“At dawn this morning, the streets of Beijing looked and sounded like a war zone.”
There was a firsthand account on yesterday’s CBC As It Happens program commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in China. Rowena Xiaoqing He was speaking from Montreal about her experiences as a student activist during that time, of a generation that grew up with the ideas of Mao and under the national transformations of Deng Xiaoping and felt betrayed by a government that they were taught to sacrifice their lives for. The talk turned to the atmosphere of China now and the ideals of newer generations.
I am too young to have been drastically or directly affected by the Tiananmen massacre, and my mother, who at the time was a lecturer at Qinghua university, was rather the voice of reason for her students to reconsider demonstrating, and not a participant (although my parents tell me stories of how they were arguing about which one of them should go, and which one of them should stay to raise me should the other come to any danger). I say that I am neither drastically nor directly affected, but this does not mean that I was not affected. Rowena Xiaoqing He said in the broadcast that Tianamen square was not a tragedy in the past, but a continuing tragedy because some demonstrators of that day are still in exile and continue to be victimized. Even as a Canadian citizen, I have met individuals who had been incarcerated in China due to their beliefs. And there is threat that something I do may land me the the government’s black books.
He said that her outspokenness may result her family getting into trouble in China, and “I don’t want to be a martyr.” It sounds far away, a faceless voice on the radio, by someone many would consider a hero. But these words can be uttered closer to home. When I was still enrolled at University of Toronto and working as a part of the Amnesty International group there, I asked the president of the group, a friend of mine, whether she would like to work with Amnesty International as her career. She said that she would, except no, she would like to still be able to go back to China. It was the way she said it that made such an impression on me – there was no rancour or fear, just a simple statement, and said in such a cause-and-effect manner, an absolute equation. This equation should not exist, and fact that it comes up is testament to a sense of overall, continuing tragedy.
Carol Off, the host of As It Happens, mentioned that during the Olympics the last summer, many young people in China were upset with media portrayals of their country as a totalitarian and closed nation, and asked whether younger generations in China today could possibly rally against their government. He said that at first, she was pessimistic, but before the Tiananmen massacre occurred, people in China were criticizing the younger generation for aspiring only to wealth and a better material life outside China, and that evidence of this does not mean that a genuine regard for more abstract ideals do not exist. I want to expand on this:
I have noticed grounds for a similar kind of criticism, living outside of China and able to compare people of my parents’ generation who left China many years ago with those of my own generation who have left only recently. (and I am quite sure of sociological and psychological studies done in this regard, comparing the mentality of older generations, who have lost touch with the evolution of their home cultures, with those who have evolved with their culture.) He, the in radio broadcast, speaks about how her generation was taught to sacrifice themselves for the nation if required, and that sense of responsibility to something bigger than oneself seems to be present in many forms among the older generation. There does seem to be a difference in work ethic, for example. My mother, a researcher in Neuroscience, has found that often students she hires from China would be unwilling to do work if the work does not seem to help them personally in any way, and there is little gratitude for help and opportunities handed to them.
In addition, the generation concurrent with mine, but who have grown up with China, does seem extremely nationalistic and unwilling (and perhaps unable) to find any faults with their own government. As someone who has left China for a long time, I have a rather conflicted relationship with this country. What goes on in China impacts me deeply despite my long absence and near lack of any connection. On the one hand, I will defend China, as a holistically entity, to the death, but one the other hand I can be quite harsh in judging its faults. I am now going to be harsh, but I find the fact that the younger generation’s anger at portrayals of China as oppressive is quite ironic. Perhaps in reality, there are little crackdowns and active oppression going on, because the younger generation are unable to produce a contrary thought for the anyone to do any actual oppressing. I am still pessimistic with regards to China’s younger generation, because I see them building themselves into a vast and internalized panopticon. The only politics this generation seems to be interested in is to target nations who have gone against China in some way, for example, Japan.
On the other hand, having listened to the likes of Michael Kearns, a CBC journalist who presented at the Media panel of the University of Toronto China Conference this year, I do realize that many things about China are changing. Kearns mentioned how in the wake of an incidence of police brutality, a city’s citizens spread the news through textmessaging and so had the city hall surrounded by nightfall. Another hope, I think, lies with Chinese people outside China, who can more clearly assess some of the policies and incidences occurring within their country. As people in China become more internationally mobile, they will also be exposed to different points of view.
To draw on a somewhat lighter subject, I realize that some time ago, Jackie Chan was under fierce attack for supposedly saying that Chinese people would not be able to handle freedom. I realize that what he said was probably taken out of context, but for a moment, if we do take it out of context and rigorously evaluate this statement. I do not believe that it is true. There is nothing inherent about Chinese people as a race that makes them more submissive or more authoritarian, and I do think progress has been made. However, I also believe that “freedom” as people in the West conceives of it needs to be taught. A rant on the politics of Western cultural values and globalization would have to wait for another day, but I believe the education of freedom and democracy is ongoing and cannot be assessed by human lifespans. To be fair, this entry is a double-sided coin in that it points out certain ideological cracks in the Chinese mentality at the same time it celebrates and honours the will in the Chinese mentality that can face down the tanks.