It seems to me that if you seriously want to understand the mentality of Chinese people today, you have to consider the impact of the events of June 1989. The protests were not isolated but were part of a general push for democracy in the late nineteen-eighties. This is abundantly clear if you read any books which cover the period – at the moment I’m reading ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’ by Paul Theroux, his account of a year spent travelling around the country. It was published in 1988, and in the book in conversation after conversation people express their shame and disgust at the Cultural Revolution, their rejection of Mao as someone who made nothing but mistakes and as someone who they recognise to have been essentially cracked after 1956, and their wish for more political freedom. He visits Mao’s home village, a site of pilgrimage 10 years before, and finds it completely deserted.
He talks about the massive protests which took place all over the country in 1987, involving both students and workers demanding greater political freedom: press freedom, electoral reform, a multiparty system, official permission to demonstrate and, perhaps more importantly, their right to have their protests reported in the press; and social freedom – the students’ demands included sexual freedom (in 2005 it is still illegal to ‘cohabit’) and better food in the canteens. At one point there were between 100,000 and 200,000 people on the streets of Shanghai, and similar protests in other cities. The person scapegoated and purged in the wake of these protests was Hu Yaobang, whose death was the initial impetus for the buildup in Tienanmen Square in April 1989. There also followed a general campaign against the effects of ‘bourgeois liberalism’, especially amongst the young.
We all know what came of that – if anyone needs reminding they only need to take the time to read the report which the Guardian fortunately keeps posted on it’s Special Report on China page here. As I say, it was not an isolated event. The ongoing impact has involved a partial rehabilitation of Mao’s reputation, a refusal to confront the consequences of the Cultural Revolution and what I consider to be a general intellectual impoverishment, contrasted with the real intellectual awakening of the nineteen-eighties which is evident in Paul Theroux’s book and also in Ma Jian’s ‘Red Dust’, which is the story of a Beijing writer and painter travelling the country in the mid-80s, on the run from the authorities visiting his friends and witnessing the changes taking place. His friends also paint, write and talk about the recent past and about the possibility of living in a freer society.
I can only compare that with the conversations I’ve had over the last ten months, obviously especially with young people, in which political change has not been any kind of issue for them.
The authorities after 1989 took the decision that they would systematically crush any sign of independent thinking amongst young people. In order to achieve this they increased military-style discipline in universities, increased political (read nationalistic) education for university and school students and removed from campuses any places where students or teachers would be able to gather and discuss their lives. This over the last few years has happily coincided with a general improvement of the standard of living, along with certain projects of national prestige which are used to bolster young people’s sense of national pride and attachment to the state.
Just as important in my opinion has been the growing availability of mobile phones and the internet. Chinese students see themselves primarily as consumers, just as connected to and engaged with the outside world as young people in Japan or the USA. In reality they are disconnected from the society that they live in, atomized, disregarding of any notion of solidarity or democracy. What it will now take to shake them out of this stupor and make them think about what is going on around them I do not know. They really don’t seem to know or in fact care that the internet they see is filtered and a pale imitation of what the rest of the world uses. I’ve tried asking them what they would do if the government banned mobile phones, but it’s a bit too abstract as that clearly is not about to happen.
This, on the other hand, is fantastic news.