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Originally published Saturday, May 30, 2009 at 10:14 PM

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Web-savvy & cynical: China's youth since Tiananmen

Twenty years ago, on the night of June 3, rumors were flying about an impending military crackdown against demonstrators in Beijing. That's when Feng Shijie's wife went into labor in his hometown, Kaifeng.

Associated Press Writer

KAIFENG, China —

Twenty years ago, on the night of June 3, rumors were flying about an impending military crackdown against demonstrators in Beijing. That's when Feng Shijie's wife went into labor in his hometown, Kaifeng.

The baby born the next morning, June 4, is now an undergraduate at Kaifeng University. After class, he plays games online or shoot hoops at a campus basketball court. He can list the latest Hollywood releases and NBA stats. But he knows next to nothing about the pro-democracy movement that ended in a bloody crackdown the day he was born.

"My parents told me some incident happened on Tiananmen Square on my birthday but I don't know the details," says Feng Xiaoguang, an upbeat graphic design student in faux Nike shoes and an imitation Prada shirt.

Xiaoguang is one of China's 200 million so-called 'post-1980' kids - a generation of mostly single children, thanks to the one-child policy, born on the cusp of an unparalleled economic boom. Aged between 20 and 30, they are Web-savvy, worldly, fashion-conscious - and largely apolitical.

Asked what kind of reform the Tiananmen students were after, Xiaoguang says he doesn't know.

"Did it have something to do with the conflicts between capitalism and socialism?" he asks.

It would be hard for him to know more. The subject is taboo. The demonstrations are classified as a counter-revolutionary riot and rarely mentioned in public. Textbooks touch on them fleetingly, if at all.

Few young people are aware that millions of students, workers and average people gathered peacefully in Beijing and other cities over seven weeks in early 1989 to demand democratic reform and an end to corruption. They are not told how communist authorities finally silenced the dissent with deadly force, killing hundreds.

Chinese leaders today argue that juggernaut growth and stability since the early 1990's prove that quelling the uprising was the right choice. Indeed, young Chinese people are materially better off now than they have perhaps ever been, with annual income per capital soaring to about 19,000 yuan ($2,760) in 2007, up from just 380 yuan ($55) in 1978.

But the tradeoff has been that young Chinese have no real role in shaping their country's future - and may not be very interested in having one.

An official survey released this month found 75 percent of college students hoped to join the Communist Party, but 56 percent of those said they would do so to "boost their chances of finding a good job." The rest wanted to join for personal honor - 29 percent - while 15 percent were motivated by faith in communism, said the Internet survey of 12,018 students by the People's Tribune.

An accompanying commentary said students today are clearly "cold" about politics and cited concern from education experts about "extreme egotism" among the youth.

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At Peking University, a hub for the 1989 protests, only one political group cracked the top 15 extracurricular clubs - the elite Marxism Youth Study Group, reputed to be good for career networking.

The generation that demonstrated on Tiananmen Square grew up surrounded by political discussion, scripted as it often was, and lived through mass movements that demanded full public participation, notably the tumultuous Cultural Revolution that ended in 1976.

But the 1989 crackdown put an end to most public debate on the topic of whither China. Few now risk serious political discussion even behind closed doors, with good reason.

Consider The New Youth Study Group, a short-lived club of young Beijing professionals that met privately to talk about political reform and posted essays online, including one titled "China's democracy is fake." Four of the members were convicted of subversion and intent to overthrow the Communist Party in May 2003 and sentenced to between 8 and 10 years in prison.

With this fear of political dissent, it's hard to tell whether young people like underground musician Li Yan are being shallow or shrewd when they shrug off Tiananmen. Li Yan, also known as Lucifer, was born in May 1989 and is a performing arts student in Beijing with a cultivated rebel image.

"Young kids like us are maybe just more into popular entertainment like Korean soap operas. ... Very few people really care about that other stuff," says Lucifer, before mounting the stage at a Beijing club to belt out "Rock 'N Roll for Money and Sex."

Tiananmen veterans read the reaction as apathy and lament it.

"All those magnificent ideals have been replaced by the practical pursuit of self-centered comforts," says Bao Tong, former secretary to Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party leader deposed for sympathizing with the 1989 protesters. "The leaders today don't want young people to think."

According to Bao, 76, China's youth are in the arms of the government being fed candy. They could continue this way if the economy remains strong and the government distributes wealth more equitably, he says, but he doesn't think either is likely.

Others say the reckless optimism of the Tiananmen era is the reason young people today lack ideals. The fearless naivete of 1989 serves as a cautionary tale, not inspiration.

Sun Yi's father was a Tiananmen-era dissident. In a self-published magazine in 1990, he openly criticized the crackdown and was soon imprisoned for speaking out. She admires her father but wonders if his sacrifices, a broken marriage and seven years in jail, were worth it.

"It was a really heroic undertaking, but still I feel he gave up so much, too much," says Sun, a 22-year-old engineering student in Sydney, Australia. "His voice was heard by some of the people but not many, not many compared to the population in China. Is that worth it?"

Wu Xu, 39, was a Tiananmen participant. His generation was plagued by insecurity, he says, and hoped that China could "catch up" to the West politically and economically.

"This generation is totally different," says Wu, author of a recent book about Chinese cybernationalism. "There is no kind of feeling of inferiority. ... They have had the advantage of the last thirty years of China's economic performance."

Wu contends that China's youth know more than they let on, and while they tend to be fiercely proud of their country they are also highly critical of their government. He calls them "a double-edged sword with no handle," because their opinions cut in many directions and are not guided by any single ideology or organization.

Xiaoguang, the boy born that June 4, bears out the theory. He criticizes the United States for the "inadequate apology" it made after a mid-air collision between an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet in 2001. He is angry at CNN for allegedly exaggerating Chinese military brutality against Tibetan rioters last year. Both views parrot the government. Later though, he scoffs at classmates keen to join the Communist Party and grouses about corruption.

His convictions are worn loosely, like a fashion, and have not translated into action. Like many Chinese people today, he appears satisfied with his hobbies, pop culture and other distractions.

He lives with his parents down a dusty dirt road in a simple concrete home. A grapevine snakes up a trellis in the courtyard. The family is supported his mother's monthly 800 yuan ($117) retirement pension and his weekend odd jobs.

In his bedroom, he can watch downloaded pirate copies of Hollywood films like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with slapdash Chinese subtitles. At the same time, he texts friends on his Nokia phone and sends instant messages online.

His parents have scrimped and borrowed to provide their only child with these luxuries - 2,800 yuan ($410) for the computer and 500 yuan ($73) a year for the Internet connection - because he says he needs them for school.

An anxious scowl steals across Xiaoguang's usually cheery face as his father recounts the night he was born.

A debilitating stroke ten years ago has made speaking difficult. But, with help from his wife, Feng told how he dropped his wife at the hospital on the evening of June 3, 1989, then dashed to Kaifeng's Drum Tower where a crowd had gathered in solidarity with protesters in Beijing.

He spent an hour there and the experience inspired his son's name, which means light of dawn.

"His name has great significance. I had just seen China's dawning promise and possibility."

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