Tuesday, May 26, 2009



“Tiananmen’s anniversary unimportant to China’s youth,” laments the Los Angeles Times. “Tiananmen now seems distant to China’s students," opines the New York Times.

With the approach of the twentieth anniversary of June 4, 1989, there have been a spate of news stories comparing young people in China today with the students who protested at Tiananmen, and the comparison is usually not a flattering one. Apathy has replaced activism. Propaganda has replaced knowledge. Today’s youth are characterized as the “stupid generation,” or at best, “hip but clueless.”

I think such comparisons are unfair.

First of all, twenty years is a long time. Why should young people today be compared to aunts and uncles who were on the march when they hadn’t even learned yet to walk?

The students in 1989 in their day were no different in this respect. They did not spend a huge amount of time pondering why they were or weren’t like the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution.

If anything, it was precisely because they had little or no first-hand contact with the horror of Mao’s social experiment gone awry that they could in good faith and unremitting optimism write provocative wall posters and take to the streets, naively hoping for positive results.

It seems student activism, to really get off the ground, and to have any integrity at all, requires forgetting the past, --or at least not being beholden to it-- as much as invoking it.

Referencing the past as a guide to one’s actions, especially in a place where the past weighs as heavily as it does in China, is intimidating to the point of despair.

The conditions under which the 1989 generation came of age are not repeatable, nor desirable. China is in many important respects a better country today, much more liberal in terms of lifestyle and individual choice, though politics remains hemmed in as before.

China is also incontestably more prosperous, more open and open to much more information, though media controls remain. One glaring gap in an otherwise improving picture, is that Tiananmen remains a taboo in China today.

It is fully understandable that older observers might get periodically nostalgic about the euphoric burst of people power that erupted on the streets of Beijing during the Sino-Soviet summit twenty years ago. For anyone who was there, or felt a part of it from media immersion; it will always be a part of them.

It was a time in which ordinary people found themselves in extraordinary circumstances. But students were reacting to a unique environment, not inventing it.

There was a perfect storm of campus restiveness, Western media readiness (thanks largely to the expected pomp and circumstance of the Gorbachev visit) and a win-or-die Politburo impasse; all of which conspired to allow something small, narrow, and local to snowball into something large, broad and universal, over many weeks involving millions of people.

No wonder those of us who were there were swept away by the cyclone-like force of it. But one can’t help but notice how quickly the West’s willingness to identify with the cause of Chinese protests waned, when, in subsequent years, the crowd turned its angry gaze first to the US, and later, Japan.

Demonstrations subsequent to Tiananmen tend to be dismissed as phony demonstrations, reeking of government interference. But there was ample evidence in 1989 that one faction or other of the government was ever trying to play the crowd, infiltrate and direct the course of the protests as well.

The hyper-nationalistic students I interviewed after the anti-American and anti-Japanese demonstrations in 1999 and 2005 were not that different from the impulsive, idealistic and overly excitable students I marched shoulder to shoulder with in 1989.

The forward rush of feet, the billowing red flags, the hypnotic cadences of slogan and song chanted over and again in concert with the reckless enthusiasm of youth were in evidence in each instance, though there were differences in quality and scope.

The Tiananmen demos were rigorous but peaceful, politically daring, but welcomed in open arms by ordinary citizens. The 1989 protests endured for weeks and laid claim to revolutionary iconography in the central plaza of the Central Kingdom’s capital, making for unforgettable symbolic spectacle. It gave one the feeling of being in the center of the world.

But that was then, this is now. Different conditions call for different strategies and different solutions. Some of today’s battles may be fought out entirely on the internet or in courts or in civil society forums. Other little insurrections will, tragically, fail to get the attention they deserve until things take a violent turn, and then we’ll hear about them.

Nowadays, there’s plenty of unrest going on in every part of China, but if it doesn’t happen in a convenient place under the nose of the media, it may as well be deemed a non-event. China’s Public Security Bureau routinely releases shocking statistics that suggest China hardly goes a day without dozens of demonstrations or “mass incidents” erupting somewhere or else in the provinces, to the tune of thousands of little insurrections a month.

Demonstrating in a country as obsessed with stability as China is not a surefire course of action and is often counter-productive, but it continues to happen to an alarming degree. It’s not desirable politically, but today’s China is built on the back of innumerable mass incidents, the revolution culminating in the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic being the biggest one of all.

So is it not just a bit smug to say Chinese today are apathetic, that they are victims of propaganda and know nothing of the spirit of Tiananmen? The spirit of ’89 is alive and well every time someone, somewhere peacefully asserts a basic right or speaks out on a trying issue or pleads for a little more justice.