Tiananmen Square lost in history to today's Chinese youth

Tiananmen Square lost in history to today's Chinese youth
China's vast censorship machine does its utmost to wipe the slightest reference to the Tiananmen crackdown from books, television and the Internet, scrubbing the issue from public discussion and even from the minds of its younger generation.

Kor Kian Beng and Rachel Chang speak to Chinese youth who were born in or close to that fateful year about the watershed event that influenced much of life in China.

Undergraduate Ma Yan proudly lays claim to having taken part in a political demonstration before she was even born.

And not just any protest. It was the one at Beijing's Tiananmen Square that started in April 1989, and ended in a bloody crackdown by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on June 4 that year.

At the end of May 1989, her mother was six months pregnant with Ms Ma and was out for a stroll with her father when they found themselves at the square. The nearly 100,000 people - undergraduates, unionists and others - were still in a festive mood as they protested against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Days later, on June 3 and June 4, Chinese leaders ordered troops to clear the square, and the bloodshed began. Estimates of the death toll range from several hundred to thousands. It was the first time the CCP had used weapons on its own people since taking power in 1949.

But for Ms Ma, now 25, the crackdown - commonly referred to as liusi (June 4) in Chinese - is just a story, and a little-known one at that.

She likens the protesters to China's best-known assassin Jing Ke and his failed attempt in 227BC to kill the king of Qin, who later became the first to unify China.

"Jing Ke knew he could not kill the king, but he wanted to die as a symbol of his effort to be remembered by other generations. But who among my peers remembers the effort of the Tiananmen protesters? That is the irony," she said.


MS MA'S knowledge and thoughtfulness about June 4 are unusual for a Chinese her age. Eleven others in their early to mid-20s The Straits Times interviewed mostly displayed little knowledge, and even less interest in learning more about what many outside China consider as one of the pivotal events in its modern history.

It is not as if that is a tough task in today's wired world. Her generation is simply too plugged in for significant information to be kept completely from them.

A few who spoke to The Straits Times said they did research into the incident only after receiving the interview request. Interestingly, they showed no fear in discussing it. Almost none was worried about having his or her name published, and several agreed to having their pictures published.

Surprisingly, their lack of knowledge is not a simple case of political amnesia or being scared into silence; these young people just seemed to be indifferent. To them, the Tiananmen incident was one of many tumultuous political struggles in China's 5,000 years of civilisation.

They were more concerned about recent injustices like the "tofu buildings" that collapsed on schoolchildren during the 2008 Sichuan earthquakes, or the 2011 Wenzhou train crash.

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