In China, 'truthiness' trumps truth

Twenty years after Tiananmen, I found that even many of my Chinese journalism students didn't even know a pro-democracy movement existed.

I'll admit it, I was naive. Twenty years after the Chinese government brutally put down a student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, I thought some vestige of that movement might still be found in China. But after spending six months in Beijing teaching journalism students at Renmin University, where several of the 1989 pro-democracy activists were once students, I found very few young people interested in carrying the torch of Lady Liberty.

The students who transfixed the world 20 years ago are largely forgotten. Their message of democracy, the right to vote, and freedom of the press has been buried by the economic juggernaut of modern China.

Most of my students knew, at least cryptically, what happened in Tiananmen Square right around the year most of them were born. But a handful of students remained blissfully ignorant. When I asked them if they knew how many students were killed in 1989, one young girl from northeastern China answered, "None. Why would the government kill innocent students. This can't be true," she assured me.

The worldly-wise students had seen videos of the Tiananmen massacre online. They knew exactly what the government had done, and they accepted it as a necessary step in moving the country forward.

Rather than feeling horror about the crackdown, as most Westerners do, they were more troubled by the chaos and social upheaval those 1989 students might have unleashed had they been successful. Stability and economic security reign supreme; other civil liberties might be nice someday far into the future.

My students were largely a product of the "new China." They have only seen sustained progress in the form of economic prosperity unimaginable to their parents and grandparents, and for that we should all be grateful.

No one wants to turn back the clock to the darker days of war, revolution, famine, and fanaticism. But my fear for this new generation is that they have become complacent, or worse. It is too simplistic to conclude that they have been bought off: You can have your Gucci bag, but don't ask for justice.

More disconcerting is the lack of critical thinking, and at times, blind faith that China is on a roll, so don't rock the boat. Chinese pride and boosterism veer dangerously close to nationalism. Healthy criticism is seen as unpatriotic.

In a weird role reversal, the young students were the ones reminding me, the older teacher, to be patient. Repeatedly, they told me that China is a developing country, and that economic development might one day lead to some of the reforms I was encouraging. But when I reminded them that many developing countries – India, for example – have democracy and economic development, they were unconvinced.

One student boasted that China was going to build a high-speed rail system between Shanghai and Beijing, dislocating millions of Chinese in its path. In India, he lamented, this couldn't get done, because the people would stop it. To him, and many young Chinese, democracy is too slow and too messy.

One student argued that China has too many peasants who are illiterate and couldn't understand how to vote. Democracy could not work here, they insisted. I wonder what our forefathers were thinking when they entrusted the whole American enterprise to a bunch of illiterate farmers.

And for press freedom, these journalism students like the guiding hand of the government shaping the message that feeds the 1.3 billion Chinese.

I left China discouraged. I wanted for my Chinese students what my American students take for granted: a chance to speak freely, to vote, to work in the field of journalism unfettered by the government. But when I asked my students, if in an ideal world, would they want the government to get out of their lives, the unanimous response was no. They liked what the government was telling them.

Still, maybe my Chinese students were right and, in time, globalization, freedom to travel, and economic prosperity will lead to more civil liberties.

In my lighter moments I thought of Stephen Colbert, and how effective "truthiness" has been in China: You get some version of the facts, just not any that might be controversial. In my darker moments I ranted like Jack Nicholson in the film "A Few Good Men," privately screaming, "You can't handle the truth." Mostly, I just felt sympathy and admiration for these genuine, bright, and well-intentioned kids growing up in a country that they want to be proud of, even if their country wants to keep them in the dark.

As one American diplomat repeatedly reminded me, they don't know what they don't know.

Anne Donohue is a journalism professor at Boston University.

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