada last year to pursue a master’s in education.
One teacher asked her about repression in modern China and the Tiananmen incident. “I did not have much to say,” said Luo. “How many people died? What were the reasons? I do not really feel the responsibility to find out. This is the majority view of everyone I know.”
Beijing-based writer Eric Fish, who has interviewed hundreds of young Chinese for an upcoming book on youth and politics in China, believes “the lack of images and detailed education has left the event pretty removed from young Chinese emotionally.”
This indifference among the young is worrying for China, observers say. It is a deep loss, said professor Tsang, when people do not care enough “to search for the truth, not just a convenient and personally satisfied life.”
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 depoliticization of the Chinese society most worrying.
“The June 4 students were very eager to change the society and to make some degree of self-sacrifice so as to bring about real reform, economic or political,” he said. “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 organizer during the protests, is relieved that China’s younger generation is depoliticized. The price he and his peers paid was too high, he said.
“I was lucky that I escaped with my life,” said the married 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 he is now a citizen.
Now, he believes that “the political game is not something for a small character like me.” He said: “I would tell my son, if he were ever interested in politics, to leave it alone.”
Such ambivalence toward 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 could come together like the Tiananmen protesters, Guangdong native Zeng Xiaomin, 25, said: “I do feel our lives are fine. There is nothing bad happening to us, we are not angry, so why would we do that?”
Even if a political awakening of this generation’s young Chinese looks unlikely, there was initial optimism 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.
These hopes have been dashed by the ongoing crackdown.
Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom, author of “China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs To Know,” said: “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 liberalizing figure.”
Ma hopes the post-Tiananmen generation might one day learn about what happened as a legitimate part of their country’s history, although she knows the chances are slim. “It should at least be recorded in our history,” she said.
“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.”
By Kor Kian Beng and Rachel Chang
(The Straits Times)