A family poses for photographs at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, on Monday, March 4, 2019. National People's Congress spokesman Zhang Yesui said at a briefing on Monday that China would need to increase its military spending to protect itself and that it doesn't pose a threat to other countries. Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg
© Bloomberg

When tanks crushed protests by students and workers in Beijing on June 4 1989, one of the casualties was a 33ft-high papier mâché “Goddess of Democracy” that for many symbolised the spirit of the movement.

Thirty years later, young Chinese enjoy many of the benefits that the protesters sought: freedom to travel abroad, freedom to choose their own jobs and respite from the daily burdens of corruption and inflation. 

But far from seeking democracy — another right their elders demanded — they are instead growing disenchanted with the US amid a protracted trade war and a sense that China is finally America’s equal on many fronts.

The 30th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests has brought the realisation that a prosperous middle-class China will not necessarily turn against the ruling Communist party, as many outside observers had expected.

“Young people born in this century, all they know is China’s economy taking off. They remember the 2008 Summer Olympics and the economic boom,” said Xiao Qiang, who studies the Chinese internet at University of California, Berkeley. By contrast, his generation, born in the stagnant aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, “looked to the US as the gold standard that we hoped to eventually reach”.

The anniversary of the crackdown will not be marked in China, where authorities routinely stifle any mention of the events. Wei Fenghe, defence minister, said at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore on Sunday that the authorities’ response at the time had been the “correct” decision, citing the country’s “stability” since then. 

Elsewhere, commemorations for its victims are held against the backdrop of China’s rising global influence.

“You need to understand the Chinese. We might curse the government but we want China to succeed,” said a high-tech worker in his 20s surnamed Song, who grew up “under the huge influence of US culture”. He declined to give his full name, because of the sensitivities of any article involving US-China relations or the June 4 anniversary.

BEIJING, CHINA - APRIL 22: Students gesture and shout slogans as they pay respect 22 April 1989 in Beijing to former Chinese Communist Party leader and liberal reformer Hu Yaobang as thousands of students gather near the monument to the People's Heroes in Tiananmen Square during an unauthorized demonstration to mourn the death of Hu Yaobang. His death in April trigged an unprecedented wave of pro-democracy demonstrations. The April-June 1989 movement was crushed by Chinese troops in June when army tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square 04 June. (Photo credit should read CATHERINE HENRIETTE/AFP/Getty Images)
Students protest in 1989 © Catheine Henriette/AFP

Until May, when negotiators from Beijing and Washington failed to sign a deal to end the trade war, Chinese state media had been careful not to stir up anti-US sentiment. Beijing loosened those restrictions after the setback in negotiations.

Now, state media broadsides against American “bullying” strike a chord with young people like Mr Song, whose admiration for the US has soured along with the trade war. “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling,” he said. “It’s like when you thought the big guy was really great but he turns against you.” 

For young Chinese wealthy enough to travel, what they find abroad no longer looks as impressive as what they have at home. “People aren’t as idealistic about America any more. They go there and discover lots of problems,” said a recent graduate who gave his English name, Jack. “But that’s also a kind of freedom we have now, to have the ability to make the comparison.” 

Chinese in their teens and 20s have no direct experience of the inflation, shortages and corruption that brought their parents’ generation on to the streets. Long commutes, high housing prices, uncertain jobs and a percolating #metoo movement occupy their attention instead.

Nonetheless, the ruling Communist party is not taking any chances. It moved aggressively last year against a group of young Marxist labour organisers, one of the few organised student movements to have emerged over the past three decades. Ahead of the June 4 anniversary, police have rounded up other grassroots activists

In January, Chinese president Xi Jinping called for “strengthening the ideological and political education among the young”, at conference on “preventing and diffusing major risks”. The implication, said Mr Xiao of Berkeley, is that the party still views young people as a potential threat to its rule. 

After the protests of 1989, “the Chinese Communist party redoubled its efforts to instil patriotic pride in the younger generation”, said Jessica Chen Weiss, a China scholar at Cornell University. Students that year were subjected to months of military indoctrination. Even today, 30 years later, Chinese university students kick off their freshman year with two weeks of military boot-camp on campus. Food at campus cafeterias is heavily discounted to prevent complaints from arising.

The results of the indoctrination have been mixed, from the party’s point of view. Young people, “netizens” who spent a lot of time online and the political elite are more hawkish in their views than the broader population, Ms Chen Weiss says, citing studies of Chinese public opinion. But they are not “blind patriots” — they are also more willing to criticise their own government than older generations of Chinese.

The party has taken pains to remind students and academics to toe the line. Earlier this year, all professors at the prestigious Peking University were summoned to attend lectures on Xi Jinping Thought. Surveillance cameras surround a grassy triangle used by student protesters in the past.

Last week, a notice spread on social media in Beijing warning against “counter-revolutionaries” who might attempt to interview students on college campuses. Students should reject the interview and report the incident, the notice said.

The streets around Peking University are lined with propaganda posters extolling the virtues expected of citizens. A large bookstore next to neighbouring Tsinghua University is plastered with police notices, reminding buyers to remember their belongings and report any trouble. 

Disillusion with America, combined with middle-class anxieties at home, leave young Chinese in uncharted waters. 

“Now young people don’t necessarily see America or Europe as the way to go,” Mr Xiao said. “They see China has its own way, it will get there by itself and it even has its own advantages.”

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