West's fascination with Tiananmen Square events not shared in China

UCSC students learn of country's confidence and nationalism

tank man
"Tank Man," standing before a Chinese military convoy, has become an iconic image in the West symbolizing the pro-democracy movement that was crushed 25 years ago. Few in China, however, recognize the photo and many of those who do think it was staged.

Today's China looks vastly different from the China of 25 years ago when on June 3 authorities began the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

"China is today a society mesmerized by wealth, and the post-Tiananmen generation is bent on getting ahead," writes Ben Read, UC Santa Cruz associate professor of politics, in a review of two new books that recount the spring 1989 movement that shook Beijing and the rest of China. Read's review of The People's Republic of Amnesia by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim and Tiananmen Exiles by Rowena Xiaoqing He of Harvard was published in the Wall Street Journal Saturday (May 31).

In June 1989, Read had just graduated from high school. Today, he teaches "Politics of China" to 44 UCSC students who weren't yet born when Chinese tanks and soldiers crushed the demonstrations.  Yet, Read said, his students are fascinated with the events.  "From a teaching perspective, it's a topic that really grabs the students' interests."

That fascination may be typical in the West but it is not the case in China.  "The Chinese authorities have been remarkably successful in blotting out the public memory of the events, in propagating misinformation about the movement and in supplanting the protesters' regime-challenging, pro-democracy nationalism with a populist, regime-supporting, xenophobic nationalism," Read writes.

Large numbers of Chinese are "wholly ignorant or only dimly aware of what happened in 1989," he said. Read noted that only in Hong Kong are commemorations held marking the Tiananmen massacre.

Some young people told author He that "the massacre was just a story that was 'made up' by the Americans" or if anything took place it was just a 'CIA conspiracy.'"

In her book, Lim calls this "the great forgetting,"

Read said that Chinese students coming to study in the United States often know little about the events from 25 years ago.

"No one could have predicted then where China is today," said Read, whose research focuses on local politics in China and Taiwan. "I look at the ways people interact with agencies of the state at a very fine-grained level." He is the author of Roots of the State: Neighborhood Organization and Social Networks in Beijing and Taipei (Stanford University Press, 2012).

Twenty-five years ago, students were "very limited in terms of material possessions, though ambitious in aspirations for a more prosperous life," Read said. "There was an incredible curiosity about ideas of the western democracy and freedom."

Now, people are more skeptical solutions will come from outside. "China is a confident nation that no longer necessarily looks outside its borders for answers," he said. "China has become a flourishing power with the Communist Party firmly re-established in its authority."

The Party says: "We are the solution to the problems," Read said. "The government hs done its best to delegitimize ideas from the outside world. Still," he said, "debates over how the country should be run, and what ideas and values should prevail, are very much alive today."