At heart, they were romantics. Steeped in the ideology of self-sacrifice, energized by their faith in collective will, the protesters who marched and sat and sang in cities across China in the spring of 1989 were the logical creation of their government’s own propaganda. “We’d heard all the revolutionary stories, we’d watched all these patriotic films,” recalls Rowena He, who was 17 when she joined a protest in Guangdong province, one of dozens in the days leading up to the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square. “We all believed we were fighting for a higher cause. And we were taught that it was good to die for something more important than ourselves.”
Their naïveté was short-lived. The day after the military action in Beijing, He wore a black arm band to honour her fallen comrades, only to have a teacher haul her aside with a helpful warning to get rid of it. With that began a period of re-education, the full effect of which is only now coming clear. Throughout China, the events of June 4, 1989, vanished from the public conversation, while schools force-fed students a sanitized version of those pivotal weeks. Each spring, He would sneak into a friend’s dormitory room to commemorate the Tiananmen anniversary with fellow university students. But, eventually, her sense of isolation became unbearable. In 1998, she left for graduate school in Canada, vowing to ensure her “forbidden memories” were never lost.
If she succeeds, it will be no thanks to the current generation of bright, young Chinese minds. Twenty years after the government unleashed its tanks on Tiananmen Square, the dewy-eyed idealists of He’s time have given way to a new demographic wave of hardened nationalists—ambitious children of the elite who not only reject first-hand accounts of the period but actively push Beijing’s competing versions. Now a post-doctoral fellow in Chinese studies at Harvard University, He frequently encounters these brash revisionists at academic conferences. Two years ago in San Francisco, she listened in dismay as one visiting student challenged her depictions of Tiananmen as a step backward for their homeland. Sure a few lives were lost, the girl shrugged, but the military crackdown was needed to restore order, and with order has come double-digit economic growth. “These students get very angry with me,” He says. “All I can do is tell them that this is what I know about Tiananmen.”
For veteran China-watchers, the shift is troubling, not least because it reflects a broad acceptance inside the country of the political status quo. “This is the stuff everyone’s been fed for the past 20 years,” says Tim Brook, a UBC historian and the author of Quelling the People, a book about Tiananmen. “China has grown prosperous, there is unbelievable wealth [among the privileged], and so there’s this determination not to look behind or to the side at what might have been.” This despite the fact that 85 per cent of the population remains in poverty, or that the number of public protests grew in lockstep with the Chinese economy after 1989, reaching a peak of 87,000 in 2005. While provincial authorities claim those numbers have declined, anecdotal accounts suggest the downturn in the global economy has stoked unrest among labourers, farmers and small business owners, resulting in protests throughout the country last year.
So if the younger generation doesn’t push Beijing toward democracy and civil rights, who will? Is China doomed to the current fusion of capitalism with one-party rule? The answer, say some activists, may lie in a new, broader-based support network springing up in support of the local protests. Jean-François Lesage, a China specialist with the Montreal-based group Rights & Democracy, points to Charter 08, a petition calling for equality under the law, an end to one-party politics and the establishment of electoral democracy as a means of easing tension in Chinese society. First signed by 303 prominent lawyers and former Communist party members, the document gathered more than 8,000 signatories, ranging from peasants to Web-savvy twentysomethings, before authorities expunged it from the Internet. “What you have is a rights-protection movement made up of grassroots activists,” notes Lesage. “I also think among the elite in the party, there are people who are sympathetic to this movement. So I’m not pessimistic.”
Importantly, says Lesage, the new reformers don’t see themselves as dissidents. Rather, they want China to enforce its own laws, along with the international treaties on human rights that it has signed. They are the seeds, in short, of civil society—a network of individuals and organizations seeking change through legal means. Beijing already sees them as a threat; this spring, it has placed hundreds of signatories to Charter 08 under house arrest. But the movement nevertheless offers hope for reform, and in a country where youthful idealism is a fading memory, any kind of hope is welcome.