BEIJING — Two decades later, the government was there. Hundreds of police, uniformed and plainclothes, watching the tourists take refuge from the Beijing sun under a sea of multi-colored parasols. Mao Zedong was there, too, staring out at the square from his framed perch above the gate. But there would be no repeat of the showdown, no Tiananmen Redux. The students had failed to show.
A 30-minute drive to the north, in a restaurant outside the west gate of Peking University, one of the no-shows, 25-year-old graduate student Rui Luo, tucked into a lunch of stewed chicken and kale, having just returned from sending his girlfriend off on a business trip. He was oblivious to the date.
“What? The anniversary? So that’s why there were so many police in the subway.”
As China marked 20 years since the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square on June 4, the notable thing about youth like Rui wasn’t that they didn’t know about the protests. It was that they didn’t spend much time thinking about them. And not just Tiananmen, but politics in general: In a recent survey of young people living in the capital, the Beijing Municipal Communist Youth League found only 20 percent had ever participated in politics, with much of that “participation” consisting of the simple expression of opinions, either online or in casual conversation.
While complaints about disengaged youth are nothing new in the West, in China the appearance of political apathy among students marks a significant change. Members of Rui’s generation, referred to within China as the post-80 generation, are the first since the end of the dynastic era not to have participated in a major political movement. And that has some wondering if the government’s post-Tiananmen policy — pre-empting pressure for political change by pushing economic development — hasn’t been a little too successful.
“The slogan we all used to live by was ‘Everyone is responsible for the rise and fall of civilization,’” said Liu Xiaobiao, 41, a journalist-turned-academic who traveled to Beijing as a student during the 1989 pro-democracy protests. “Now young people just worry about their own lives, they don’t bother with the big issues.”
If there were any young person in China you’d expect to be engaged in public affairs, it would be Rui Luo. A student at Peking University — the birthplace of numerous youth-led political movements — Rui is a few months away from receiving a PhD in environmental studies. Yet, as he ate his lunch, he drew a line between himself and the Tiananmen generation.
“Students were much more idealistic back then,” Rui said, explaining that he got interested in environmentalism as a child because his birthday fell on Earth Day. “All I want is to have a decent life doing something I like.”
In surveys and the media, the post-80s are described as being incorrigibly materialistic and lacking in moral fiber, more concerned with MP3 players and massive multiplayer online games than improving society. It’s an image that doesn’t exactly square with Rui, who described his material goals as modest: “Enough to enjoy the occasional night with friends, travel a little … ”
The question is: how much of the anxiety over Chinese youth is legitimate, and how much is just a product of a generation gap?
Even those who live lives of more conspicuous consumption reject the criticisms of their elders as overblown.
“I think my sense of social responsibility is pretty strong,” said Amy Shen, 25, who gave up dreams of being a teacher for a position as sales manager at a small real estate firm in Chengdu because the “prospects were better.” Shen says older people in China obsess about the materialism of young people because they don’t understand it.
“They didn’t have a chance to pursue material things,” Shen explained. “They had to worry about feeding and clothing themselves. They didn’t even have a foundation for thinking about materialism.”
And to those who might see the post-80s as the repudiation of everything Tiananmen stood for, China-watcher Stanley Rosen points out that is not necessarily the case.
"That’s something that came out of Tiananmen Square very strongly, with [student leader] Wu’er Kaixi and the others saying, 'We want consumer goods like Nike shoes, we want to be able take our girlfriends out to a bar and discuss any topics we want,'" Rosen, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, told GlobalPost. "One of the reasons China has been so successful is that a lot of what was being protested for — not all, but a lot — has been put into effect."
Rosen is among those who believe criticism of the post-80s has failed to reflect the complexity of their lives compared to previous generations. Liu, the former 1989 participant, agreed.
“We didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have video games,” Liu said, explaining why his generation tended to think in grander terms. “All we had were books and conversation.”
Liu also pointed out that previous generations enjoyed free education and guaranteed jobs, while the post-80s have had to pay for college and find employment without government help. “They have more to worry about.”
Despite the pressures and distractions, there are signs the post-80s might not be as disengaged as they’ve been made out to be. Students made up the vast majority of volunteers who rushed in Sichuan Province in the wake of last year’s devastating earthquake. They were also highly vocal in criticizing what they saw as a global anti-China bias following the riots in Tibetan areas last March.
The rise of the kind of nationalism seen with the Tibetan riot brouhaha might not strike many in the West as a positive development, particularly after the love affair between Western media and the pro-democracy protesters in 1989. But, as Rosen explained, Chinese youth have always been primarily concerned with making their country strong, whether through following foreign models or by finding their own path.
While the chances of a major movement erupting in the near future may be slim, Rosen said he believed it’s only a matter of time before the idealism of Chinese youth trumps their materialism.
“It’s still a Confucian country,” he said. “People feel uncomfortable with just making money, for the most part, and they’re looking for something beyond that.”
Rosen argues that Chinese youth will reassume their traditional role at the forefront of political reform given the right set of circumstances: a precipitous slowdown in economic growth, for example, or a major foreign policy humiliation.
Liu agrees. “Whether people pay attention to politics depends on whether they perceive there’s a political problem,” he said. “There are problems accumulating now, but there needs to be a fuse to light them off.”