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"I Think It's Already Been Forgotten"

How China's millennials talk about Tiananmen Square

Feng Li/Getty Images

I recently met up with two young men at a quiet café in Beijing and told them I wanted to talk about June 4, 1989. One of them, let’s call him Wang, slapped the table and rose from his seat. “Sorry, I’m leaving!” he announced.

A moment later, though, he sat back down: He was just joking. “This is the reaction most people have,” said Liu, his friend. “Their thinking is, ‘Better not mention it.’”

“Another reaction is, ‘What is that?’” Wang said. “A lot of people don’t know about this.”

Twenty-five years after June 4, 1989, even China’s educated youth have only a foggy understanding of the incident, and they’re skittish about discussing it openly. Textbooks don’t mention the violence that left hundreds, maybe thousands, dead in the streets of Beijing. The Chinese Internet has been scrubbed of all but the official accounts. (The first result on the search engine Baidu is a short article from People’s Daily concluding that the incident “taught the party and the people a useful lesson.”) The Chinese government has arrested dozens of people in recent weeks for planning or participating in events related to the anniversary, and police have warned foreign journalists not to cover the story. Still, most young Chinese people I approached were willing to talk—as long as they could remain anonymous.

Awareness of the Tiananmen incident among young Chinese tends to correlate with education level, exposure to the world outside China, and general curiosity. Wang, a goofy 26-year-old from Lanzhou who works in finance, didn’t learn about June 4 until he was in college and saw The Gate of Heavenly Peace, an American-produced documentary about the student protests and the ensuing crackdown. It was only then that he started to understand the motivations behind the movement, the tensions between liberal and hardline factions within Deng Xiaoping’s government, and the infighting among students and workers that ultimately doomed their cause. Liu, who is 31 and works at a Chinese media organization, saw the same documentary after graduating college, and had a different takeaway: “The government is an asshole.”

Most Chinese parents don’t talk about politics with their children, said Amy, a bright 26-year-old from Guangdong province who works for a tech company in Beijing. But she was an exception: she heard about the incident from her father. “He hated Deng Xiaoping,” she said. “He thinks Deng caused China to have no morals, no beliefs. I asked why, and he said, ‘Deng Xiaoping ordered tanks to run over college students. Do you think that’s what a good person does?’” Later, when she was attending a top university in Beijing, one of her professors showed photos and videos from the protests. “The teacher told us not to mention it outside class,” she said.

“When I heard about [the crackdown] I was so shocked,” said Susan, 27, over a latte at a Costa Coffee in Beijing. She spoke fluent English and wore big blue contact lenses that make the wearer look like an extraterrestrial. She was two years old when the tanks rolled through her neighborhood in northern Beijing, but it wasn’t until college that she learned what happened, after an American classmate raised the subject. “I don’t know how the government could do that to its own people,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t want to—it was too crazy.” But even now, she’s not completely clear on the details, partly because it’s so hard to get information. “You can type ‘1988’ into a search engine, and you get nothing,” she said. I asked if she meant 1989. “Yeah, ’89, sorry.”

Everyone I talked to knew the basic outline: Student protests, government crackdown, innocent civilians shot dead. But they weren’t all sure why the protesters were so upset. Jenny, a sharp 25-year-old legal expert living in Beijing, guessed it had to do with corruption. Several people suggested that the students were being manipulated by outside forces, particularly foreign governments. “Do you believe in conspiracy theories?” one young woman asked me. “It wasn’t about ideas,” said Susan. “It was just a power struggle.”

You can’t blame them for being confused. The 1989 protesters themselves didn’t know exactly what they wanted. They complained variously about high inflation, corruption, and a lack of democracy. As Wu’er Kaixi, one of the student leaders, put it in one interview: “What do we want? Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society.” Even if they’d agreed on a set of goals, they couldn’t agree how to achieve them: Some wanted revolution, while others pushed for incremental change.

The young people I spoke with agreed strongly that the government should not have resorted to violence. They found it ludicrous that the Chinese can’t discuss the incident freely. But they were also far from convinced that the protesters were correct. “They’re just a bunch of guys who gathered on Tiananmen Square to protest,” said Wang. “For what? Nobody knows. … Even among the students, there was corruption, betrayals, different forces controlling and using the students.” Liu disagreed, arguing that you can’t blame the students for not being better organized: “You can never be prepared until you really do it.” As for the outcome, Liu added, “I think that was definitely beneficial. That was a push. Obviously they became sacrifices, but that’s important.” Wang shook his head. China had been on its way to opening up, he argued, but the protesters forced the government to clamp down: “If that had never happened, China would be much more free.”

James, a 31-year-old stylist from Zhejiang province, said that you have to look at the crackdown in the larger context of Chinese history, including the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, both of which were by any metric more destructive than the Tiananmen incident, as well as the 25 years of political stability that followed. “There’s no black and white,” he said.

Even for the young people who have learned about June 4, it’s still a distant concept—nothing like the open wound it is for their parents’ generation. “It’s like something from a legend,” said Jenny. “It seems so exaggerated.”

“I may understand it, but I can hardly feel it,” said Liu. “It’s like the Cultural Revolution to us.”  

And like the Cultural Revolution, the ten-year horror show that ended in 1976, it may take a couple of generations before people can speak candidly. “If a historical event is recent, you can’t evaluate it objectively,” said Jenny. “You have to let time pass before you can judge it.” But what if it’s been forgotten by then? I asked. “I think it’s already been forgotten,” she said.

Forgetting isn’t just easy; it’s often necessary. As Louisa Lim writes in her new book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, “moving on—not dwelling on the past—has become a key survival tactic, perhaps the most important one.” The young people I spoke with seemed torn between wanting to care, and knowing that caring wouldn’t make a difference. “Say I really get to know what happened,” Jenny said. “So what? … Maybe I’ll get really angry, but I won’t be able to do anything about it. So I’d rather not know.” Susan seemed almost scared of what she herself would be capable of if she knew too much. “What am I going to do,” she said, “raise a revolution? Write an article? I can’t. I know myself, I know if I start writing I’ll be so aggressive, so critical, so negative. I don’t want to be noticed by the government.” She believes that even searching for forbidden key words could get her in trouble, she said: “They can track you down within minutes.”

They were pessimistic that the next generation would know any more about 1989 than they do. The post-’90s generation, the oldest of whom are now graduating from college, prefer American TV shows and Korean pop stars to social issues, said Amy. Susan argued that most young Chinese are too focused on getting by to worry about grand political issues. “They don’t care, as long as they have something to eat and a place to live,” she said. “We’re just walking dead.” Between the quest for material goods and the squelching of her own curiosity, Jenny said, “the government succeeded. We’ve been brainwashed.”