Tiananmen at 20
Gone, and in many cases, forgotten
Editor’s Note: If events are stones thrown into the collective pool, then history is the ripples.
Two decades after Chinese troops rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush a seven-week protest urging democracy and transparency, leaving hundreds if not thousands of dead and wounded, history’s ripples have assumed strange patterns.
In China, as Anne Donohue, a College of Communication associate professor of journalism, who taught last year in Beijing on a Fulbright, reports below, the Tiananmen Square anniversary is not widely acknowledged; events at the time considered the strongest challenge to Chinese government rule since Mao’s uprising in 1949 are regarded as unworthy of commemoration.
But as National Book Award winner Ha Jin (GRS’94), a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing, writes in the May 31 New York Times, patterns left by historic events are personal as well as societal, changing a life even if they don’t always change a culture. Read Jin’s article here.
And so we have two different perspectives from within the University community on one moment, 20 years old today.
I was naïve. Twenty years after the Chinese government brutally put down a student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, I thought some vestige would still be found in China. But after spending six months in Beijing teaching journalism students at Renmin University, where several of the 1989 prodemocracy activists were students, I found very few young people interested in carrying the torch of Lady Liberty.
Too many of my Boston University journalism students take for granted their right to speak freely, to vote, to write about, record, and photograph any topic. Before I left for China, I underappreciated these gifts. But for the vast majority of the world, most notably in China, these are rights that some people are, or at least were, willing to die for.
The students who transfixed the world 20 years ago are largely forgotten. Their message of democracy — the right to vote and freedom of the press — has been buried by the economic juggernaut of modern China. Most of my students knew, at least cryptically, what happened in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, but a handful of students remained blissfully ignorant. When I asked if they knew how many students were killed in 1989, one young girl from northeastern China answered, “None.”
“Why would the government kill innocent students? This can’t be true,” she assured me.
The more worldly wise students had seen videos of the Tiananmen massacre online. They knew what the government had done and accepted it as a necessary step in moving the country forward. Rather than feeling horror about the crackdown, they were troubled by the chaos and social upheaval those students might have unleashed. Stability and economic security reign supreme; civil liberties might be nice some day.
My students were largely a product of the “new China.” They have seen sustained progress in the form of economic prosperity unimaginable to their parents and grandparents, and for that we should all be grateful. No one wants to turn back the clock to darker days of war, revolution, famine, and fanaticism. But my fear for this new generation is that they have become complacent, or worse. It is too simplistic to conclude that they have been bought off; you can have your Gucci bag, but don’t ask for justice. More disconcerting is the lack of critical thinking, and at times, the blind faith that China is on a roll, so don’t rock the boat. Healthy criticism becomes unpatriotic.
In a weird role reversal, the young students were urging me, the older teacher, to be patient. They told me that China is a developing country, and that economic development might one day lead to some of the reforms I was encouraging. But when I reminded them that many developing countries, India for example, have democracy and economic development, they were unconvinced. One student boasted that China was going to build a high-speed rail between Shanghai and Beijing, dislocating millions in its path. In India, he lamented, this couldn’t get done, because people would stop it. To him, and many young Chinese, democracy is too slow and messy.
And my Chinese students were quick to remind me that America was not without flaws. From Kent State to Abu Ghraib, Watergate and Guantanamo, they were well versed in our failings.
One young Chinese man argued that China has too many illiterate peasants who couldn’t understand how to vote. Democracy could not work here, he insisted. Our American forefathers had similar concerns, but somehow they found a way to entrust the whole American enterprise to a bunch of illiterate farmers — albeit white and male.
I left China discouraged. I wanted for my students what my American students take as a given: a chance to speak freely, vote, work as journalists unfettered by the government. But when I asked my Chinese students if in an ideal world, they would want the government out of their lives, the unanimous response was no. As for press freedom, these journalism students like the guiding hand of a government shaping the message fed to 1.3 billion Chinese.
To be fair, I had to remind myself how far China had come in a generation, from Mao suits and Cultural Revolution brutality to capitalist boomtown, at least in the big cities. Given all this turmoil, it is hard to criticize a society finally getting its shot at peace and prosperity. Is it too much to ask for democracy as well?
In my lighter moments I thought of Stephen Colbert, and how effective “truthiness” has been in China: you get some version of facts, just not any that might be controversial. In my darker moments I ranted like Jack Nicholson in the film A Few Good Men, privately screaming, “You can’t handle the truth!” Mostly, I felt sympathy and admiration for these bright, well-intentioned kids growing up in a country that they want to be proud of, even if their government often wants to keep them in the dark. As one American diplomat repeatedly reminded me, “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
So did I find the keepers of the flame of the 1989 prodemocracy movement? Hardly. Many do not even know it existed. And those who do are too afraid of getting burned to carry it.
This article, in slightly different form, first appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on May 12, 2009.25 Comments