By Alexa Olesen
The Associated Press
KAIFENG, China (AP) — Twenty years ago, on the night of June 3, rumors flew around about an impending military crackdown against demonstrators in Beijing. That was when Shijie Feng’s wife went into labor in his hometown, Kaifeng.
The baby was born the next morning on June 4. He is now an undergraduate at Kaifeng University. After class, he plays games online or shoots hoops at a campus basketball court. He can list the latest Hollywood releases and NBA stats. But he knows next to nothing about the pro-democracy movement that ended in a bloody crackdown the day he was born.
“My parents told me some incident happened on Tiananmen Square on my birthday but I don’t know the details,” said Xiaoguang Feng, an upbeat graphic design student wearing faux Nike shoes and an imitation Prada shirt.
Feng is one of China’s 200 million so-called ‘post-1980’ kids — a generation of mostly single children, thanks to the one-child policy, born on the cusp of an unparalleled economic boom. Aged between 20 and 30, they are Web-savvy, worldly, fashion-conscious — and largely apolitical.
Asked what kind of reform the Tiananmen students were after, Feng says he doesn’t know.
“Did it have something to do with the conflicts between capitalism and socialism?” he asks.
It would be hard for him to know more. The subject is taboo. The demonstrations are classified as a counter-revolutionary riot and are rarely mentioned in public. Textbooks touch on them fleetingly, if at all.
Few young people are aware that millions of students, workers, and average people gathered in Beijing and other cities, over seven weeks in early 1989, to demand democratic reform and an end to corruption. They are not told how communist authorities finally silenced the dissent with deadly force, killing hundreds.
Chinese leaders today argue that juggernaut growth and stability since the early 1990s prove that quelling the uprising was the right choice. Indeed, young Chinese people are materially better off now than they have ever been, with the annual income per capital soaring to about 19,000 yuan ($2,760) in 2007, up from 380 yuan ($55) in 1978.
But the tradeoff has been that young Chinese have no real role in shaping their country’s future — and may not be very interested in having a role.
An official survey released this month found that 75 percent of college students hope to join the Communist Party, but 56 percent of those said they would do so to “boost their chances of finding a good job.”
Others wanted to join for personal honor — 29 percent — while only 15 percent were motivated by faith in communism, said the Internet survey of 12,018 students by the People’s Tribune.
An accompanying commentary said students today are clearly “cold” about politics and cited concern from education experts about the “extreme egotism” among the youth.
At Peking University, a hub for the 1989 protests, only one political group cracked the top 15 extracurricular clubs — the elite Marxism Youth Study Group — reputed to be good for career networking.
The generation that demonstrated on Tiananmen Square grew up surrounded by political discussion and lived through mass movements that demanded full public participation, notably the tumultuous Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976.
But the 1989 crackdown put an end to most public debate on the topic. Few now risk serious political discussion even behind closed doors, with good reason.
Consider The New Youth Study Group, a short-lived club of young Beijing professionals that met privately to talk about political reform and post essays online, including one titled “China’s democracy is fake.” Four of the members were convicted of subversion and intent to overthrow the Communist Party in May 2003 and sentenced to between 8 and 10 years in prison.
With this fear of political dissent, it’s hard to tell whether young people like underground musician Li Yan are being shallow or shrewd when they shrug off Tiananmen. Li Yan, also known as Lucifer, was born in May 1989 and is a performing arts student in Beijing with a cultivated rebel image.
“Young kids like us are maybe just more into popular entertainment like Korean soap operas. … Very few people really care about that other stuff,” said Lucifer, before mounting the stage at a Beijing club to belt out “Rock ’N Roll for Money and Sex.”
Tiananmen veterans read the reaction as apathy and lament it.
“All those magnificent ideals have been replaced by the practical pursuit of self-centered comforts,” said Tong Bao, former secretary to Ziyang Zhao, the Communist Party leader deposed for sympathizing with the 1989 protesters.
“The leaders today don’t want young people to think.”
Yi Sun’s father was a Tiananmen-era dissident. In a self-published magazine in 1990, he openly criticized the crackdown and was soon imprisoned for speaking out. Sun admires her father but wonders if his sacrifices, a broken marriage and seven years in jail, were worth it.
“It was a really heroic undertaking, but still I feel he gave up so much, too much,” said Sun, a 22-year-old engineering student in Sydney, Australia.
Like many Chinese people today, Feng appears satisfied with his hobbies, pop culture, and other distractions.
He lives with his parents down a dusty dirt road in a simple concrete home. A grapevine snakes up a trellis in the courtyard. The family is supported by his mother’s monthly 800 yuan ($117) retirement pension and his weekend odd jobs.
His parents have scrimped and borrowed to provide their only child with luxuries — 2,800 yuan ($410) for a computer and 500 yuan ($73) a year for the Internet connection — because he says he needs them for school. ♦