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Silence from Chinese Students on the Campus Where Tiananmen Rang Loud

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Last year, while studying Mandarin at Peking University, I chatted every Thursday with a student friend over a coffee (literally 'a': she drinks water). Matilda, to use her English name, is typical in that she gives a first impression of shyness, before lighting up in conversation once you get to know her. She studies linguistics, reads Kant -- sometimes on the sly during lessons on Marx -- and is a thoughtful, critical thinker. On Thursday June 4th 2009, I asked her thoughts on the anniversary. It took her a while to remember the date, start at pre-dynastial China and work forward until she hit upon 1989. 'Oh yes, I forgot. Yes, that was really bad', she blushed, embarrassed to have forgotten and expressing the same forced interest as I do when trying not to be impolite to my grandparents while they reminisce.

Not thirty yards from our table on campus was a three-sided concrete lawn called 'The Triangle', where, on 15th April 1989, students like Matilda gathered to grieve the death of the Communist Party reformist-turned-scapegoat Hu Yaobang ... and the Tiananmen movement was born.

Peking University (or 'Beida', to give it its Chinese shorthand) has long been associated in China with political protest. It was Beida intellectuals who formed the heart of the New Culture Movement in the 1910s and 20s, calling China out on its strait-jacket Confucian culture. It was Beida students who took to the streets on May 4th 1919, to protest their government's weak response to concessions of Chinese territory to Japan. Beida was one of the first universities to accept female students (1920). The Cultural Revolution's opening act was to close it in 1966 for being ruled by the bourgeois; the otherwise pathetically timid history museum on campus takes rare pride in having "resisted ultraleftist practice" to reopen in 1970. And the first Tiananmen students were Beida students, protesting for a new China now that the new China their 1919 predecessors fought for had gotten old.

In 2009 -- a new generation of students, a fresh capitalist incarnation of 'new China' -- there is no indication in Beida of such a rebellious past. The 90th anniversary of May 4th and 20th of Tiananmen passed on campus not so much without incident as without notice.

More striking than quiet anniversaries was a scandal that hit the campus in early April. The word spread that Sun Dongdong, a Professor of Law at Peking University (and advisor at the Ministry of Health), had in a recent interview with China Newsweek magazine claimed that 99% of Chinese petitioners were mentally ill. Petitioners who come from the countryside to air their grievances in the capital have enough trouble as it is: many have been committed without justification to mental hospitals, where some die. They didn't deserve for their causes to be hurt by this panderer to the government, and groups of petitioners staged sit-down protests outside Beida’s gates for weeks (a fuller summary here at China Digital Times). Even the Party's English-language mouth-piece newspaper China Daily condemned the professor's remarks as "offensive".

Beida students had every opportunity to condemn the professor who was putting their university's reputation to shame; the China Daily editorial offered protection. But not a peep was heard. (The latest news is that petitioners are now banned from travelling to Beijing at all, to add insult to their injury.)

Why this silence from the students? Of course, to a common Western fixation that every Chinese must be boiling with rage at their regime, pretty much anything less than self-immolation falls short of expectations. But the question remains. Two sensible anwers leap out of the American press - to both of which I'd say 'yes, but'.

The first is: students today, having more to lose than the generation before, are afraid to risk their future by speaking out. Yes, but. Tiananmen is one of the few topics Beida students will be nervous to speak to me about: it's genuinely a taboo (for comparison, they will speak openly about democracy or human rights, but not about Falun Gong). There was police presence on campus on both the May and June anniversaries. But while students feel scared when asked to talk about it, this doesn't mean their silence in the first place is because they're scared. The New York Times pushed us into this trap in a May article, falsely claiming in its first paragraph that all 32,630 Beida students received a text message shortly before May 4th, warning to “pay attention to your speech and behavior” that anniversary. None of my acquaintances at Beida received this text. Make that 32,630 minus a few dozen, then, Sharon laFraniere of the Times?

The second answer is less romantic: this generation is neither informed about nor interested in what happened in the past. As the Los Angeles Times put it at the same time the NYT was waxing hyperbolic, the new youth in their "baggy shorts hanging below the knees, Puma sneakers and spiky hair", are "hip to the present, clueless about the past". Yes, but. I'll ignore that the author, Barbara Demick, sounds like my mum watching MTV, and skip to her point that this wigger of the Chinese youth not only can't access information on Tiananmen but is too apathetic to try. It is certainly noticeable and sad how ill-informed even Beida students are on certain issues like Tiananmen, but the information is there to view online for the curious and savvy, and I've met several who know the history well and are interested in it. It's this minority, not the allegedly spiky-haired masses, who are of note and who could instigate protest.

But they don't. So to describe that crucial elite, perhaps a more fitting word than 'uninterested' with is 'self-interested'. On May 4th this year, I talked with students passing through the history-rich 'Triangle', asking if they themselves felt the May 4th spirit which led their predecessors ninety and twenty years ago out in angry protest. “Nowadays," one told me, "students want to ... gain knowledge to make themselves famous and rich. They’re not concerned too much for their country. Now society’s advantage is in harmony with individual advantage. If they fight for themselves maybe they will also benefit society.”

Everyone else echoed the line about students' personal interests coming first. In 2009, Beida students talk coolly about the 1919 movement which fired up their 1989 counterparts to protest.

The only one to complain was a girl who, bespectacled and brow-furrowed, was walking quickly while nestling a book under her arm. She said "I think May 4th should be celebrated more publicly, but it is treated with indifference" by her fellow Beida students, because of the same career-mindedness. I ask her what she's reading. She glances to each side and plucks her book from her armpit, letting me peek before she laughs nervously and walks away. I had only a moment to see the large photo of the Dalai Lama on the cover, banned in China.

If a Beida student doesn't talk to Western journalists about their personal views on May 4th, Tiananmen or any other taboo, it doesn't mean they are ignorant or don't have any. There are plenty of students reading banned books and discussing forbidden topics - they do it in their dorms (if cautiously, in case of informers), or more quietly in canteens. Just not anywhere where they might seem to be taking a public stand.

But, these dorm discussions are (I hazard a generalisation) more in agreement with the general status quo in China than they are against it. While democracy is an appealing model for most, they are not convinced it is an appealing model for China at this point in its development. Western ideas no longer hold sway for them purely by virtue of being Western. They would all go study in America in a heartbeat, but none fawn over the US: many are disillusioned by Western press coverage of China, and Timothy Geithner's June visit to campus barely raised a head from its study. They consider themselves less naive than their predecessors, and most think of protest as simply not the way to fix China’s domestic problems - rather, they believe central government is doing a good job in difficult circumstances. A surprising number of those I talked to volunteered that their futures are brighter for the failure of Tiananmen and the economic miracle which followed it.

To keep things in perspective, of course, walk into any Beida dorm (in some suitable disguise: I hear baggy shorts, Puma sneakers and spiky hair might work) and you're infinitely more likely to be listening to the Pussycat dolls than to reform politics, or to be watching Transformers II on www.youku.com. Some of the 1989 students' demands - sneakers were among them; better dorm food another in Henan province - have been met already without anyone noticing along the way. And the government is seen to be working effectively on others, such as fixing rampant corruption, even if democracy has been lost in deep water.

Matilda and her classmates have good reason to forget or not care about Tiananmen and May 4th: there are more opportunities and distractions available to them than ever, while the intense pressure of competition to succeed in a tight job market only increases - a combination that keeps most too busy to think about politics at all. As to the exceptional few ... well, their idealism is unlikely to find its form in mass protest any time soon. They're hoping to bring change to China from the inside.

Alec Ash blogs on Chinese student life at Six, or you can follow his Twitter