For Many Of China's Youth, June 4 Is Just Another Day

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In 1989, students like Shen Tong were the driving force behind the protests in Tiananmen Square. And now China has more than 30 million students in higher education. But how much do young Chinese know about what happened a quarter-century ago? NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: They called themselves The Descendents Of The Dragon after a famous song. In 1989, China's student protesters wanted more democracy and action against corruption. They saw themselves as patriots, but the government labeled them counterrevolutionary rioters.

Issuing politics remains off the agenda for students even a quarter-century later. I wanted to find out if today's students even knew about 1989. So I took the most iconic picture of the movement to four Beijing universities. It's the photo of Tank Man - a lone man blocking a line of tanks approaching Tiananmen Square. Have you seen that picture before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: No.

LIM: Never?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Is it from South Korea?

LIM: Have you seen this picture before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I'm sorry. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: No.

LIM: Never seen it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: It's not in China, right?

LIM: It is in China.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: It is in China? Where?

LIM: Have you seen this picture before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: No.

LIM: Never?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I have no memory about it.

LIM: The student's names have been withheld due to the sensitivity of the subject. Out of 100 students I spoke to, only 15 could identify the picture. Nineteen got it wrong thinking it was a picture of a military parade. To tell the truth, most of today's students don't care what happened 25 years ago. To them, it's ancient history. They're busy trying to get jobs amid intense competition. Those who admit to knowing are in a minority.

LIM: Have you seen this picture before?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Oh my God. Yes.

LIM: I'm surprised how few people know here.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Actually, in this school, in this university, many students actually know this that...

LIM: But many don't know. More people don't know than know. Many students have never seen this before.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Yeah, because the - yeah, government do not let us know.

LIM: Even in China's vibrant social media, mentions of the crackdown are quickly censored. Even code words like saying May the 35, instead of June the 4, are deleted. What happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 isn't taught in schools. But one legacy of the protest is that students are subject to patriotic education.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

DENG XIAOPING: (Chinese spoken).

LIM: This was part of the strategy laid out by the Paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, who blamed the protests on a lack of political education. His words led to what's being called the biggest ideological campaign in human history. Sui sheng Zhao at the University of Denver has written a book about Chinese nationalism. He says the government needed to reclaim its legitimacy and nationalism was the best - perhaps the only - tool.

SUI SHENG ZHAO: Because that's the only value shared by the government and its critics after Tiananmen Square.

LIM: Today, the squares image has been completely rebuilt. That can be seen every morning at dawn when thousands of Chinese congregate there to celebrate their national identity. They jostle to see 36 goose-stepping guards marching onto the square with the national flag. At least 200 million Chinese have watched the secular ritual. For most, it's a special moment.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: (Chinese spoken).

LIM: At last I've seen the flag raising, a 26-year-old teacher told me. It's been my ambition for many years. I feel very moved. In this way, Tiananmen Square is no longer a site of national shame. Instead, it's one of national pride. According to Sui sheng Zhao, the party's strategy worked.

ZHAO: In fact, nationalism is stronger than communism for the Chinese working class. It's stronger than capitalism for the bankers. It's so powerful in the 21st century.

LIM: In 2012, anti-Japanese protesters sang the national anthem in China's biggest protest since 1989. And nationalism, rather than politics, is the force that drives young Chinese onto the streets today. It's proof of the success of the Communist Party's strategy at wiping clean the past and directing anger outside the country, rather than within. Louisa Lim, NPR News.

 

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