Several years ago a professor of mine was trying to explain to the class the concept of living inside China where the media is tightly controlled. To understand this, he used “Tank Man” of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest as an example search using Yahoo! Images. Outside of China, you will quickly get multiple sources offering the famous picture of a man challenging a column of four tanks. However, inside China this search would return zero results. Why? Because talk of revolution and protesting the Chinese government is forbidden.
So, what would the next generation of Chinese children be like when they came of age in a world with tight government control and policies such as the one child policy? Web-savvy & cynical just like Generation X & Y everywhere else, of course.
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.
“My parents told me some incident happened on Tiananmen Square on my birthday but I don’t know the details,” says Feng Xiaoguang, an upbeat graphic design student in faux Nike shoes and an imitation Prada shirt.
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, born on the cusp of an unparalleled economic boom. Aged between 20 and 30, they are Web-savvy, worldly, fashion-conscious — and largely apolitical.
Asked what kind of reform the Tiananmen students were after, Xiaoguang says he doesn’t know.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
An accompanying commentary said students today are clearly “cold” about politics and cited concern from education experts about “extreme egotism” among the youth.