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Tiananmen 25 Years Later

17 minute read

Tiananmen. Is there any word freighted with such divergent meaning?

To much of the world, Tiananmen denotes tragedy—democracy denied, students slaughtered, an authoritarian regime that unleashed tanks in the early hours of June 4, 1989, yet still rules today. For most Chinese, however, Tiananmen—or the Gate of Heavenly Peace located in the physical center of Beijing—symbolizes the heart of a resurgent civilization. On China’s official national emblem, Tiananmen is topped by stars and burnished in gold, a fitting hue for a country that has, in the quarter-century since the June 4 carnage, enjoyed the greatest economic expansion in history. So thoroughly has the memory of bloodstained protest been scrubbed from the nation’s consciousness that Chinese online search results first point users to the time of the daily flag-raising ceremony at Tian­anmen Square. Outside the censored confines of China, the top related keywords remain, above all else: Tian­anmen Square massacre.

For the progeny of 1989, born in that fateful year, the legacy of Tiananmen—not the vast concrete-covered expanse in China’s capital but the massacre itself—is as essential as it is unseen. A quarter-century after the military’s murder of hundreds, possibly thousands, on the evening of June 3 and morning of June 4, China boasts both the world’s largest population of luxury consumers and its biggest police state. After their brutal crackdown, the authorities accelerated market reforms so transformative that China can now lay claim as a presumptive superpower. But the nearly two months of rallies in 1989 also bred in the Chinese Communist Party an allergy to any dissent that might coalesce into anti­government fervor. Hiding behind a spray of bullets, the party dedicated itself to one goal above all others: self-preservation. The result is a China that is economically dynamic yet politically inert. An unnatural asymmetry has governed for a generation.

The children of Tiananmen enjoy far greater freedoms than their predecessors, whose careers and private lives depended on the whims of the Communist Party. Look at photos of the demonstrations that led up to the June 4 massacre and, apart from occasional pops of primary hues, a socialist palette dominates: all those idealistic students and workers are swathed in white, blue, gray and black. Now, China throbs with color: bright outfits (ideally imported, not some cheap local facsimiles), neon lights, glittering skyscrapers—a national incandescence that even the pall of industrial smog, dirty water and poisoned soil cannot obscure. In 1989, China’s GDP per capita was similar to Guinea-Bissau’s. Today the country ranks as the world’s second biggest economy after only the U.S.

Yet, even as China’s citizens are no longer yoked to the Communist Party, the nation’s rulers are ever more entrenched. Perhaps the most vital lesson taken by the Chinese leadership was that any challenge to its authority should not go unpunished. China is no longer a communist state. But the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the judicial system, the media, even the government itself—they all exist to uphold and pay obeisance to the party. This explains why, for all the individual liberties that have been allowed to flourish, crackdowns against opposition voices continue. It might seem silly for the party, firmly in control for 65 years and now led by socialist scion Xi Jinping, to have spent the run-up to the 25th Tiananmen anniversary locking up dozens of peaceable activists, lawyers and writers. China’s enduring limits on free expression also undercut the nation’s economic ambitions by stunting development and innovation. Power is brittle when based on paranoia. No amount of military flexing or nationalist vehemence—the hallmarks so far of the Xi regime—will change that.

For a quarter-century, China has remained remarkably stable. The coups, revolutions and counter­revolutions that have disarrayed entire regions of the planet have bypassed the one-fifth of humanity that comprises the Chinese populace. But, an absence of regime change notwithstanding, a sense of restlessness has begun to intrude. Economic growth has decelerated, and jobs are harder to land, even for recent university graduates. China’s income gap has widened to alarming levels—socialist equality and the so-called iron rice bowl provided by the state are long gone. About 16% of the nation’s GDP is generated by real estate; how will a property crash play out, especially with banks so overextended? Any economic readjustment will prove particularly hard for young Chinese, who are accustomed to lifestyles, and lifetimes, of ever greater material comfort.

