KAIFENG, China – Twenty years ago, on the night of June 3, rumors were flying about an impending military crackdown against demonstrators in Beijing. That’s when Feng Shijie’s wife went into labor in his hometown, Kaifeng.
The baby born the next morning, June 4, is now an undergraduate at Kaifeng University. After class, he plays games online or shoot hoops at a campus basketball court. He can list the latest Hollywood releases and NBA stats. But he knows next to nothing about the pro-democracy movement that ended in a bloody crackdown the day he was born nor does he care .
“My parents told me some incident happened on Tiananmen Square on my birthday but I don’t know the details and neither do they,” [so that's not true, his dad does ~ but most dads do not] says Feng Xiaoguang, an upbeat graphic design student in faux Nike shoes and an imitation Prada shirt. The article will mention later on that young Chinese don’t have “inferiority” complexs. How can they not have a bit of one when they wear lame faux apparel?
Xiaoguang is one of China‘s 200 million so-called ‘post-1980′ kids — a generation of mostly single children, thanks to the one-child policy and many forced abortions, born on the cusp of an unparalleled economic boom. Aged between 20 and 30, they are Web-savvy, worldly, ultra nationalist fashion-conscious — and largely apolitical.
Asked what kind of reform the Tiananmen students were after, Xiaoguang says he doesn’t know. who besides Perry Link actually knows? It was a protest against corruption mostly, not democracy, right? The government has taken the crack down on corruption quite seriously. China is still corrupt, but unlike many of its problems, it admits it is a huge problem and takes measures to combat it.
“Did it have something to do with the conflicts between capitalism and socialism?” he asks.
It would be hard for him to know more. The subject is taboo. The demonstrations are classified as a counter-revolutionary riot and rarely mentioned in public. Textbooks touch on them fleetingly, if at all.
Few young people are aware that millions of students, workers and average people gathered peacefully in Beijing and other cities over seven weeks in early 1989 to demand democratic reform and an end to corruption. They are not told how communist authorities finally silenced the dissent with deadly force, killing hundreds. Just like they’re not told about Cultural Revolution or Great Leap forward. I call this China’s Suck-It-Up poltical pyschology solution.
Chinese leaders today argue that juggernaut growth and stability since the early 1990′s prove that quelling the uprising was the right choice. Indeed, young Chinese people are materially better off now than they have perhaps ever been, with annual income per capital soaring to about 19,000 yuan ($2,760) in 2007, up from just 380 yuan ($55) in 1978. I think that is adjusted for inflation, in which case that’s an astonishing improvement. But then, the fault of why the country was making $55/yr/head rests squarely within this country. Chinese people didn’t deserve to start at such a low base.
But the tradeoff has been that young Chinese have no real role in shaping their country’s future — and may not be very interested in having one. Really bad and dangerous. That’s why cities like Shanghai are falling apart morally. I suspect the moral and ethic decay is happening in the small cities and towns too, and yes I’m aware that a lot of decaying happened under Mao. It’s getting worse.
An official survey released this month found 75 percent of college students hoped to join the Communist Party, but 56 percent of those said they would do so to “boost their chances of finding a good job.” The rest wanted to join for personal honor — 29 percent — while 15 percent were motivated by faith in communism, said the Internet survey of 12,018 students by the People’s Tribune. Having lived in China so long, this makes sense to me. When I’m looking thru resumes, I look for party membership as a guidepost credential. It’s not required by any means but it shows that the person made a cut that many others cannot make. The fact that party membership here is restricted makes me smirk at the thought of Americans who call themselves Republicans or Democrats. America is different though; a new country built on immigration needs to give people as many “affiliations” as they want to build social ties. Chinese society is culturally very clear of who it is and there is an ethnic affiliation.
An accompanying commentary said students today are clearly “cold” about politics and cited concern from education experts about “extreme egotism” among the youth. Yes. They’ve only seen things get better.
At Peking University, a hub for the 1989 protests, only one political group cracked the top 15 extracurricular clubs — the elite Marxism Youth Study Group, reputed to be good for career networking.
The generation that demonstrated on Tiananmen Square grew up surrounded by political discussion, scripted as it often was, and lived through mass movements that demanded full public participation, notably the tumultuous Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976.
But the 1989 crackdown put an end to most public debate on the topic of whither China. Few now risk serious political discussion even behind closed doors, with good reason. That’s true — not even behind closed doors do they talk about it.
Consider The New Youth Study Group, a short-lived club of young Beijing professionals that met privately to talk about political reform and posted essays online, including one titled “China’s democracy is fake.” Four of the members were convicted of subversion and intent to overthrow the Communist Party in May 2003 and sentenced to between 8 and 10 years in prison. Believe it or not, this is one of the factors contributing to cultural decay. Chinese have such a hard time organizing as strangers on any common social issue or activity, lest it be branded political. They won’t organize ANYTHING on their own. The consequences are horrendous — strangers are worthless, and strangers treat each other as such.
