Forgetting Tiananmen

HK REMEMBERS: A candle-lit vigil in Hong Kong on Wednesday to commemorate the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989.


    Jun 06, 2014

    Forgetting Tiananmen

    TWENTY-FIVE years after the Tiananmen massacre, the topic remains taboo in China.

    To my generation, people born in the late 1980s and 1990s, the widespread patriotic liberalism that bonded the students in the early 1980s at the start of the economic reform period feels as distant as the political fanaticism that defined the preceding decades.

    Chinese leaders, having learnt their lessons during the Tiananmen protests, have kept politics out of our lives, while channelling our energies to other pursuits, primarily economic advancement.

    Growing up in the post-Tiananmen years, life was straightforward. We studied hard. On weekends, we roamed shopping malls to try on jeans and sneakers.

    This alternation between exertion and ennui became a habit and, later, an attitude.

    Both are rewarded by a series of concrete symbols of success: a college diploma, a prestigious job, a car, an apartment.

    The rules are simple, though the competition never gets easier; therefore we look ahead, focusing on our personal well-being, rather than the larger issues that bedevil our society.

    Perhaps nowhere is this indifference towards politics and civil rights more pronounced than in the insouciance of young people about the Communist Party's attempts to expunge historical truths from public memory. The massacre of 1989, the most recent tragedy of all, is also the most forgotten.

    The party is responsible for distorting my generation's understanding of history and blocking our access to information. Yet even those who are aware of this make little effort to seek truth and push for change.

    When I returned to China after finishing college in the United States in 2012, I was shocked to discover how few of my friends used VPN, software that allows one to scale "China's Great Firewall" and get access to blocked sites.

    Well-educated and worldly, they nonetheless see censorship more as a nuisance of daily life to be grudgingly endured, than as an infringement on their freedom.

    If the previous generations learnt the cost of political transgression through persecutions and crackdowns, today's youth instinctively understands the futility of challenging the system.

    After all, most of the time, power interferes with our personal lives only in the form of nettlesome restrictions, as with censorship.

    Rebelling seems both naive and unproductive. Circumvention and compromise help us move forward, in a society where the price of falling behind is surely greater than the minor harms in our daily lives caused by state power.

    Over time, such an approach is rationalised, and even defended by the very group of young elites who in previous generations were the most passionate advocates for change. Today, most of China's best and brightest are chasing the stability and prestige offered by working in the state system.

    Outsiders may lament the contrast between the conservative outlook of today's Chinese youth and the unbounded liberalism of the Tiananmen generation.

    But among the minority of my peers who are familiar with the Tiananmen protests, the romanticism on the square in 1989 takes on a different hue today, when viewed in the fluorescent light of a government office cubicle.

    A high school friend who is an editor at the state-run People's Daily recently brought up the subject of Tiananmen. A follower of Western news reports and a user of Facebook, he shrugs off the urgency for Chinese society to revisit the event. "What do you think it can bring us, to resurrect liu si (June 4)?" he asked. "Nothing is going to change. We have to move forward."


    The writer is a journalist based in Beijing. This article is a condensed version of a piece which first appeared in The New York Times.