What does the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown mean for Chinese youth 33 years later?

Unlike other children in Beijing, Steven Chen rarely went to Tiananmen Square with his parents when he was little.

He found out why at a family reunion, aged eight, when he first heard about the “Tiananmen crackdown”.

On the night of June 3, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army turned its guns on students and ordinary people who demanded a democratic future for their country.

For weeks before, the students, who were among the hundreds of civilians massacred that night, had camped out in Tiananmen Square as part of their protest.

When the stories of that night were told to eight-year-old Mr Chen, he was “utterly shocked” to hear relatives talking about “tanks rolling over the bodies of students”, he said. at the ABC.

“Tiananmen has always struck me as a very solemn and majestic place. You can hardly associate the two scenes together,” he said.

Today, 33 years after the Tiananmen Massacre, he shared how he learned about the crackdown and how it influenced his life.

Learning about the Tiananmen crackdown influenced Steven Chen’s decision to emigrate to Australia at the age of 15.(Provided)

“I asked my father why he didn’t take me to Tiananmen Square like other parents did. He then showed me a video of what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989,” Mr. Chen said.

“It was the first time I saw the famous photo of the tanker.”

But when he asked about what had happened, his parents refused to say more.

Out of curiosity, he searched online for “Tiananmen Square Incident” and “Incident 8964,” but the only thing that came up was an empty webpage.

Although he didn’t fully understand what an empty search page meant as an elementary school student, it sparked his desire to see the world outside the Great Firewall.

When he was 15, he moved to Australia to study.

Here, he was able to access information that is not readily available to most people in mainland China.

‘It’s my duty’

Chinese students carry a sign saying
Chinese students spent weeks camping in Tiananmen Square campaigning for democracy in 1989.(Reuters: Dominique Dudouble)

With the help of his older siblings, Mr. Chen was first exposed to the world outside the Great Firewall through a VPN when he was in sixth grade.

Among the vast amount of Tiananmen crackdown footage on YouTube, what struck him most was a short conversation between a young man on a bicycle and a Western journalist.

The young man told the reporter that he was heading to Tiananmen Square because “it is my duty”.

He told the ABC that if he had lived in China in 1989, he would have joined the movement as well.

“I admire those students who could have lived a stable life, but they chose to take such a risk to fight against a goal that would not necessarily pay off in the short term,” Chen said.

Before coming to Australia, Mr. Chen once mentioned the Tiananmen Movement to his classmates, but they all looked at him quizzically.

“We live in the same society and the same space, but we have a disconnected perception,” he said.

“It’s my greatest sorrow”

Xu Xiao
On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in 2019, Xu Xiao took the banner used in the 1989 protest to Liberty Sculpture Park in the United States.(Provided)

Not all of China’s younger generation shares Mr. Chen’s desire to learn about the history erased from Chinese textbooks, including even the descendants of Tiananmen movement participants.

Xu Xiao, a senior student in Nanjing in 1989 and one of the organizers of the student protest at his university, told the ABC his son was “completely indifferent” to what happened in 1989.

He said his son’s indifference was an indelible pain.

Mr. Xiao moved to the United States in 2019, but his son still lives in China.

He compared his situation to that of Sitong Tan, a famous revolutionary who devoted his life to advancing Chinese society.

“Before Mr. Tan was killed, his wife said to him, ‘You are about to be killed, and we don’t have any children yet.’ Tan said, ‘One more child means one more slave in the world.

A young child standing in front of Sydney Harbor while protesting.
A child recreates an image of a tanker mourning the Tiananmen crackdown in Sydney Harbor in 2018. (Provided)

But Mr. Chen thinks there is a reason why the younger generation knows little and cares less about what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Besides the strict censorship in China, he said another reason was that the movement had nothing to do with the real interests of modern youth.

“If they focus on things like the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), master’s degree, or internships, it can get them a higher salary for their future jobs.

‘Why do we need to revisit this story?’

More than 3,200 terms referring to the Tiananmen Massacre have been censored on the internet in China.(ABC News: Graphic/Jarrod Fankhauser)

Commemorating the Tiananmen crackdown has become part of Mr Xiao’s daily life, but he said relying solely on the “first 89 generation” was “not enough”.

Louisa Lim, a journalist who has reported from China for more than a decade, has been working to uncover the hidden truth about the Tiananmen movement.

In June 2018, while Lim was speaking to Chinese students at an Australian university about the Tiananmen crackdown, a Chinese student asked, “Why do we need to revisit this story? Why do you think knowing this story is useful to the young Chinese generation like me?”

Lim told the ABC that young people in China deserve the right to know the truth, even though many may be terrified of hearing something inconsistent with what the government has told them.

Louisa Lim
Louisa Lim spent years uncovering the hidden truth of the Tiananmen crackdown by speaking with student leaders of the protests.(Provided)

“They are confident that all government decisions are correct and unequivocal, and any deviation from that benchmark is reckless, even dangerous,” she wrote in her book The People’s Republic of Amnesia.

The political sensitivity of June 4 has grown in China over the years, with more than 3,200 terms referring to the Tiananmen Massacre having been censored on the Chinese internet.

Lim said that when such knowledge was hidden from people, it was a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Even as one of the few young people in the know, Mr. Chen said he would not encourage the younger generation in China to learn about the Tiananmen movement because “most young people cannot change anything even they know that”.

They even have to use pinyin – the romanization of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation – or abbreviations to avoid detection by AI algorithms when typing anything relating to 1989 on social media platforms, including WeChat.

“They can’t bring justice to those who died, they can’t attend any memorial ceremony,” he said.

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