China’s youth sees Tiananmen as ancient history-LA Times

May 23, 2009

Tiananmen is ancient history to Chinese youth

Barbara Demick

Los Angeles Times: May 21, 2009,0,6346815.story

With baggy shorts hanging below his knees, Puma sneakers and spiky hair, Wang Kangkang is hip to the present, clueless about the past.

Although he comes often to see the nightly ceremony of the Chinese flag being lowered at Tiananmen Square, he doesn’t know what happened here in 1989 and doesn’t seem to care.

“Well, it happened before I was born,” the 19-year-old said, looking down at his sneakered feet as the crowd shuffled out of the vast expanse of concrete on a balmy evening. “In any case, it’s history. Why should we dwell on the past?”

It was almost 20 years ago that hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed by an army making its final push to crush a pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square, and the Chinese government has fortified its information blockade on the bloody crackdown.

Anybody trying to search the Internet here for information about the square, which is one of Beijing’s most popular tourist attractions, is likely to get the message, “This page cannot be displayed.”

But the efforts may be overkill: Apathy as much as censorship has pushed the events of June 4, 1989, into the dark recesses of history.

The young Chinese — whom one graying activist calls “the stupid generation” — remain willfully ignorant about the past.

The pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, to many young Chinese, seem so, well, 1980s — a reflection of a time when communism was collapsing into the rubbish heap that was the Berlin Wall. From the perspective of 2009’s global economic crisis, the Chinese system that represses political choice and speech in exchange for economic freedom doesn’t look too bad to young people here.

“Our generation doesn’t feel so much pressure as our parents. Even the global recession hasn’t hit us much. It shows what a good country China is,” said Hou Jue, 26, who along with his friend Wang is studying to be a bartender.

Although he lives only a few blocks from Tiananmen Square, he admits that he is “not too clear” about 1989’s events and doesn’t feel a need to learn more.

“If the government tells us as Chinese citizens we should not know about something and shouldn’t be searching material, we should be responsible and obey,” Hou said.

The activists of the 1980s, many of them still involved in political issues, despair over the attitudes of the younger generation.

“This is the stupid generation. They were raised on Coca-Cola and Western movies, and they’re very isolated from their country’s history,” said Zhang Shihe, a 56-year-old blogger and political activist.

Phelim Kine, a senior Asia analyst for Human Rights Watch, counters that young people’s indifference toward Tiananmen Square is more a result of censorship than willful ignorance.

“People can’t care if they don’t know,” Kine said.

But even some with access to the details don’t seem to care.

Zhou Shuyang, 23, who works in marketing for a European company, speaks fluent English and is tech-savvy enough to get around the “Great Firewall of China” and read whatever she chooses online.

But she says she fully supports the Chinese government’s efforts to restrict the information.

“If there is too much freedom, all sorts of false rumors can spread on the Internet,” she said. “It’s not easy to control such a big and diverse country as China.”

Zhou added: “For me right now, I feel satisfied with my life, my country. I seldom think about politics.”

When young Chinese raise their voices nowadays, they are more likely to be chanting patriotic slogans — demonstrating in favor of their government rather than against it.

The largest mass gathering in Beijing of recent memory came a week after the May 12, 2008, earthquake in Sichuan province, when tens of thousands of mourning Chinese poured into Tiananmen Square, raising their fists and shouting, “Stand up, China!”

“The whole square was filled with people, crying, shouting, waving flags,” recalled Zhou, who said it was the only time in her life she had attended a demonstration.

At times, the intense patriotism of China’s younger generation spills over into outbursts of nationalism. That happened last year in the run-up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing when free-Tibet protests disrupted the relay of the Olympic torch, infuriating many Chinese.

During the height of the protests in April, the Web site was launched by an engineering graduate of Beijing’s Tsinghua University to protest what he saw as anti-China bias in the Western media. The site still receives about 500,000 hits daily and is the best-known of many new Web sites catering to young nationalists.

“They call us the post-1980s youth, the April youth, the Olympic torch generation or the ‘Bird’s Nest’ generation,” said the Web site’s founder, 24-year-old Rao Jin, referring to the Olympic stadium. (Or, rather, wrote: The interview was conducted by e-mail at his request.) “Our patriotism springs from a heartfelt love for the motherland, a belief in Chinese traditional culture, pride in being Chinese and confidence in China’s future.”

That confidence was reflected in a poll published last year by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which found 86 percent of Chinese satisfied with their country’s direction. It was the highest rate of satisfaction among 24 countries surveyed. (By contrast, only 23 percent of Americans described themselves as satisfied with their country’s direction.)

“The younger the people, the more they support the Chinese government,” said Xu Wu, who first wrote about what he calls the Chinese “cyber-nationalists.”

A Beijing native who was a student at Tiananmen in 1989, Xu said the Chinese government shouldn’t count on the support of the fenqing, or angry youth, as they are sometimes known, in the long term.

“They are like a double-edged sword without a handle — very difficult to control,” Xu said.

A prolonged recession that leaves large numbers of students unemployed, for example, could radically change the sentiments of the younger generation.

Michael Anti, 34, a Nanjing-born blogger, said he believed the younger generation was just biding its time.

“The Chinese are very practical,” he said. “They know if they protest right now it will destroy their middle-class lifestyle. But when the timing is right, nobody will refuse democracy.”

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