China’s New Lost Generation

Dissidents struggle against state-induced historical amnesia.

Ryszard Gorky

Protesters demonstrate to free Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, near the China Liason Office in Hong Kong on October 8.

Near dawn on June 4, 1989, Liu Xiaobo helped save the lives of thousands of university students in Beijing. The night before, conservative Communist Party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng had ordered the People’s Liberation Army to clear Tiananmen Square, which had been occupied by students for 50 remarkable days that spring. Huge numbers of Beijing’s citizens openly supported the pro-democracy student movement and many thousands of these citizens began sleeping in the streets to prevent authorities from moving against the students. 

The main reason why dissident work fails to resonate with most people in China is that they are consumed by other things. Even if people had access, it’s unclear how interested they would be.

No one imagined that the army would smash through these crowds with Armored Personnel Carriers, crushing people to death, and then fire indiscriminately with tank-mounted machine guns and rifles wielded by foot soldiers. 

A final bloodbath appeared imminent. Huddling together, students stoically wrote out their wills and final letters to their families. Facing genuine danger, along with the three other junzi” (noble figures), Liu Xiaobo negotiated the peaceful exit of the students from the Square. But the army’s paroxysms of violence had not ended: As the students walked in a column toward the university district, four tanks careened forward and crushed eleven of them.

For people who know about Liu Xiaobo, his Nobel Peace Prize is richly merited. The award, announced in early October, bears witness to his human-rights activism– especially his heroism at Tiananmen – and his co-authoring of Charter 08, the 2008 manifesto calling for the end to China’s one-party authoritarian rule, which led to his fourth imprisonment, an 11-year sentence. Most people in China, however, have not even heard of Liu Xiaobo. The reason is clear: His erasure from the public imagination began 20 years ago, after he was imprisoned during the extensive crackdown following the crushing of the student movement.

Scapegoating the black hand’

Liu Xiaobo’s disappearance was part of a larger erasure. The entire Tiananmen episode, from the democracy salons” of the mid-1980s to its horrific suppression in 1989, has been airbrushed from public consciousness. In 1989, though, canny Beijing citizens anticipated this attack on memory. After the violence they scavenged items from the streets, items that would prove the army had been there: a flashlight with a unit’s number, a steel helmet, shell casings. 

Yet public memory of June 4 is absent. As the government rewrote the past, it aimed also to mold the future. This recasting in part helps explain why internal dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and expatriate activists such as Harry Wu are so irrelevant in mainstream China today.

Throughout the early 1990s, on the anniversary of June 4 the entire university district was cordoned off and students leaned out of their dorm windows to smash small glass bottles on the ground, a symbolic smashing of Deng Xiaoping (“small bottle,” xiao ping,” is synonymous with Deng’s first name).

Anxious that younger students would again fall under the spell of foreign bourgeois ideals, the government worked to supplant the excitement for democracy in the 1980s with an enthusiasm for nationalism in the 1990s. From 1989 to 1992, each incoming class of students at the top schools was sent to an army camp, spending the first year of university in ideological training. Since 1992, army training for freshmen has been cut back to three weeks. 

China’s Great Firewall effectively blocks words like Tiananmen” from generating complete search engine results. Yet netizens subvert Internet censorship by deploying homonyms. Harmonious Society,” President Hu Jintao’s slogan, is mocked online with the homonymous River Crabs.”

The widespread appeal of the student movement had taken the government by surprise, and its postmortem analysis fundamentally misread its origins. In its view, the students were an immature social group, too inexperienced to have pulled off such a massive movement by themselves. If not the students, who then was behind the movement? Whose black hand” manipulated the naïve students? Answer: The United States. The Ministry of Education thus set about mitigating young people’s love affair with the United States. 

This shift in attitude was hardly perceptible. Warmth for the United States, in fact, appeared to deepen. When the United States invaded Iraq in 1991, Beijingers rallied behind the war. Young Chinese went to the U.S. Embassy, hoping to enlist in the U.S. army to fight shoulder to shoulder with their American brothers.” Beijing citizens with little disposable income dropped off small contributions to the war effort at the embassy. The subtext of all this was that armies should be deployed against external enemies, not against its own people. 

Invisible dissidents

Today, such enthusiasm for American military action is unthinkable. To some extent, the effort to inculcate prejudice against the United States and its attendant values has worked. Via school curricula, the media, and such government programs as Build a Spiritual Civilization’ (‘Jingshen wenming jianshe’), which criticize the decadent cultural influences of America in diverse fora, including essay contests and seminars, we can discern a new skepticism among young people toward the West. 

The United States is not blameless for this transition in attitude, committing acts that seemed to support the Chinese government’s contention that the country is a self-appointed global policeman aiming to keep China down.” In 1993, for instance, the U.S. Navy detained a Chinese container ship on the high seas, boarding it in search of weapons bound for Iran. It found none. In 1999, during NATO operations in Kosovo, American warplanes bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade, obliterating the structure and killing three Chinese citizens. Then, in 2001, a U.S. Navy spy plane collided with a Chinese military jet off of China’s southern coast, killing the Chinese pilot.

Just as U.S. Republicans have successfully branded the idea of government healthcare as alien and anti-American, China’s government has branded human rights as a Euro-American issue used to humiliate and attack China. Inside China, foreign discourse on Tibet is universally viewed as meddling with China’s sovereignty, as are the sale of U.S. weapons to Taiwan.

Once Chinese dissidents leave their country, it is extremely difficult for them to remain politically relevant. This is a source of immense frustration. Audiences for their writings are almost entirely restricted to foreigners or Chinese expats living abroad. On the eve of October’s Nobel Prize announcement, 14 expat dissidents sent a public letter to the Nobel Committee denouncing Liu Xiaobo, maligning him as someone who apologized for the Party. 

Other dissidents appear debilitated by rage, traumatized by prolonged abuse inside brutal prisons. Wei Jingsheng was at the center of the Democracy Wall’ in 1978. He brilliantly challenged Deng Xiaoping to add the fifth modernization’: democracy. For his opinions, he spent two decades in solitary confinement. Today, Wei Jingsheng is out and is active in the West, but his ability to work with other dissidents is inhibited by a crippling anger. 

The new social contract

But the main reason why dissident work fails to resonate with most people in China is that they are consumed by other things. True, the reading public has little exposure to the work of dissidents, due to censorship. But if people had access, it’s unclear how interested they would be. It’s hard to guess, given the current social contract: stay clear of politics and you can do pretty much anything else that you want – make money, travel, be a punk rocker, create provocative art. 

In the 1980s, students chafed against the paternalism of the Party; but today, the Party functions as a self-interested corporate entity, not unlike AT&T or Halliburton. The Party is less involved in quotidian issues. Today, youth in China wear what they want, have sex as they please, and stay up all night dancing. Some June 4th student activists famously left politics and went to Wall Street, such as Li Lu, who is now a billion-dollar hedge fund manager. 

In 1989, before the Party sent the army against the people, it first overthrew the reformers such as General Secretary Zhao Ziyang. Recently, an article in People’s Daily repudiated comments made by the current Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, who in a recent CNN interview stated, the people’s wishes for democracy and freedom are irresistible.” But people these days do not talk much about democracy; in the cities, the issues stirring activism are environmental degradation and tainted food. The countryside is another story. 

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