With this fear of political dissent, it’s hard to tell whether young people like underground musician Li Yan are being shallow or shrewd when they shrug off Tiananmen. Li Yan, also known as Lucifer, was born in May 1989 and is a performing arts student in Beijing with a cultivated rebel image. 6 is a lucky number in China. 666 is really lucky.
“Young kids like us are maybe just more into popular entertainment like Korean soap operas. … Very few people really care about that other stuff,” says Lucifer, before mounting the stage at a Beijing club to belt out “Rock ‘N Roll for Money and Sex.”
Tiananmen veterans read the reaction as apathy and lament it.
“All those magnificent ideals have been replaced by the practical pursuit of self-centered comforts,” says Bao Tong, former secretary to Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party leader deposed for sympathizing with the 1989 protesters. “The leaders today don’t want young people to think.” true. This is why China is not surpassing the West. When they fix this, watch out America. If they don’t fix this, watch out Japan (and hope the wrong dude doesn’t get control of the weapons ~ I’ve been keeping a blacklist of names if you want it).
According to Bao, 76, China’s youth are in the arms of the government being fed candy. They could continue this way if the economy remains strong and the government distributes wealth more equitably, he says, but he doesn’t think either is likely. I guess old people always say the young generation are not as good?
Others say the reckless optimism of the Tiananmen era is the reason young people today lack ideals. The fearless naivete of 1989 serves as a cautionary tale, not inspiration. That’s my boss’ experience. He was born in the first year of the Cultural Revolution and was a Tiananmen protestor.
Sun Yi’s father was a Tiananmen-era dissident. In a self-published magazine in 1990, he openly criticized the crackdown and was soon imprisoned for speaking out. She admires her father but wonders if his sacrifices, a broken marriage and seven years in jail, were worth it.
“It was a really heroic undertaking, but still I feel he gave up so much, too much,” says Sun, a 22-year-old engineering student in Sydney, Australia. “His voice was heard by some of the people but not many, not many compared to the population in China. Is that worth it?” No. That’s why Chinese respond with apathy and ignoring and we blow up at beggars exploiting children. They are actually doing it the right way and we are wrong.
Wu Xu, 39, was a Tiananmen participant. His generation was plagued by insecurity, he says, and hoped that China could “catch up” to the West politically and economically. My Chinese global economics professor talked at a major Shanghai university like this…when will we “catch up” with America.
“This generation is totally different,” says Wu, author of a recent book about Chinese cybernationalism. “There is no kind of feeling of inferiority. … They have had the advantage of the last thirty years of China’s economic performance.” Chinese should never feel inferior. They’re anything but. But the ultra nationalist sentiments are not helping and will not help them.
Wu contends that China’s youth know more than they let on, and while they tend to be fiercely proud of their country they are also highly critical of their government. He calls them “a double-edged sword with no handle,” because their opinions cut in many directions and are not guided by any single ideology or organization. That’s why the government was fine with the petitions that circulated in 2005 protesting Japan’s security council positioning, but cracked down when demonstrators tried to actually come out on the weekend to protest. Doubled edged sword with no handle.
Xiaoguang, the boy born that June 4, bears out the theory. He criticizes the United States for the “inadequate apology” it made after a mid-air collision between an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001. He is angry at CNN for allegedly exaggerating Chinese military brutality against Tibetan rioters last year. Both views parrot the government. Later though, he scoffs at classmates keen to join the Communist Party and grouses about corruption. Brainwashed. The facts never came out. Both China and the US were playing war games, and there was a collision. How can civilians from either country demand an apology as if they know what really happened.
His convictions are worn loosely, like a fashion, and have not translated into action. Like many Chinese and American people today, he appears satisfied with his hobbies, pop culture and other distractions.
He lives with his parents down a dusty dirt road in a simple concrete home. A grapevine snakes up a trellis in the courtyard. The family is supported his mother’s monthly 800 yuan ($117) retirement pension and his weekend odd jobs.
In his bedroom, he can watch downloaded pirate copies of Hollywood films like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with slapdash Chinese subtitles. At the same time, he texts friends on his Nokia phone and sends instant messages online.
His parents have scrimped and borrowed to provide their only child with these luxuries — 2,800 yuan ($410) for the computer and 500 yuan ($73) a year for the Internet connection — because he says he needs them for school.
An anxious scowl steals across Xiaoguang’s usually cheery face as his father recounts the night he was born.
A debilitating stroke ten years ago has made speaking difficult. But, with help from his wife, Feng told how he dropped his wife at the hospital on the evening of June 3, 1989, then dashed to Kaifeng’s Drum Tower where a crowd had gathered in solidarity with protesters in Beijing.
He spent an hour there and the experience inspired his son’s name, which means light of dawn.
“His name has great significance. I had just seen China‘s dawning promise and possibility.”
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