The 25th anniversary of China’s inspirational Tiananmen Square uprising — and subsequent massacre — will pass quietly in Beijing this week.
Activists are jailed or under scrutiny, news is aggressively censored, and Chinese history books and textbooks have long been scrubbed of any reference to the student-led demonstrations that riveted TV viewers in the West.
But it is not just the heavy hand of government that is making things quiet. Many Chinese, reveling in the fastest economic advance in history and free to manage their daily, non-political lives as they wish, seem content to leave the past behind, along with political freedom.
On a recent reporting trip to Beijing and Shanghai, business people, students, artists, journalists, pollsters and Westerners living in China were preoccupied with other things.
Jobs, epic environmental problems, rising inflation — even the wildly popular American political drama House of Cards — drew greater interest. Some even think, as one person too young to remember put it, that the students went too far in 1989.
The reasons aren’t hard to decipher.
For anyone under 35 — 40 per cent of the population — history was erased by the censors. For their elders, the 1,000 or so gunned down in the massacre is dwarfed by the disastrous Cultural Revolution, which touched every Chinese family. And people of all ages credit the government for an astounding improvement in living standards. The Pew Global Attitudes Project found 88 per cent optimistic about their economy — the highest rating in the world.
As long as that advance continues — and the government is confident it can maintain seven per cent annual growth for 20 years — the public could continue to see its loss of political freedom as a fair trade-off for a better life.
But that outcome is far from a sure thing, and more reason — not less — for the U.S. to advance the cause of human freedom.
As impressive as China’s advance has been, it faces obstacles. Even today, the government puts down thousands of demonstrations a year, many of them protesting the nation’s chronic environmental problems. Corruption is pervasive. And while a stunning 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty, nearly a billion remain poor.
The Chinese leadership, fearful of discontent, is attacking all those issues. Some leaders even acknowledge that their goals require easing of state controls.
But if growth slows or putrid air and water make life unlivable, they might find their incremental approach is unmanageable.
In some respects, it already is. For China’s increasingly educated masses — growing at a rate of seven million university graduates a year — the Great Firewall of China is a sieve. China censors The Big Bang Theory, but House of Cards is available on Internet instantly. So is news.
Half a million Chinese students a year are educated abroad, and every high school student learns English. These provide competitive advantages economically, but are dicey politically.
A quarter-century later, China has quieted the ghosts of Tiananmen with a taste of freedom. But it might yet find that one bite whets the appetite for more.