Chinese citizens who 'remember' risk being arrested. China's state owned news media also doesn't 'remember'. Newer generations unaware of their nation's history.
"Tiananmen Now Seems Distant to China's Students
By SHARON LaFRANIERE
Published: May 21, 2009
BEIJING — On April 30, the cellphones of the 32,630 students at Peking University, a genteel institution widely regarded as one of China's top universities, buzzed with a text message from the school administration. It warned students to "pay attention to your speech and behavior" on Youth Day because of a "particularly complex" situation.
Few students had to puzzle over the meaning. Youth Day, on May 4, commemorates a 1919 student protest against foreign imperialism and China's weakness in resisting it. Seventy years later, in 1989, students from Peking University were again massing in the center of Beijing, demanding democracy. The student movement shook the ruling Communist Party to its core and ended with a military crackdown and hundreds of deaths.
And if a student today proposed a pro-democracy protest?
"People would think he was insane," said one Peking University history major in a recent interview. "You know where the line is drawn. You can think, maybe talk, think about the events of 1989. You just cannot do something that will have any public influence. Everybody knows that."
Most students also appear to accept it. For 20 years, China's government has made it abundantly clear that students and professors should stick to the books and stay out of the streets. Students today describe 1989 as almost a historical blip, a moment too extreme and traumatic ever to repeat.
But whether democracy still inspires them is a more complex question.
Interviews with students and teachers at Peking University, as with experts on China here and abroad, draw a layered portrait of today's students: disinclined to protest, but also lacking the economic grievances that helped ignite protests in 1989; proud of China's achievements and flocking to the Communist Party, but seldom driven by ideology.
They are disturbed by government corruption and censorship and are eager to study in the West, especially the United States. And despite the government's attempts to wipe the 1989 protests from Chinese history, some have learned what happened. All but one of eight Peking University students interviewed for this article, for instance, said they had managed to download an acclaimed - and banned - documentary on the Tiananmen protests and view it in their dorm rooms.
"There is a stereotypical view that students are not interested in democracy. I don't buy it," Cheng Li, research director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview. "At the very least, they have a mixed opinion of the Communist Party."
Xia Yeliang, a Peking University professor, said many students supported democracy in theory but did not want to risk their futures to fight for it. Students joke that they will get involved once pro-democracy forces gather steam, he said. "A rather high percentage of students are not interested in politics," he said. "They say, 'We know this is a good thing, but what relation does it have to us?' They think about their personal affairs, how to get a job, how to go abroad."
Even the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, People's Daily, laments a general lack of idealism on campus. "Many university students are clearly very utilitarian in their thinking," People's Forum, a magazine published by People's Daily, complained this month after a conducting a student survey. "Everything is based on 'whether or not it is useful to me,'" the magazine said.
In fact, today's students have more to lose than did protesters 20 years ago. Then, university students believed that their futures were endangered by a soaring inflation rate of 28 percent, rampant government corruption and shrinking job prospects, according to a 2001 book on the Tiananmen movement by Dingxin Zhao, a University of Chicago sociology professor. Many had lost hope in the government's economic reforms.
Today, even students who criticize Communist rule are gratified by China's great strides. "Sometimes we don't like the policies of our government," said Wang Yongli, a fourth-year physics major. "But on the other hand, nowadays we are proud of the country and the government because they have moved so many people to a better life."
The Communist Party is careful to cultivate this image, while seeking to defuse longings for democracy by vowing to govern "democratically".
Officials say they oppose Western-style multiparty democracy as wrong for China, but embrace the idea of consultation, public review and balloting under party rule. China will open up the political system, step by step, as the country becomes wealthier and more stable, officials promise.
Some China analysts suggest that student discontent could rise if the current economic crisis clouds their futures. China sends nine times as many students to institutions of higher education now as it did in 1989, and competition for good jobs is fierce. Nearly one in four graduates last year could not find work, Xinhua, the state run news agency, reported.
But since 1989, Communist Party leaders have realized that they ignore youth at their peril. The government is now trying to ease job anxieties with training programs and incentives for graduates to work in rural areas. "If you are worried, then I am more worried than you," Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told one student group in December.
The party has also ratcheted up recruitment and political education, making college students the party's fastest growing segment, said Susan L. Shirk, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. More than 8 percent of all students were party members in 2007, compared with fewer than 1 percent in 1989. At elite institutions like Peking University, percentages are much higher.
Some of those students echo the party's line that Western-style democracy does not suit China. "China has a large population, and education has a long way to go," said Song Chao, a Peking University ecology major. "Considering that, we need to put some regulations on people. The major task for China now is development."
Others hope to nudge the party toward reform. "Of course, if we could become a democratic society, we would like that," said another history major and party aspirant. "But this is not something you can achieve by radical means. What if there is chaos?"
But a majority of students seek party membership not as an ideological statement but rather as a means to a better job, the survey published by People's Forum concluded. At Peking University, many students say they nap through the university's much mocked, though mandatory, political thought classes. "Even the teachers know they are teaching rubbish," one senior said.
Most students will make such statements only anonymously because government control of campus speech remains tight. Professors say some students are assigned to report to administrators if they hear teachers adopting anti-government lines. Most students interviewed for this article did not want to be identified, saying their comments might be negatively noted in their files.
Five years ago, the university shut down a computer bulletin board - a vibrant hub of information for 300,000 users - after the central government's education minister complained that it did not always reflect "the right view". Students say they are careful about what they write on the new, restricted and monitored board because their identities can be traced.
Surveys show that four of five university students still rely on China's heavily censored media for their news. But in a digital age when nearly 70,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States and roughly 163,000 foreign students study at Chinese universities, walls against information are porous.
One senior recalled an excruciating roundtable discussion with foreign journalists who visited Peking University in 2007 and asked about the government crackdown on student demonstrators in 1989. "They always ask about this June 4 incident, and we just keep silent," she said. "It is not because we don't want to talk. It is because we have no idea what exactly happened!
"I felt a little bit humiliated because we don't know our own history," she said. "So I went to the library and I read about June 4. Basically, everything was written by foreign journalists."
The curbs on public debate can reduce even political controversies on campus to the status of rumors. Two Peking University professors were among the first to sign Charter 08, an online pro-democracy manifesto released in December and backed by many intellectuals.
After signing, Professor Xia, the economist, said he was forced to resign from positions at two research institutes. His fellow signer, He Weifang, a celebrated law professor, was transferred to an obscure college in China's far west. Professor He's exile was news overseas. But much like the coming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, it drew little notice from students.
One student defended the professor with an anonymous post on the campus' computer bulletin board. "The day will come," he wrote, "when Professor He can go where he wants."
Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting. Huang Yuanxi and Zhang Jing contributed research.
(NY Times, May 21, 2009)
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