Peking University on June 4th: 2009 is not 1989, and neither is it 1984

To no one’s surprise, there’s nothing more than a quiet breeze on the campus of Peking University twenty years after hundreds of its students were killed. To mark the occasion, a few quick thoughts on the back of a year studying Chinese in Beida (short-hand for PKU) as a foreign student:

  • What strikes me in terms of students speaking out openly is the absence not only of the anti-authority voices which identified their predecessors twenty years ago, but the absence of any kind of open engagement with contemporary politics that you expect in a top university, and see in universities everywhere else in the world. Their silence over the Sun Dongdong incident on their own campus is a good example (I blogged about it here).
  • It’s not just that they know their futures will be better served in a stable political environment and they have more to lose than previous generations (the obvious point). It’s that the majority has an iron belief in the current administration as working successfully to give them a better life. And it was talking with students on May 4th which made it clear to me the extent to which their priorities have changed from patriotism to individualism.
  • This all isn’t to say, of course, that there’s no kind of political discussion going on about the “incident” in Beida. There’s a lot. It just isn’t out in the open air for the world – and it’s reporters – to witness. It’s in quiet dorms and crowded canteens. I think the angle of students being intimidated into silence is wildly overplayed in some of the Western media (not to name names or anything). Yes, students are acutely aware of the risks of speaking up, but our press should stop feeding the misconception that China is something out of ‘1984’ where 1989 is concerned.
  • There is a very clear control in China over information about what happened twenty years ago last night (James Fallows discusses this on his blog). As Leonidas put it to me, “sometimes a student won’t talk about it not because he doesn’t want to, but because he doesn’t know about it”. Tony, on the other hand, dismissed off-hand the idea that Beida students are in the dark: information seeps easily enough onto the internet.
  • But it’s apparent that their dorm discussions are in a different ballpark to those of their counterparts two decades ago. While democracy is still an appealing model, Western ideas no longer hold sway for them purely on merit of being Western. Most consider themselves less naive than their predecessors, and believe that radical reform or protesting simply isn’t the way to fix China’s problems – just as some think of their futures as brighter for the failure of 1989 and the economic miracle which followed it.

All in all, two points: PKU today is as far from 1989 as it is from Orwell’s 1984. I’ll leave the final words with Tony on how fast the game is changing:

I recognise that the government now just does not want to mention [the incident], only to escape from it. … Ten years in the future [they] will probably just need to publish a conclusion on the 80s, mentioning ‘something really bad in 1989, which was the only choice we could take’. And then the problem is over.

My thoughts go out to the families of those who were killed that day. We will not forget it.


P.S. While I’m on topic, Tony tells me from a friend of his doing an internship with CNN Beijing that CNN will be coming onto PKU campus today to conduct interviews with students. What exactly do they expect the students to say? Surely not anything … oh I don’t know, mildly interesting? Expect lots of Communist Youth League members smiling into camera.

And to those kind folks who have recently blocked Twitter and Flickr in China: besides my twitter-box top-left, I use Flickr to display all photos on this blog, now invisible to anyone in China without a proxy until I move them. I see you are branching out into web design, internet police. Thanks for your constructive criticism: I really did need more white space.


  1. Not sure if you had the chance to listen in on the average history/politics course all Chinese students are required to take in college. If you did, you’ll probably find a interesting phenomenon that every time we get to the 1960s, sometimes it starts from the 1950s, the class seems to magically “run out of time”. So the teachers always omit that part and start planning for tests. I wonder if any of you foreigners know that the common belief among us is that June 4th was caused by a bunch students who got by power-hungry politicians.

  2. In China it is very diffcult to know about this…

  3. I have been reading your blog for awhile, I just got back to the US after studying for a semester in China. First time commenter, I think, as long as the CCP preforms adequately, delivering both economic and social improvements to a majority of the people, then people will be satisfied. If this performance does not continue then there is a possibility for China to change. Asia Chronicle (www.asiachroniclenews.net) is a valuable news source to add to your daily read.

  4. the CCP`s strategy is changing the history and the memory of the chinese people, same as “1984”. some young chinese refuse to know the truth, that`s really pity. fortunately, there`s still a lot of people won`t forget that around the world.

  5. as a Chinese, I feel sad,too. But there ARE students who know about it, and think long and hard about it. However,we just decided to shut up.

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