The number of “mass incidents,” as the state labels various forms of protest, climbed every year this century until the government, presumably embarrassed by the constant uptick, stopped counting. (The last reputable figure was of 180,000 incidents in 2010, as reported by a top Chinese sociologist.) For all the trappings of a security state, moreover, no amount of force or surveillance has stopped the fraying of China’s border regions where minorities are distancing themselves from the ethnic Han motherland. In Tibet, desperate Buddhists self-immolate, while a terrorist campaign blamed on Muslim Uighurs from the nation’s northwest drives deeper the ethnic wedge.

Amid the revolutionary spasms in other parts of the world, there lingers an assumption that China’s youth are apolitical. The post-Tiananmen generation is supposed to have been diverted by brand-name purses and sleek gadgets from caring about the state of the nation. The long news blackout on the slaughter further blunted their ideological development. True, the heady atmosphere of that Beijing Spring 25 years ago—when students bandied about grand political notions and debated policy with top party leaders—has dissipated. But the building blocks of democracy—accountability, transparency, a balance of power—are still deeply relevant today. None of the specific issues that motivated the 1989 crowds, such as endemic corruption or officials’ unwillingness to disclose their assets, has been resolved, despite campaigns like Xi’s latest antigraft efforts. A slowing economy—China can no longer attain the 8% and above growth rates of yesteryear—only tips the balance of unease further.

Linked by modern telecommunications—even an Internet limited by government censors is better than no information at all—young Chinese are speaking out and uniting on any number of issues: NIMBY campaigns, labor rights, feminist ideals. These efforts aren’t aimed at overthrowing the government but rather at improving the quality of life in China beyond an all-consuming accretion of money. More and more Chinese, especially among the wealthier classes, are choosing to decamp overseas, where the air is sweeter, both in the absence of smog and the channels for free expression. Chinese are now the fastest-growing major migrant populations in Canada and Australia, very different from the days when a trickle of Tiananmen exiles landed at Western universities. All these movements give the lie to the notion that young Chinese just don’t care. They do—and they wield the power to effect individual change.

Despite all the Chinese government’s efforts to pretend that nothing happened in those blood-soaked hours 25 years ago—or if something did occur, that the PLA acted with the good of the country at heart—the divided narratives of Tiananmen are slowly converging. Like so many young Chinese, Teddy Zhang, born just a month after the June 4 massacre, had never heard of the quashed protests of 1989. One night a few years ago, in a Shanghai university dorm room, she and her roommate hopped the Great Firewall of China and happened upon a YouTube video on Tiananmen. The film was an hour long. Internet speeds are notoriously slow in China, especially when blocked information is being accessed via proxy services. Zhang and her friend spent the whole night transfixed, the video slowly buffering, flashing unforgettable images on their screen: a goddess of democracy, students joyfully dancing in the square, then a sole, slight-shouldered man standing in front of a line of tanks. “The government did a great job,” she says, “but you can’t deny history forever.”

Zhang’s roommate is now working in Australia, and Zhang herself is off to the U.S. this summer. She’s not sure she’ll want to return home. Her peers were barely born when Tiananmen occurred, and they have little desire to gather in a Beijing square and call for the downfall of the Communist Party. But they share a kind of free-thinking spirit—acting in their own way, taking their own steps. Says Zhang: “I’m choosing how I want to live.” A quarter-century after youthful idealism was so brutally suppressed, this is the legacy of Tiananmen, and the inheritance of its children.


Land of The Free

Chai Huilong’s mother cried for a whole week when he returned home in 2012. This wasn’t the trajectory she imagined for her son, the only boy in his class to attend college. A place at a top technology university was a triumph for a village kid, and Chai, born in August 1989, was supposed to study hard, graduate and find work in the big city. Instead, Chai studied hard, graduated and returned to his native Shandong province—to grow chives.

