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China's Cheerleaders

China has many critics, both at home and abroad. Why aren't its own young people among them?

By Matthew Forney


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Almost 20 years ago, thousands of Chinese students camped out for weeks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, demanding democratic reforms in a series of protests that ended on June 4, 1989, with a government massacre of hundreds of demonstrators.

This year, China's young people have again taken to the streets—but this time, in support of the government.

Far from being embarrassed by or angry about their government's human-rights record or their lack of political freedom, as many Americans assume, China's young people are among the most patriotic folks around.

In their lifetimes, China has become a world power as a result of its booming economy, which has grown at an astonishing rate since the Communist Party began experimenting with elements of free-market capitalism in the late 1970s.

Having grown up in an era of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity for China, its young people are rightfully proud of their country's accomplishments. That pride often takes the form of unquestioning support of their government, which remains the authoritarian ruler of a one-party Communist state.

Study, Then Study Some More

China's education system, which includes a good deal of indoctrination, also helps explain young people's worldview. Textbooks dwell on China's humiliations by foreign powers in the 19th century as if they took place yesterday, yet skim over the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s—the social and political upheaval in which tens of thousands were killed and millions sent to jails or work camps—as if it were ancient history.

Then there's life experience—or the lack of it—that might help young Chinese gain other perspectives: Young urban Chinese study hard, and that's pretty much it. Volunteer work, sports, church groups, debate teams, summer jobs—all the activities that are part of a typical American high school experience—don't factor into Chinese college admissions, so few participate.

Once they're out of college, recent graduates are a particularly optimistic group. And why not? The economy has grown at double-digit rates for as long as they can remember. Those who speak English are guaranteed good jobs. A cell phone, an iPod, vacations—no problem.

As for political repression, few young Chinese experience it. China doesn't feel like a police state, most are too young to remember the Tiananmen massacre—and odds are that nobody has told them about it.

Over time, however, their unquestioning nationalism may soften. As graduates enter the workforce and experience their country's corruption and inefficiency, they may grow more critical. In fact, the Chinese say that people in their 40s are those most willing to challenge the government.

And with more than 160 million Chinese already online, no one knows what the long-term impact of the Internet will be. The government blocks access to some Web sites and censors search results. (If you google "Tiananmen Square" in China, you're unlikely to see any reference to the 1989 massacre.)

But it's unclear how long China can maintain control over the Internet, which has helped challenge authoritarian governments in Burma and several of the former republics of the Soviet Union. Will China's youth remain so unquestioning if the information floodgates really open—and they begin to learn more about the negative aspects of their political system?

'No Sympathy for Tibet'

But for now, the young are Beijing's biggest cheerleaders. Last spring, when Chinese authorities cracked down on protesters in Tibet, killing at least 20 people, the world was horrified. But most young Chinese supported the response.

"Young Chinese have no sympathy for Tibet," says Teng Biao, a Beijing human-rights lawyer. Most people in their 20s, he says, "believe the Dalai Lama is trying to split China."

And most young Chinese were outraged when demonstrators in London, Paris, and San Francisco used the Olympic torch relay to protest the Chinese government's human-rights abuses, its crackdown in Tibet, and its failure to use its influence with the government of Sudan (which sells China a lot of oil) to stop the killings in Darfur.

So barring major changes in China's education system or the economy, Westerners are not going to find allies anytime soon among the vast majority of Chinese on issues like Tibet, Darfur, and the environment. Indeed, Westerners expecting the Chinese to share their own anger at Beijing for its policies may instead find the Chinese angry at them.