26 years after Tiananmen, Chinese millennials are forgetting to fear their government

A new breed?
A new breed?
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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When the journalist Eric Fish was researching a book about Chinese millennials, one of his subjects told him: “Be sure to say that we post-90s people aren’t just idiots. Foreigners always think we’re brainwashed.”

The guy was right to worry—on this day especially. Every year, as the Western press eulogizes the hundreds (or by some estimates thousands) of demonstrators killed in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, it gropes for a purpose to such senseless loss of life and potential.

The glitch in the moral narrative arc is this: The same Communist Party that massacred its youth has since brought dazzling prosperity to China, and to today’s youth. In what China-watchers sometimes call the “grand bargain,” the Party bought the people’s apathy and amnesia, and it seems to have worked.

No one has benefited more from the grand bargain than China’s 250 million millennials. But as Fish probes in his book, China’s Millennials: The Want Generation, many have grown weary of apathy and materialism. And as the economy slows, the Chinese government is increasingly struggling to keep up its side of the bargain.

Quartz sat down with Fish to talk about what makes Chinese millennials tick, the challenge they pose to the Xi Jinping administration, and the legacy of Tiananmen. Fish’s answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Image for article titled 26 years after Tiananmen, Chinese millennials are forgetting to fear their government

On what sets Chinese millennials apart

First off, what drove you to write your book?

What became apparent during the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown last year is that there seems to be a lot of looking at China’s millennials from the West and seeing young people that are pacified by economic growth and nationalism. The economy took off in the ’90s, and at the same time the government instituted this kind of patriotic education campaign shifting the focus from socialist ideology to Chinese nationalism. There’s definitely a lot of substance to that story still, but I think it’s now less relevant.

How are Chinese millennials different from the previous generation?

The young people I talked to again and again say they care less about money. There’s less satisfaction with pure economic growth, with materialism. They are more interested in religion, environmentalism, journalism—things that fulfill a sense of meaning. They’re less inclined to parrot the party line. They’re more individualistic.

On attitudes toward the government

Do millennials buy into Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream concept—are young people more immune to that hokey paternalism? 

There’s a funny story I heard from a young entrepreneur I talked to about this. A Beijing TV station wanted to do a TV segment on him as an example of an innovative entrepreneur living the Chinese dream. The guy was a total hippie—he had long hair, he was scruffy, he wore a t-shirt. They asked him about his schooling and he said, “Oh, I fought with teachers a lot in class.” They asked him about how he became innovative, and he said, “A lot of it probably came from my parents’ divorce.”

The business he started was sort of like Pandora, except it matches music to your mood. His parents were divorced when he was really young and he used the piano to escape. He said that since his parents didn’t pressure him to study for the gaokao [the all-important college entrance exam] he was free to pour himself into creative pursuits—and that frame of mind about doing something different helped him found a startup.

I bet that went over well!

Well, at the end of the interview, the TV station producer basically told him his story didn’t fit with the theme of their Chinese dream series and the segment never ran. The entrepreneur said to me afterward, “The Chinese Dream should be about many people living their own dreams, not about what the Chinese leaders want us to do.”

What about nationalism—is the government playing with fire a little by stoking it?

It is interesting to see youth out at these huge protests—the 2012 [Anti-Japan protests] were the biggest there have been since the ’80s. But while young people who are very fervent patriots and nationalists have some overlap with the government agenda, at the same time, there’s a threat there that could be very dangerous for the government if it’s not handled correctly. This is something the government is worried about—that nationalistic protests could turn against them. It’s happened so many times in Chinese history: the May 4th movement, protests in 1935 against the Kuomintang government to stand up to Japan more. There was also a connection between the anti-Japan protests of 1985 that morphed into outrage about corrupt domestic leaders who were selling out their country [which eventually gave way to the Tiananmen protests].

Is Xi’s image as an anti-corruption crusader compelling to millennials?

For sure. Xi is definitely giving off this image that he’s taking care of business. His anti-corruption campaign has been wildly popular with young people. How long that can last if more fundamental things don’t change, I don’t know. Anecdotally people are saying, “things are better, I don’t have to pay bribes anymore.” But are officials waiting out what they think is a temporary campaign? How much of this is permanent and systemic?

Does that imply more potential for popular protest?

It’s hard to imagine what would bring people together for any kind of movement, but it’s also really hard to judge these things until they happen. Like the Southern Weekend protests [demonstrations over government censorship of the prominent magazine Southern Weekend in 2013]—clearly media censorship was something a lot of people really cared about. The general thing that is happening is that young people are losing inhibitions to speak up, they’re demanding more from their leaders, and tolerance for incompetence, corruption, and injustice is shrinking.

At the same time a lot of social and economic problems are getting worse—the economy and job situation are getting pretty dismal for them, the environment, the gender imbalance. If all those things ever intersect in some way, that could spell trouble. I have no idea what that would look like, but I think these trends are things that keep China’s leaders awake at night.

How effectively is the government managing youth outrage these days?

