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What does Tiananmen mean for Chinese too young to remember it?

People wait for the daily flag-raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square near Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

What do the Chinese youths of today know about the deadly crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989? What do they think about their generation’s prospects for making change?

We asked five 20-somethings about what they want for their country’s future.

We have preserved their anonymity to avoid placing them in jeopardy with China’s security services.

Graduate student, 28

I was a good student at high school and very curious about the world and about history and politics. When I was about 15 or 16, I got curious about Tiananmen, so I searched Wikipedia and watched an American film about it. At first, I was so angry. I thought: Why am I only finding out about this now?

Among my friends — we belong to the group of so-called elite students — everyone knows about this. My father’s generation, of course, everyone knows about this. But people born after 2000 don’t know about this at all. The Internet is much more controlled for them than it was when I was a teenager.

Since 2013, I’ve been losing hope. We can’t find a way to make China better and more democratic. I feel so frustrated with my history. Even at my age, it’s so hard to bear it. We carry the burden of political and psychological repression. I even have to hide my political thoughts from my parents.  

In 1989, people didn’t know about the dangers of going out onto the streets. They didn’t think their government would use bullets against them. But today, people who know about the incident know about the dangers. 

Undergraduate student and member of the Communist Youth League, 22

The June 4 student protesters in 1989 were largely patriotic in the beginning. They wanted China to improve, but they were manipulated by Western powers due to their political naivete. You can demand change, but you shouldn’t cross that bottom line — the absolute leadership of the Communist Party. Every student movement needs to lay down some principles and stick to them. If not, the sacrifices you make will only end in ruin.

You cannot talk about democracy outside the context of class struggle, or you risk falling for the Westerners’ trick of democracy, which is a game for the wealthy.

I admit that there are some problems with China’s current governance, but we don’t have an alternative political force as capable and efficient as the Communist Party to run things and unite a country of 1.4 billion people. The biggest problem right now is that some people don’t have enough confidence or faith in the party, which has led to political confusion and thus made President Xi’s campaign for greater ideological control all the more relevant.

In general, the society is moving in the right direction. I think China will be better and stronger if we only “remain true to our original aspiration,” just like what Xi likes to say. Given the chance, I would love to join the Communist Party myself. 

IT worker, 29 

Ever since I was a child, I’ve been told by my parents to be careful when speaking in public. Once when we were walking down the street, when I was 14 or 15, I told my father I was going to burn Mao’s portrait. We had been learning about Mao and the Cultural Revolution at school. My father punched me and hit me with a stick. He wanted to make me learn that I couldn’t say things like this outside the house.

If I’d been a student in 1989, I would have protested like they did. But now we understand the consequences, and I understand the gap between my power and the army’s power. 

Maybe we can have partial democracy. We are at zero now, but we don’t need to go straight to 100. I’d be okay with not voting for our president. But maybe we could vote for our mayors. We could just have more openness. 

I’m optimistic about the economy but not about human rights or freedom of speech. That’s getting worse and worse. I know what the technology can do now, so I know there’s never going to be another June 4 in China. It’s impossible with all the IT and surveillance systems. They can nip any protest in the bud.

Undergraduate student, 25

In high school, the kind of history we learned from books was about the Cultural Revolution and things like that. Then one day, my friend sent me an electronic book about June 4. We talked about it after that. But for me, it’s just another crazy part of Chinese history that happened before I was born, like the Cultural Revolution.

You can’t get any information about these events when you’re in high school or university. Maybe a teacher would very implicitly refer to 1989, but it’s a dangerous thing to do. The prohibitions are more and more strict and the censorship more and more high tech. It’s just become a habit not to mention it now.

The events of 1989 could never happen again now. It would be stopped before it even got started.

I don’t think there will be any kind of democracy in China. We just have to grab little bits here and there. We can try to expand what the press can do and enlarge our limited freedoms a bit. Maybe they can allow NGOs or we can improve women’s rights or workers’ rights or the situation of minorities. But it’s difficult because all of this is highly dangerous in China.

Freelance culture writer, 29

The first time I heard about the Tiananmen Incident was from an elementary school teacher, who would talk all the time to other teachers about some friends of hers who had been killed in that movement. If one of us did something wrong, this emotionally unstable teacher would reprimand us by saying that “if you go on misbehaving, you will sooner or later be crushed by tanks like my friends!” Later, I read banned books about what happened and met someone on the Internet who had been a protest leader at the time.

Compared with the years leading up to June 4, 1989, I actually think freedom and liberty is more readily available today in China. However strict the censorship might be, it can never catch up with technological progress and fully block the information flow. This kind of empowers the people, but not enough to create any radical changes.

Today, Chinese millennials generally show an apathy to politics because deep down we fear [what happened to the protesters would happen to us] and don’t dare confront the ruling party. We are a more selfish generation, which can be both a good and bad thing. My biggest hope is to live to see a spiritual leader that helps restore the backbone, the strength of courage this nation lost in the 1989 catastrophe.

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