In his baggy shorts hanging below the knees, Puma sneakers and spiky hair, Wang Kangkang is hip to the present, clueless about the past.
Although he comes often to see the nightly ceremony of the Chinese flag being lowered at Tiananmen Square, he doesn’t know what happened here in 1989 and doesn’t really care.
“Well, it happened before I was born,” the 19-year-old said, looking down at his sneakered feet as the crowd shuffled out of the vast expanse of concrete on a balmy evening. “In any case, it’s history. Why should we dwell on the past?”
On June 4, 1989, hundreds of unarmed civilians were killed as the army made its final push to crush a student-led pro-democracy demonstration in Tiananmen Square. As the 20th anniversary approaches, the government has fortified its extraordinary information blockade on the bloody crackdown. Anybody in the country trying to search on the Internet for information about the square, one of Beijing’s most popular tourist attractions, is likely to get the message “This page cannot be displayed.”
But to a large extent, the efforts are overkill: Apathy as much as censorship has pushed the events of 1989 into the dark recesses of history.
The young Chinese -- one graying activist calls them “the stupid generation” -- remain willfully ignorant about the past.
The pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989, to many of the young, seem so, well, 1980s -- a reflection of a time when communism was collapsing into the rubbish heap of concrete that was the Berlin Wall. From the perspective of 2009’s global economic crisis, the Chinese system that represses political choice and speech in exchange for economic freedom doesn’t look too bad to young people here.
“Our generation doesn’t feel so much pressure as our parents. Even the global recession hasn’t hit us much. It shows what a good country China is,” said Hou Jue, 26, who along with his friend Wang is studying to be a bartender.
Although he lives only a few blocks from Tiananmen Square, he acknowledges that he is “not too clear” about 1989’s events and doesn’t feel a need to learn more.
“If the government tells us as Chinese citizens we should not know about something and shouldn’t be searching material, we should be responsible and obey,” Hou said.
The activists of the 1980s, many of them still involved with political issues, despair over the attitudes of the younger generation.
“This is the stupid generation. They were raised on Coca-Cola and Western movies and they’re very isolated from their country’s history,” said Zhang Shihe, 56, a blogger and political activist.
Phelim Kine, a senior Asia analyst for Human Rights Watch, said the indifference of young Chinese about Tiananmen Square was more a result of censorship than willful ignorance.
“People can’t care if they don’t know,” Kine said.
But many do know and still don’t care.
Zhou Shuyang, 23, who works in marketing for a European company, speaks fluent English and is tech-savvy enough to get around the “Great Firewall of China” and read whatever she likes online.
But she fully supports the government’s efforts to restrict the information.
“If there is too much freedom, all sorts of false rumors can spread on the Internet,” she said. “It’s not easy to control such a big and diverse country as China.”
Zhou added, “For me right now, I feel satisfied with my life, my country. I seldom think about politics.”
If anything, when young Chinese raise their voices, they are more likely to be chanting patriotic slogans, demonstrating in favor of their government rather than against.
The largest mass gathering in Beijing in recent memory came a week after the May 12, 2008, quake in Sichuan province, when tens of thousands of mourners poured into Tiananmen, raising their fists and shouting, “Stand up, China.”
“The whole square was filled with people crying, shouting, waving flags,” recalled Zhou, who said it was the only time in her life she had attended a demonstration.
At times, the intense patriotism of the younger generation spills over into outbursts of nationalism. That happened last year in the run-up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing when free-Tibet protests disrupted the relay of the Olympic torch, infuriating many Chinese.
During the height of the demonstrations in April, the website anti-cnn.com was launched by a recent engineering graduate of Beijing’s Qinghua University to protest what he believes is anti-China bias in the Western news media. It still receives about 500,000 hits daily and is the best-known of many new websites catering to young nationalists.
“They call us the post-1980s youth, the April youth, the Olympic torch generation or the ‘Bird’s Nest’ generation,” said the website’s founder, 24-year-old Rao Jin, referring to the Olympic stadium. (Or rather, he “wrote.” The interview was conducted by e-mail at his request.) “Our patriotism springs from a heartfelt love for the motherland, a belief in Chinese traditional culture, pride in being Chinese and confidence in China’s future.”
That confidence was reflected in a poll published last year by the Washington-based Pew Research Center, which found 86% of Chinese satisfied with their country’s direction. It was the highest rate of satisfaction among 24 countries surveyed. (By contrast, 23% of Americans described themselves as satisfied with their country’s direction.)
“The younger the people, the more they support the Chinese government,” said Xu Wu, who first wrote about what he calls the Chinese “cyber-nationalists.”
A Beijing native who was a student at Tiananmen in 1989, Xu believes that the government can’t necessarily count in the long term on the support of the fenqing, or angry youth, as they are sometimes known.
“They are like a double-edged sword without a handle: very difficult to control,” Xu said.
A prolonged recession that leaves large numbers of young people unemployed, for example, could radically change their sentiments.
Michael Anti, 34, a Nanjing-born blogger, also believes that the younger generation is just biding its time.
“The Chinese are very practical,” he said. “They know if they protest right now it will destroy their middle-class lifestyle. But when the timing is right, nobody will refuse democracy.”
Eliot Gao and Nicole Liu of The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.