Over the past quarter-century, China has experienced the greatest urban migration in world history. A nation of farmers—whose desperate circumstances catalyzed the formation of the communist People’s Republic—now has more city dwellers than rural ones. The flood of Chinese leaving their land is set to accelerate; the national government reckons it will spend nearly $7 trillion over the next seven years to expand urban areas, which include everything from insta-cities to ghost towns built by officials punch-drunk on real estate proceeds. Yesterday’s peasants are supposed to transform into tomorrow’s consumers, thereby powering the national economy.

Not everyone is rushing to the cities. A small but growing number of educated young Chinese are giving up urban life—with its unaffordable apartments, career pressures and siloed existence—for the joys of the countryside. For Chai, this means chives, a crop that suffers from the misapprehension that it grows as easily as grass. In truth, chives are very finicky. Chai’s father has spent three decades cultivating the allium. His son, with his university degree in international trade, promptly began outproducing all the other farmers in Chaijia village, using composted fertilizer, custom-made greenhouses and special watering systems.

Today, Chai’s chives are a premium product, exported to as far away as Dubai. His most popular offerings are $13 gift-wrapped chive seedlings that city folk raise on their balconies to avoid pesticide-laden alternatives. With China beset by food-safety scandals, consumers are willing to spend more to ensure nontoxic produce. “Before in China, just filling your belly was enough,” says Chai. “Now people want good, safe food.”

His parents are pleased to have their only child back home, but they still worry about his future. In a China where young men far outnumber women because of skewed family planning, farmers are the least desirable mates. Chai has a girlfriend, but she’s too educated, too urban. Her family won’t mesh with his, and he fears the relationship is doomed. Even China’s good earth can only give you so much.

—Hannah Beech, with reporting by Chengcheng Jiang

Worked Up Over Work

Chen Hao’s political education lasted just five days. When the factory bosses at his chemical plant outside the southern boomtown of Shenzhen tried to skimp on vacation pay, Chen and about 60 other workers went on strike. They made signs that read “Protect our rights,” and walked to a government office. They wanted to negotiate. Days later, most, including Chen, were fired.

Recounting his brief brush with activism, Chen’s face registers astonishment more than anger. At 24, he is already a veteran of the Pearl River Delta’s sprawling manufacturing hub. But until some old hands started whispering about protests past, he did not know such things were possible. He never learned about social movements. He does not know what happened in Tiananmen Square.

Chen was born in the winter of 1989 in a village of about 300 people in Guangxi province. It is a place of rice paddies and rivers and craggy peaks, where nearly everyone shares the same surname. The type of place millions of rural Chinese have spent the past 30 years leaving. When Chen was 11, his parents left for Shenzhen. After middle school, he followed suit. Eventually he became, like his folks before him, part of a workforce of some 270 million migrant laborers building skyscrapers, roads and railways, and manning the plants that made China the factory of the world.

The first thing Chen noticed about Shenzhen was the brightness. His village was dark after sunset, and quiet, with all the young people gone. The outskirts of Shenzhen seemed like the City of Light. He met young migrants from across his home province and last year married a woman from his hometown. They are now saving up for wedding pictures—the nice kind, shot outdoors—and maybe, one day, a trip to Beijing.

Before he was fired, Chen typically labored at least 11 hours a day, six days a week. It was tough, tedious work. The combination of heat and industrial chemicals was stultifying, he says. But wages and working conditions are generally rising, and there are jobs to be had. Chen is confident he will soon find a new one. But next time there is trouble, Chen says he’ll quit rather than protest—he doesn’t want to be burned again. “The government won’t help,” he says. “It is useless.” If nothing else, he has learned that sobering lesson.

—Emily Rauhala, with reporting by Gu Yongqiang

A Voice for the Silent

One hundred and forty-four days. That’s how long it took Xiao Meili to walk from China’s arid capital, Beijing, to the sweaty southern city of Guangzhou. She trekked across the Chinese heartland, along rumbling highways and around construction sites, down dusty streets. Along the way, she sent letters to local officials. Her plea: China must change the way it handles sex abuse.

