Tiananmen at 25: the fate of mass demonstration in China

China's growing economic prosperity has distinguished today's youth – and their demands – from the "89 generation". But though unlikely to occupy the square, the introduction of digital technologies means that political protest is not dead. 

Yaqiu Wang
4 June 2014

The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were a defining turning point in recent Chinese history. The world watched to see whether it would be the beginning of the end of the communist government of China. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party leaders brutally suppressed the student protests, bringing China back from the brink of democratization. For people who were old enough to understand and remember what was happening at that time, it is a hard-to-forget memory. 

So it comes as a surprise to some westerners when they hear that the majority of the youth in China today, if not completely unaware of the incident, do not consider it particularly important. Thanks to pervasive censorship, a recent report show that only 15 out of 100 students at four Beijing universities correctly identified the iconic Tank Man picture. 

In 1989, hundreds of thousands of students from universities in Beijing, the best and the brightest of their generation, marched to demand freedom and democracy. They sat on Tiananmen Square for seven weeks, refusing to move despite threats of violence. They chanted slogans and sang patriotic songs with great emotion. One printed manifesto read: “The nation is in crisis – beset by rampant inflation, illegal dealing by profiteering officials, abuses of power, corrupt bureaucrats, the flight of good people to other countries and deterioration of law and order. Compatriots and fellow countrymen who cherish morality, please hear our voices!”

student protestor ts.jpg

Students in Tiananmen Square, May 1989. Flickr/Robert Croma. Some rights reserved.

To avoid losing momentum, the students proceeded to hold hunger strikes. More than 2,000 students subsequently fainted due to starvation. Despite such noble efforts, these protests culminated in a tragic ending. “The gigantic scale of the movement… the lives it claimed, the soaring ideals it expressed, and the unprecedented international reverberations it created combined to turn it into the grandest narrative of China’s enlightenment project in recent history,” writes Guobin Yang, a sociology professor at University of Pennsylvania. 

The idealism and aspirations of the “89 Generation” were born out of the liberalized political environment of the post-Cultural Revolution era. The mistakes and wrongs of the Cultural Revolution had gradually been recognized and redressed. A decade of economic reform also resulted in the steady improvement of people’s living standards. But on the other hand, consumerism had not yet taken root in China. The nation at that time was in a mood of spiritual optimism.

Twenty-five years later, the courage and the determination are long gone. The immense political, economic and social changes of the past two decades have distinguished the well-educated youth of this generation from those who protested in Tiananmen Square. Even given the same degree of political tolerance from the central government today, an almost unimaginable proposition, it is unlikely that the elite youth of this generation would carry out this kind of “epic-style death-defying” mass movement.

The One-Child Policy has also made any kind of risk-taking activity even more difficult to execute. In many urban families, as the only child, the sons and daughters of the Tiananmen generation are burdened with great expectations from parents and grandparents to succeed in the job and marital marketplaces. Filial piety is considered the first virtue in Chinese culture. Children are obligated to take care of their parents when they get old. To take the risk for a political cause is almost immoral in this sense.

Surveys consistently show that with continued commercialization since 1978, the beginning of economic reform in China – socialism with Chinese characteristics – the vast majority of the youth of this generation are primarily concerned with their personal development. Struggling for a political cause simply has no appeal to most of these young Chinese. 

As Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at University of Southern California, pointed out, China’s urban youth, who are beneficiaries of the economic reform, have “primarily pursued a pragmatic, success-oriented approach, placing their public lives in the service of their private ambitions.” Professor Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College strikes a more pessimistic tone, “This generation has no political ideals or aspirations” and most of them are “totally materialistic.”

For example, Charter 08 for reform and democracy in China, a manifesto signed by hundreds of Chinese intellectuals calling for legal reforms, democracy and protection of human rights, made virtually no splash within the university students community inside China, despite the fact that its publication generated widespread international attention and resulted in the sentencing of its primary author, Nobel Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years in prison.

Commenting on the mistakes of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, dissident-intellectual Mo Zhixu, a member of the 89 Generation, said, “the students’ main problem was that they really didn’t know much. They had no idea of what democracy and freedom were. Although they didn’t know much, they were overly confident. They refused to hear advice and did not understand the value of comprise.” On May 18, 1989, students were offered a chance to meet with then Premier Li Peng, but the meeting ended without any agreement or progress. The protests were made up of many people with varying agendas, and the students themselves were not clear as to what exactly they were demanding.

On the contrary, facing a much more repressed political environment than twenty-five years ago, today’s students are realistic and issue-focused. Although they may be materialistic, they also have better access to quality educational resources, information, and international exchange opportunities, all of which have enhanced their consciousness of the notion of rights. As a result, when their own interests are harmed, they are not reluctant to fight. Protests over cafeteria price hikes, lack of hot water supplies, increased school fees, construction site noise, employment discrimination and other daily life-related issues are frequently carried out on college campuses across the country.

In 2011, a protest led by students at Fudan University, a top university in Shanghai, demanding air conditioning equipment in dormitories drew considerable attention for the students’ creative and playful style. Students wrote sarcastic poems, made jokes and sang songs complaining about how hot they were. One student, during his graduation ceremony, displayed a message on the massive video board at the university’s stadium, saying, “President Yang, please install air conditioning! Though I am graduating, I still love and care about my female junior schoolmates!” Through the Internet, students’ actions went viral, creating pressure on the university administration, resulting in a US $15 million project to equip every dorm with air conditioning. In the following years, students at other universities in both Shanghai and nearby Nanjing city modeled the Fudan protest.    

The passion, courage and grandiose idealism of the generation of 1989 no longer exist among the general elite youth population. Instead, today’s youth are materialistic and self-centered. Many inside China interpret this phenomenon negatively, calling the young generation the “beat generation” or the “selfish generation.” Yet, contemporary Chinese youth are rights-conscious and down-to-earth. While engaging in risky actions of contention, they know their goals, know how to present their demands, and know how to organize and protect themselves. Today’s youth have a distinctive style of political activism, the result of their unique collective experience. Armed with new technologies, they can still be the powerhouse of social change. 

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