Young is 19 years old, the kind of bright young face who gets picked for glossy campus brochures. He attends Peking University, the top university in China. He is studying chemistry, out of a desire to help solve his country’s struggles with energy and the environment. He is a curious mind who scours Wikipedia for information, even on subjects outside the strictures of approved Chinese thought – such as what happened on June 4, 1989.
On that day, China’s leaders ordered soldiers to open fire on pro-democracy protesters who had occupied Tiananmen Square.
Many of those protesters once inhabited the very campus Young, and a new generation of very different students, now stroll. Had he been in charge he would have ordered them shot himself, he says.
“I would probably have chosen to do the same,” says Young.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands died that day alongside their dreams of a society where speech is free, government is not corrupt and people have the right to choose their own thoughts and destinies.
Perhaps nowhere is the demise of those dreams more striking than at Peking University, a place that 25 years ago was one of the hearts of the student movement.
Today’s students bear little in common with an earlier generation who, nourished by an intellectual diet of Greek philosophers and French Revolution-era writers, dared push for a changed China.
For Young, there is no pressing need for change. And the lives of a few hundred do not compare to the lives of China’s many millions, with the chaos that could result from fraying the country’s one-party rule, he says, offering only his English first name given the continued sensitivity of discussing June 4, 1989, in China.
“Stability is what enables everyone to live a happy life,” he explains, echoing the central tenet of China’s Communist Party, which used the tanks of Tiananmen to cement its unyielding grip on the country. Even the real tally of how many died is obscured by China’s bid to delete the event from the memory of its people.
Memories of those times haven’t vanished. But among a cohort of students filled with young people not yet born in 1989, the past has been dramatically reshaped — and often perverted — by a sustained campaign of propaganda, deliberate misinformation, and even outright bribery for support of the modern Communist Party. A long-standing post-Tiananmen cynicism has begun to transform into a sense that Deng Xiaoping, in ordering the military to open fire, did exactly the right thing.
Ten years after Tiananmen, a group of China’s top students told The Globe and Mail they did not believe any students died at Tiananmen. At the 20-year mark, students professed knowledge of what happened, but voiced confidence in a government they said was moving in the right direction, albeit slowly.
Now, 25 years later, the Chinese state has succeeded in further elevating that confidence, leaving little empathy for those whose blood once fell on the stones of Tiananmen Square. In recent interviews at Peking University, today’s students say they believe that perhaps their predecessors should have stayed home. “It’s Tiananmen Square. It’s not a park or a garden,” says one. “So you shouldn’t sit there.”
Today’s students occupy a China that is the world’s second-largest movie market and biggest source of tourists (97 million last year alone). China’s youth are connected with the West in ways not possible even five years ago, thanks to the rapid expansion of Internet access and wealth. In per-person terms, China’s economy swelled by 62 per cent between 2009 and 2012, the latest year for which World Bank figures are available.
With progress like that, why rock the boat?
Access to Facebook and Twitter might be nice. But not nice enough to mourn the cause of dead students and the Goddess of Democracy statue they rallied around in 1989.
Students may have died. But that’s now in the past. “Now we don’t care. That’s far from us,” says a 21-year-old physics student, in competent English. He distrusts those who made history at Tiananmen – “maybe they wanted to be famous” – and offers a very different set of priorities.
His greatest concern today? House prices.
It is a common refrain in conversation with more than a dozen students. A history student has no interest in what happened 25 years ago – it’s too recent to be properly understood, she says. An economics student declares politics “boring.” One argues the Tiananmen students were “after war.” Watching a video of their shooting stirred no more feeling than “reading the news.” A 24-year-old graduate psychology student is too busy to dig up the past, which isn’t easy to find: “There’s no such thing in our high-school textbooks,” she says of the Tiananmen massacre.
Memories still live in those old enough to remember, such as Yang, a 31-year-old PhD archeology student. He remembers his father’s uncle fleeing Beijing during the uprising, and he remembers a time of turbulence. The need for reform is little changed today from 25 years ago, he says. And the spectre of a government opening fire on its own people remains horrific.