25 Years After 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests: For China's Young, Economic Concerns Overshadow Political Past

Tiananmen Square Protests
Workmen try to drape the portrait of Mao Tse-tung in Beijing's Tiananmen Square after it was pelted with paint in this May 23, 1989. Reuters

Ling, a 25-year-old banking analyst based in Beijing (who didn’t want his full name used), has a long list of grievances with the Chinese government, but the censorship that is blocking commemorations of the Tiananmen Square protests isn’t anywhere near the top.

“Pollution, the property bubble, a widening wealth gap, a slowing economy,” Ling said. “These things are my concern.”

Twenty-five years ago this week, masses of students rallied across the country to protest the political repression, corruption and economic cronyism of post-Cultural Revolution China. Images of the showdown in Tiananmen Square, including a lone man facing a tank, remain iconic and powerful -- outside of China. Today, many of China’s twenty-somethings have never seen the image, and in any case they are far more interested in looking ahead, not back.

“I get the need to memorialize the deaths, I really do, but spending all this time, effort and resources on censoring something from 25 years in the past just doesn’t seem worthwhile,” Ling told International Business Times. “We need to focus on the future.”

Ling probably represents the views of many of China’s ambitious, college-educated young workers. The state of employment for graduates is far more pressing than the political concerns that his countrymen were willing to die for a quarter-century ago.

But the apparent callousness is not just a matter of youth or self-centeredness. It’s also the result of a specific and effective government campaign to wipe the events of 1989 from Chinese history.

In the years after Tiananmen, Beijing used detention or censorship to silence would-be activists. This year was no different. According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group in China, at least 64 individuals have already been targeted leading up to the 25th anniversary date; the consequences range from temporary detention to formal arrest.

Online, China’s sprawling censorship mechanism is in full gear. All related search terms -- for example the date “4/6/1989” and “Chang’an Street” (which goes through the square) -- are blocked from local search engines, English and Chinese-language news sites, and social media platforms. State-run media avoid the topic altogether.

Though Chinese young people are more educated and tech-savvy than ever, the central government’s effort to suppress general public discussion about the protest movement has been pervasive and effective.

“I didn’t know anything about the Tiananmen Square incident when I was in China,” a 27-year-old ex-management consultant, identifying herself only as Xiong, said via email. It wasn’t until she left the country for university that she became aware of a vital moment in her country’s recent history. “After I went to Canada and the U.S. [for school], I saw people talk about it and started to look into it and do research. … I watched documentaries online and chatted with my parents.”

Discovering the significance of the June 4 date is a familiar experience for those who’ve had the chance to study abroad. “I didn’t know about it until I went to Hong Kong for school, and I read about protests outside of the mainland consular office there in the newspaper,” Ling said.

For those who stayed in China for school, the pool of people who know about the protests is smaller.

NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” found that at Peking University, arguably the country’s top university, only 15 students out of 100 surveyed were able to correctly identify the famous “Tank Man” photo.

Tiananmen Square Protests A Beijing citizen stands in front of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in this June 5, 1989 file photo during the crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the bloody June 4 1989 army crackdown on the pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.  REUTERS/Arthur Tsang

“The students I spoke to are the crème de la crème, the best-educated students in China,” Lim writes in her book. “Yet the vast majority of them looked at the photo with the slightest flicker of recognition. ‘Is it in Kosovo?’ one astronomy major asked. A student pursuing a Ph.D in marketing hazarded a guess, ‘Is it from South Korea?’”

But even those like Ling and Xiong, who’ve learned the history, are largely indifferent.

“The purpose of [censors] is to stabilize general public sentiments, establish people’s trust in the party and ultimately secure the party’s sovereignty,” Xiong said. “There were a lot of doubts in the party’s ability to lead the country’s development, [and] limiting freedom of speech helps stabilize society.”

“It’s a very odd sensation, to be aware that my thoughts regarding Tiananmen have been shaped by the party so explicitly,” Ling said.  

“I want to think this is worth remembering,” Ling said, “but I think it [the government] has instilled something in me that makes me downplay it. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s that for me, other things, like economic stability and reform, are a much bigger priority.”

Xiong wishes the protests were more widely known -- not in order to foment rebellion, but to help the country collectively move on. “It’s part of the China modern history. … Once the Chinese government openly acknowledges the mistake, the rest of the world would ‘forgive’ the party’s mistake and even respect China’s leadership’s courage and growth.”

That doesn’t seem to be part of Beijing’s plan. The Communist Party continues to enforce remembrance -- when it wants to. The Chinese people will never forget Mao Zedong, with his face plastered on every denomination of the yuan. They will never forget Qu Yuan, the famous poet and minister who is celebrated every year during a national holiday, Duanwu Jie. And they certainly won’t forget the territorial claims which pitted China against some of its neighbors, and have recently resurfaced in the East and South China Seas. Those tensions are revived in state-run media almost daily.

But the authorities have made clear that June 4, 1989, is a date to be forgotten. The only visible sign of what happened in Beijing that day will be the presence of uniformed and plainclothes security ready to shut down anyone who wants to remember.

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