Last summer, in heat almost － but not quite － as prickly as Beijing, I sat down in a Californian café with Haiyan Lee, Assistant Professor of Chinese literature and culture at Stanford University. I was on holiday after a year studying Mandarin at Peking University (Beida), where I had spent the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre cracking books and walking around the quiet campus. Now I was curious to meet Lee, who had studied as an undergraduate at Beida from 1986-1990 － when the mood on campus was somewhat less tranquil.
I wanted to know what it was that made the students of her time so different to those of mine, none of whom would dream of raging against the machine. Right off the bat, Lee reminds me that it’s “dangerous to use the  movement to generalize about the entire generation being galvanized”. Most of her classmates were more concerned about grades and fun than politics. Lee was no exception, describing herself at the time as a “space cadet … discovering the world around me”. She was on the square, but only “because everyone else went”, and because more active “footsoldiers” of the movement knocked on her door to get her out. “To an average student,” she told me, “what interested us was not politics but life itself.”
Just as strong an interest was the West. “Our biggest obsession”, Lee said of her and her classmates, “was weekly screenings of Hollywood movies” by the student union; she especially remembers watching Love Story. It was hard to get hold of tickets, just as students scrambled to rent library copies of Western novels, or borrow them off friends (“no-one returned them”).
So why did anyone take the time off from Back to the Future to rise up in protest? For one, there was a certain despair among students about their futures: with the exception of those savvy enough to “jump into the sea” (下海) of private business, most were glib about the state-job waiting for them on graduation. And it was their state-salaried professors who had been left behind by the promise of reform, making the campus a hotbed of resentment.
On top on this, there was sense of inequality of opportunity, especially when it came to Beida’s “elitist and regionally biased admissions policy” (no change there). Lee’s roommate scored 100 points below her in the entrance exams but still got in; coincidentally, she happened to be the daughter of a well-connected airforce general. Lee didn’t resent this, she told me. But others would, enough to lose trust and faith in the system.
Today, the 1989 Tiananmen movement turns twenty one, if counted from its end. It’s an adult. It can legally drink in America, if not quite get married in China (that’s 22). And with it, a new generation of Beida students are turning twenty one too. It’s a generation who － with enough exceptions － are poorly informed, if at all, about the sensitive “incident” that started in their very college, around the time they were born. Last year, the central area of campus known as the ‘triangle’, where the first students gathered to commemorate Hu Yaobang in April, was empty but for passers-by and two security guards circling it on their bikes. And it’ll be just the same today. (I’m writing the night before, but if I’m wrong I’ll teach English, free, to everyone in China.)
What parallels, then, exist between the two generations? For all the noise about the exceptionality of China’s ‘post-80s’ youth (80后), there’s quite a few. If it’s dangerous to generalize about the class of ’89 from the actions of a few, then it’s less risky to generalize about students as a whole. Beida students today, like Lee before them, are concerned with their grades first, their fun second, and politics even further down the list. Yes, there are the nationalistic ‘angry youth’ (愤青) just as there are those who vocally criticize their government. But most are simply too busy preparing for their exams or TOEFL to care.
The second big similarity, though, is that there’s discontent beneath the surface, on a range of specific issues. For one, the sheer pressure and competitiveness of the world they find themselves in: 10 hours of study a day for many, just like it was in high school, and just like it will be in the best jobs. Then there’s the inequality, corruption and nepotism, just like in Lee’s day － perennial problems. A more recent one is the escalating price of housing in the big cities. Where thirty years ago their parents could buy a property relatively easy, students today are facing ever-more terrifying digits. There’s much to be unhappy about.
So why won’t there be another march down to Tiananmen square this year? (Correction: students could now take the new subway line 4 direct from their East Gate. How kind of the city to improve public demonstration transport.) Besides political disengagement, one reason is that any lack of trust is directed at lower levels － like university administration － not the system of government itself. China’s leaders are working hard, one friend in Beida told me the other day, so “we must give them time”. She considered her first “duty” to trust the Party (be a “信任者”) and only after that to criticize it (be a “批评者”).
Another is that the West doesn’t cut it as an alternative to admire, like it used to. Sure, everyone watches Gossip Girl or Prison Break (depending on gender), but the idolization of everything Western which Lee describes － and which has a strong whiff of the May Fourth movement to it － simply isn’t there. And when it comes to politics, there’s a definite mistrust that the Western model could work in China. A metaphor told me by more than one young Chinese describes the Tiananmen generation of having just come out of a dark room, dazzled by the brightness. Their generation, the implication goes, has adjusted to the light.
I’ve heard Beida students describe their predecessors as “impulsive” and self-interested (why “I don’t like Wang Dan or Wu’er Kaixi”, one friend bluntly said). But how do they describe their own generation? Last week alone, I heard three self-definitions: one of a “pragmatic” generation, thinking of their own futures. Another of a generation with “no ideals”, nothing to fight for. But my favorite was simply a generation with “more choice”. Or put otherwise, a generation with more to lose from making noise, and more to gain from silence.