June 4th marks the twentieth anniversary of the violent crackdown of the Tiananmen Square protests by the Chinese army. The American Dream—capitalism and Western democracy—inspired the students who occupied the square for nearly two months. The protests ended when tanks rolled into the square, but what brought a final defeat to the student movement was a new dream, the Chinese Dream—capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
Two decades after June 4th, 1989, nationalism, and pride in China’s new power has replaced student idealism. An economic powerhouse, and a global stakeholder, China is now at par with Japan, England, and other “foreign invaders” who left deep and humiliating scar in Chinese people’s collective memory. Proud of their country’s new international standing, the post-Tiananmen Square generation is mistrustful of those criticizing China’s politics, and its economic practices. Their nationalism is rooted in economics, and the successes of China’s model of development in the past thirty years.
Using fax machines, and eagerly engaging foreign journalists, the Tiananmen Square protesters brought the attention of the world to their plight, making their showdown with the government a global spectacle. Unwilling to rock the boat, and longing to join China’s prospering new middle class and share the fruits of economic reforms, the post-Tiananmen Square generation is resentful of the negative coverage of China by foreign media.
Traveling in China for an eyewitness account of ordinary people’s experience with economic reform, I encountered a new generation of youth interested not in making social change, but saving, and benefiting from the status quo. Many had not heard of the Tiananmen Square protests. Others were skeptical of the protesters’ motives. “Students are impressionable. They can easily get misled by others,” said a twenty-two year old university graduate who was told of the protests by a sympathetic professor.
No doubt, political repression and fear played an important role in creating this generational change. Equally important, however, is the visible achievements of the economic reforms in molding a generation of loyal youth willing to sacrifice political reform for a share of China’s new riches. China has entered the age of development, a national project requiring the faithful participation of everyone. Politics and activism create “chaos” and derail development. This has become the motto of the post-Tiananmen Square generation.
The occupation of Tiananmen Square began by the students from Beijing University, but soon, arriving in trucks and on foot, thousands of other students, factory workers, and ordinary citizens joined the protests. Setting up roadblocks and street barricades, workers from nearby factories protected the students by slowing down the movement of tanks and soldiers to the square. They endured most of the casualty in the final days of the protests.
Today, however, prejudice, conflict of interest, and, in cases, outright hostility, separate students from the new Chinese working class, millions of underpaid internal migrants working tirelessly, and under severely substandard conditions, in the country’s export-processing factories. The alliance that once threatened the power of the Communist Party of China is now broken. It is replaced by economic pragmatism on the part of the students, and the fear that increased workers’ power would endanger growth, and their chances for a stable and prosperous future.
“What could unions do other than destroy the stability China is enjoying now?” said a social work major when I made a case for independent unions to improve the living conditions of migrant workers. Unions lead to “chaos and revolution,” he told me. China could not help all its citizens at the same time. Someone had to get rich first; others—migrant workers and farmers—had to wait their turn, said others.
“Why do you focus on the migrant workers so much? They are not a representative group. It is not fair to judge a nation on the basis of a small group of people. This is what foreigners liked to do,” a graduate student of English literature told me. “Look at America. Many Indians were killed in the beginning, but America is now the greatest country in the world. The Indians were sacrificed for progress. Why should China be any different?” she said.
June 4th will be an anniversary of the death of idealism in China.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West. Yaghmaian is currently working on a book about China. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.