Me-generation on the rise in China

Tiananmen anniversary: Successors of students who stopped the tanks in 1989 are into possessions and nationalism

TEN YEARS ago, China's students raised the Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square amid calls for political reform. Last month, after Nato's bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, a very different effigy of the Statue of Liberty was paraded by undergraduates through Peking, one brandishing missiles and surrounded by banners reading "Nazi Clinton".

Two student protests, 10 years apart. Two generations of top students, stirred by different emotions.

As China approaches Friday's sensitive 10th anniversary of the 4 June Tiananmen massacre, 25-year-old Xiao Wu, a postgraduate student at the elite Peking University, has no personal memory of 1989. "But as I took part in the anti-Nato protests, I began to understand why the students did that [in 1989]. There was passion then, concern about the country. But they were not very successful."

His classmate, Xiao Li, also 25, agrees: "Originally [in 1989] the students' intentions were good. But as time went on, the direction of the movement was shifted. Finally, students were responsible for some of the violent actions."

Could they envisage taking part in another 1989-style "pro-democracy" protest movement? Xiao Wu says: "The situation is now different. In the past 10 years, people have been making great progress in living conditions and fighting corruption."

Xiao Li adds: "I think most people are quite satisfied with our government now." The government's propaganda line these days is that without the "timely and resolute measures" in 1989, China would not have enjoyed the past decade of economic growth. "That is not only the propaganda, it is also the people's belief," insists Xiao Li.

Compare this with the depth of feeling from one 29-year-old former Peking University student, who took part in the 1989 protests. After the shooting started, she was kept indoors by terrified parents. "I was glued to the TV, witnessing how shameless the government could be," she says. "They said snow was black and coal was white. Burnt soldiers' bodies were shown on the screen, and innocent students were called mobs. All the blame was poured on us, as if we were the criminals who turned such a lovely country into hell ... I felt myself grown up, at the cost of immense pain."

Two generations of students, the class of 1989 lauded by the West, that of 1999 often dismissed as having sold out. Yet, under the surface, it is more complicated. Xiao Wu and Xiao Li are two articulate, thoughtful students at one of China's top universities, speaking near flawless English. Like their peers, they now have access to many sources of information. Every morning, Xiao Wu surfs the Internet on his computer, reading American and Taiwanese publications. But these students are the product of an educational system which - especially since 1989 - drills them in patriotism, the imperative to build a "stronger China", and the need to suspect Western motives towards China.

Today's students are also China's first "me generation". They are from the first cohort not to have been scarred by China's recent political catastrophes, too young to have experienced the 1989 crackdown, or the chaos and vindictiveness of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, the "Great Leap Forward" famine, or the anti-Rightist campaigns of the 1950s.

They are ambitious and the direct beneficiaries of the new freedoms that have flourished over the decade. Unlike their 1989 predecessors, who would have been assigned by the state to jobs, today's students can choose the subjects they want to study, and their careers. Those at the elite Peking universities are swamped with offers, and have a good chance of studying abroad. From their privileged position, they seem unconcerned by the practical difficulties besetting ordinary Chinese, such as soaring unemployment.

So what do human rights mean to them? Xiao Li says: "It's very concrete. I can attend university, write articles and publish them in newspapers, and read a lot of books which express different opinions from the government." But these people have a lot to lose if they step out of line.

The older pro-democracy activists are feeling let down. Ren Wanding, a veteran dissident from the late 1970s Democracy Wall era, says: "Students today are concerned about themselves more. Especially in recent times, people have more freedom in choosing their careers ... It's difficult to push forward the democratic movement and it is difficult to motivate students to join the movement." Ding Zilin, 63, who has bravely campaigned since her 17-year-old son was shot dead by soldiers 10 years ago, damns today's young adults as "so selfish, so indifferent".

Perhaps this is too harsh a comparison. Before the bloody ending to the movement, even the 1989 students were loyal to their political upbringing, a fact seen sharply when they turned over to the police the three men who had thrown ink at the portrait of Chairman Mao near Tiananmen Square, one of whom later went mad in prison.

In the early weeks of spring 1989, unaware of the dark days ahead, many students were involved because it was fun. "We were full of expectation, though not knowing clearly for what," says the 29-year-old. "We walked in the rain, feeling pleasant and romantic. People cast encouraging and respectful glances at us, murmuring, `How brave and excellent those students are'. We felt proud, as if we were marching to the battlefield for the sake of their welfare ... We felt cheerful. It was like a light-hearted spring outing." During last month's demonstrations, students similarly enjoyed every minute.

Yang Hai, a 31-year-old political activist in Xian who was jailed for a year after the 1989 protests, blames ignorance for today's students' ability to shrug off 1989. "Ten years have passed and the government has fooled the people, and misled the people and the students ... If they knew what happened 10 years ago, what the government did to the students, their anger would be much stronger than the [anti-Nato] anger of today."

On Peking's campuses, the Nato bombing has overshadowed the Tiananmen anniversary. Mourning candles have been burning, not for the dead students and workers of 1989. but for the three journalists killed in the Nato strike on the embassy. Students felt genuine outrage at the strike, even if that emotion was then orchestrated by the government.

Jiang Qisheng, 50, a former college teacher who was jailed for 18 months after 1989, had asked people to mark Friday's anniversary by lighting candles to the dead victims. He is in police detention, but before he disappeared he considered the role of patriotism. "Nationalist feelings have an influence over the youth of all generations, but they express it differently. Ten years ago, the youth expressed nationalist feelings through conflict with the government, but today's young people express patriotism by supporting the government."

Xiao Li says: "I think it was my duty as a Chinese citizen to show my indignation [over the embassy]." Outside China, few people realise the conviction here that the bombing was deliberate. "The US wants to drag China into an arms race and slow economic development," he explains.

Ten years ago, the students saw America as the promised land, but today's generation is far more sceptical, echoing many government views. "We've seen these ideas of democracy are not so beneficial," says Xiao Wu. "The US is a democracy, but its conduct was not as perfect as students thought 10 years ago ... If this was the model, now we should not follow that model."

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