In China, as elsewhere, it is difficult to talk about sexualized violence, particularly against children. Fear and stigma keep survivors and their families from coming forward, and those who do speak up are often shamed rather than supported. Laws against abuse are weak. “In China, we blame victims, not abusers,” says Xiao. “That’s what we’re trying to change.”

Born in Sichuan province in 1989, Xiao is part of a generation that the Chinese call post-’80s. Among older folks, the conventional wisdom is that these (mostly) sole children of China’s economic boom are spoiled, apolitical, more interested in designer fripperies than in social movements. Growing up, Xiao cared little for politics. Her parents did not mention it. Xiao was busy studying. She only learned about the Tiananmen crackdown when, as a freshman studying in Beijing at the time of the 20th anniversary, professors warned students not to visit the square.

Over the course of her studies, Xiao started watching documentaries about the student uprising and reading feminist texts from abroad. Spending a college semester in Taiwan gave her a glimpse of a “more equal” society. Xiao returned determined to end the silence surrounding gender and sex discrimination in China. She and a group of friends staged a Chinese-language version of The Vagina Monologues. They donned bloody wedding dresses to protest domestic violence.

Since her north-south journey, Xiao has spoken about her experience at small, private gatherings and university classrooms. While Xiao reflects a growing civil society, she acts individually and not as part of an organization. Audience members often tell her that she is the first activist, and feminist, they have met—which she finds both gratifying and frustrating. Xiao has already walked thousands of miles, but there’s still a long road ahead—for her, and for China.

—Emily Rauhala

Breaking Out of the Box

There are many reasons why hundreds of thousands of young, privileged Chinese go abroad: great shopping, clean air, an escape from the cutthroat educational system. For Teddy Zhang, born in July 1989, a major motive was to find out more about what happened 25 years ago at and around Tiananmen Square. This summer she will begin graduate studies in California, studying under an exiled Chinese who was involved in the June 4 aftermath and who continues to monitor the human-rights situation in his homeland.

Through high school in Shanghai, Zhang followed a self-described “normal route of study, study, study, study.” She spent her weekends cramming for the college-entrance exam, her mother staying up until 2 in the morning to ensure Zhang kept at the books. Her parents, who never went to university themselves, were gratified when she was accepted to learn translation and interpretation at a top local university. “All I wanted after graduation was to get a good-paying job,” Zhang recalls. “I didn’t know there was another life out there.” Then she saw a Tiananmen video, banned in China, in the privacy of her dorm room. “I had no idea it was sensitive,” she says. “I knew nothing.” Walking around campus afterward, looking at all those kids learning their English verbs, so distant from the student activism of yesteryear, Zhang vowed to explore a new path.

After graduation, Zhang eschewed safe, well-paying jobs for journalism. Interviews with human-rights activists and dissidents, as well as ordinary citizens who became politicized because of unexpected run-ins with the authorities, inspired her. The Internet, as accessed through proxies that allow Chinese to subvert state censors, also opened her eyes, even as many of her friends preferred to talk about their latest salary raises or clothing acquisitions. Social media has radically changed the way in which Chinese communicate and debate issues beyond the government-sanctioned narrative. “You think your life is fine,” she says. “And then you realize that a whole part was chopped off.”

Zhang has made other unorthodox choices. She spent time as an exchange student in Minnesota and taught Tibetan children in China’s far west. She is a vegetarian. She even gave up a partial scholarship at another U.S. university to study with her hero in California. But Zhang’s mother, a retired canteen manager, is using her life savings to pay for the first semester, and Zhang hopes for a job to cover the rest. After that, she wishes to stay in the U.S., although as an only child, she is concerned about her parents’ welfare. “Some of my friends, they don’t want to break the balance of their lives,” she says. “But more and more young people are choosing to do what they want.”

—Hannah Beech

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