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Sunday morning in Beijing at Tiananmen square china January 6, 2013 with a large portrait Mao Zedong. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Sunday morning in Beijing at Tiananmen square china January 6, 2013 with a large portrait Mao Zedong. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Tiananmen: 25 years later, unrecognized by youth Add to ...

“I think it’s very hard to forgive,” he says.

Even among students who have heard of the Tiananmen protests, some know nothing of the government’s response. On China’s Baidu search engine, a search for “June 4” turns up few results; one is from a state newspaper summary that reports criminals looting in the streets – but makes no mention of the government’s deadly reply.

Some have worked to get past Internet restrictions to see images and videos of what happened. One student who did look confessed “shock.” But the 23-year-old wasn’t sure she believed it all: “I fear the victims were exaggerating,” she said.

Others labour under false apprehensions instilled by professors offering a twisted tale of the past. In a military theory class, a 20-year-old geology student was told the tanks rolled over protesters because they had to get to a “very important military conference.” If they were late, they would probably be dragged before a military court,” he said. “Student behaviour seriously affected the military movements.”

Twenty-five years have provided the Communist Party time to perfect skills in reshaping the past and muting dissent, in part by promising better days ahead. China’s cities are plastered in cheery red posters promoting the “China dream,” a notion many have latched onto. A rising sense of nationalism is among the most potent forces in China today and has been assiduously cultivated by propaganda that begins when children are young.

Peking University is among China’s most liberal of institutions, with its most liberal of professorial corps. But state restrictions on what can be taught – including any mention of a free press in the classroom – have combined with a dramatic rewriting of high-school instruction. Over the past decade, China has installed a new national political-science curriculum that emphasizes it is a rule of law, where people have a democratic right to choose their leaders.

It is an attempt to “mould” – or, as a group of German and Chinese researchers who published a report in May suggested, “brainwash” an entire generation. China is a one-party authoritarian system that silences dissent, places authority in the hands of an elite few and holds the maintenance of its own power as its primary objective. In the textbook, it is presented as a responsive, constitutional government that draws its power from the people.

That message has been strikingly effective. The researchers studied students at Peking University, and compared those who studied the new curriculum with those still using old textbooks. The new books, they found, fostered less distrust in authority and a greater belief that China espouses freedom and democracy. “Around 20 per cent of students who would not have held the government’s desired views in the absence of exposure to the new curriculum are estimated to change their views,” the study found.

The study, published by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, includes comparisons to educational propaganda attempts by the Nazi Third Reich.

One student at Peking University today puts her thoughts this way: China is getting “stronger and stronger,” she says. “I think the rejuvenation of the nation will finally be realized.”

Sometimes, the propaganda goes beyond textbooks.

A few years ago, Zhang Fengqiang, a 25-year-old sociology graduate student, received an invitation to an seminar organized by a local “think tank.” Only a few students from the top Beijing schools were allowed to attend, and the meeting was short – just 30 minutes. Their message was simple, “to discuss how the Communist Party is niubi,” Mr. Zhang says, using the local slang for “effing awesome.”

When the meeting was over, each student was handed a sheaf of bills – the equivalent of $70 to $85 – just for attending and signing their name. (In Beijing, China’s richest city, an average worker’s disposable income is about $28 a day). “They gave you money and asked you to support them,” Mr. Zhang says. The students first thought the cash was fake. When they found out it wasn’t, “we ran fast,” he says.

Mr. Zhang rates the Communist Party poorly – “I would give them at most a five out of 10” – but he is following advice long ago handed down by his father to avoid politics and religion. It’s a path that avoids dangerous pitfalls, even if it creates a generation empty of the passion that 25 years ago led many to risk lives on China’s streets.

“Everyone is smarter and not as silly as those people before,” Mr. Zhang says. “If I were in Tiananmen and saw the military open fire, I would definitely run. To keep myself alive, and wait for the future.”


The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests

  • Tiananmen Square in central Beijing became the focal point of mass peaceful protests led by students and professors pressing for political freedom, dialogue with the Communist Party leadership and action against official corruption.
  • Crowds started gathering in mid-April, 1989 on the day of the funeral of Hu Yaobang, a one-time party general secretary who had encouraged democratic reforms. By mid-May, the number of protesters had swelled to one million. At first the atmosphere was peaceful, but as time passed and the authorities labeled the demonstrators counter-revolutionaries, students started a mass hunger strike.
  • Some in the government advocated negotiating with protest leaders, but leader Deng Xiaoping, who had earlier bucked hardliners by instituting economic reforms, ultimately supported their demands for a crackdown.
  • On the night of June 3 to June 4, tanks and troops advanced on the square, shooting and running down those who remained. By June 5, the protesters were gone – many thousands are believed to have been killed and arrested – and the hopes raised by the Tiananmen Square movement were crushed.


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