It depends on how you look at it. At the end of the Hu Jintao administration [from 2003 to 2013] there were all these street demonstrations and online movements and those have really been subdued. So in that way, it really seems that Xi has been successful. But the more Xi [muzzles dissent] the more people he puts in contact with the coercive measures of the state.

The Feminist Five [that were jailed for more than a month in March after protesting sexual harassment on public transport] are a good example. They’d done these pretty innocuous demonstrations and they weren’t that political at all. But by imprisoning them for more than a month, it made a lot of people who only cared about very narrow feminist issues care about bigger political issues. And it brought others, including men, to the feminist cause. It’s a case study in what happens when the state escalates repression—is it going to last, or are they creating more problems for themselves in the long run?

On millennial entrepreneurism

People are talking about China and innovation right now. Are there experiences unique to Chinese millennials that make them more comfortable entrepreneurs?

I think it’s definitely a more entrepreneurial generation. Younger people who don’t have the memory of the hardships that their parents’ generation did, they’re less afraid of taking that entrepreneurial plunge into something that could easily fail.

So those who say Chinese can’t innovate—that’s absurd. There’s all kind of cool innovation happening everywhere you look. But at a society level, there are some huge roadblocks to innovation legally, politically, culturally. The young innovators that I talked to are still outliers. One 22-year-old entrepreneur I talk about in the book said a lot of the people he was working with on app development are not from China’s top universities because those graduates go directly into state-owned companies or Baidu or Tencent.

The culture has decided, if you’re at the top of your field you get a job at a big company—you don’t create something new. Graduates from the second-tier of schools are more inclined to start their own businesses. Launching a tech startup as a college grad or even dropping out of college—that was completely crazy not too long ago. But it becomes less insane when you see other people doing it.

How much of that willingness to launch their own business is because it’s getting so hard for millennials to get jobs?

That’s definitely a driver. In 2012, college graduate unemployment was 16%, which was double the US. And it gets worse every year. University degrees are devaluing quite quickly, so it’s definitely one motivator to do a startup.

On Tiananmen

In general, how do millennials seem to view Tiananmen? Does it mean anything to them?

There’s not this appreciation that people were protesting the government for a slew of reasons that threatened the government’s legitimacy enough that it saw fit to violently suppress them. But there’s also not as much of an appreciation of what the state is willing to do to keep power as what people maybe had 15, 20 years ago.

Tiananmen was suppressed way more violently than it needed to be. There had been large protests in years before that that were less violently broken up. When they used tanks and machine guns [around Tiananmen Square] the government sent a pretty effective message that it wasn’t going to tolerate protest anymore. But they then erased, or attempted to erase, Tiananmen. The side-effect is, the next generation that wasn’t around to receive that message—there’s not that fear that there once was about stepping out of line.

You say “attempted to erase”…

The idea that it’s been totally erased from history in China is a bit overblown. Some people know entirely what happened. Most know that something happened—that people were killed in 1989—but they’re very sketchy on the details—why they were killed.

Some people I talked to, when I brought it up, they said, “Well they must have done something really bad,” like threatening the stability of the country. They think that the protesters must have been too uncompromising, and that the government had no choice.

But you ask 10 different people, you get 10 different answers. I’ve gotten responses that run the gamut from “what they did was absolutely correct” and “these were people trying to create chaos that needed to be put down,” all the way to the other extreme—the view that the massacre was unnecessarily brutal and stripped the Communist Party of its legitimacy.

Is it kind of remarkable that you get such a range of responses?

Tiananmen is just one of so many issues on which there’s no longer groupthink anymore. It used to be you asked what people thought about some issue and they’d say the government line. Views on Tiananmen is a good example of that—of the diversity of opinions blooming in China.

So Chinese millennials are not ”brainwashed”?

We in the West hear about Chinese censorship all the time. But time and again, even when I talked to young migrants or rural workers, they all seemed to have a fairly good understanding of what was going on—they’re aware of the same problems that we see.

However, they don’t necessarily see the same solutions, or make the connections between these problems and the political system the way [Westerners] are inclined to do. I don’t think there is any great willingness to shake up the system completely. A lot of people see value in stability.

Do you see any parallels between the mood among young people now and in the late 1980s?

Well, look how Tiananmen was sparked. [The protesters] came out to grieve for a leader, Hu Yaobang, who was celebrated because he wasn’t corrupt, he didn’t put his children in high positions. He was the model who highlighted all the corruption in the system. The Weibo things [the exposure of corrupt officials on social media] that have blown up and gotten a lot of local officials fired—that might be helping people have more courage to speak out when they see something wrong. Online tools definitely create strength in numbers.

The comparison to today is useful in that in 1989 there were all sorts of different economic and social circumstances that contributed to people being willing to go out on the streets and push for change en masse.

And the demonstrators weren’t pushing for what we think of as Western-style democracy; there were all these different things people were protesting, and in many ways, they weren’t united on them. Students were pushing for reforms to go fast, workers thought they’d gone too fast.

In the posters you see from Tiananmen—about freedom of speech and democracy—these concepts were popular, but there never seemed to be this notion of “we need to flip the system.” Today, I don’t see a huge clamoring for fundamental political overhaul either. The question is, will anything bring these different groups of young people together?