Zoe Chen heard her dad talk about the Tiananmen Square uprising just once, and she wasn’t supposed to be listening.
He was discussing it with her uncle, and she overheard him say he’d graduated from a university only two years before the 1989 protests that ended in government forces killing hundreds or perhaps thousands of young activists in the heart of China’s capital.
To Chen, who was born in 1994, five years after the protests that have since been scrubbed from Chinese media and history, her father would repeat only one phrase: “Wu tan guo shi” — “Don’t talk about national affairs.”
“His only hope for me is that I won’t get into politics,” Chen said.
That hasn’t stopped the 25-year-old, who wears a black T-shirt with “This is what a feminist looks like” printed in English and Chinese, from throwing herself into advocacy for women’s rights.
“I tell him it’s not politics, it’s social activism,” Chen said. “So he thinks it’s two things. But everything is related to politics.”
Thirty years after China sent armed troops to crush pro-democracy protests in the central Beijing square, the party-state is cracking down on a new batch of young activists, many of whom have grown up without any knowledge of 1989.
They are students, feminists, social workers and labor organizers, pushing for social change through civil society and asking for implementation of existing laws. Most do not challenge the Communist Party or advocate for democracy.
Yet the government has increased pressure on activists of all stripes, threatening, silencing and detaining not only dissidents and critics but also social workers and students — some of whom don’t even know why June 4 is a particularly sensitive date.
Many of the dissidents who survived 1989 fled abroad and continued to speak against the Chinese Communist Party from places like Taiwan and the United States.
Meanwhile, a quieter movement developed within China through the 1990s and 2000s: civil society, spearheaded by nongovernmental organizations in southern China, often with support from academics and other NGOs in nearby Hong Kong.
Chinese civil society organized around issues like labor rights, the AIDS crisis and environmental protection, often with a rights-based approach that aimed not to challenge Communist Party authority, but to enforce the rule of law.
“It’s a very self-conscious, deliberate survival strategy, that they don’t talk beyond legal issues,” said Kevin Lin, China program officer at the International Labor Rights Forum. “It’s about what’s feasible for them.”
Feminism also began to gain momentum in the last decade as Chinese women organized around fighting sexual harassment, domestic violence and gender discrimination — again without speaking against party authority.
“They are very pragmatic. They’re deliberately not calling for the overthrow of the Communist Party. They’re not calling for democracy. They’re very focused on practical, daily issues facing women,” said Leta Hong Fincher, a sociologist focused on Chinese feminism.
But Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012 brought a sweeping crackdown on civil society, especially on groups that had begun to develop nationwide networks: workers, feminists, lawyers, religious organizations and others.
Oppression has intensified in the last year, with a focus on Marxist students led by a group at Peking University, the same prestigious school whose students led the Tiananmen Square protests.
They traveled to Shenzhen last summer to support workers’ attempts to form a union at a factory. Police raided the students’ accommodations, detaining about 50.
At least 40 of the workers and their supporters remain in detention. This year, authorities also detained at least eight labor activists in Shenzhen and three social workers in Guangzhou, without public explanation.
Activism without ideology
Recent crackdowns have surprised some of China’s youngest activists.
“I didn’t expect they could just take so many students all of a sudden,” said Jake Li, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from Zhuhai in southern China.
Li had been following the Shenzhen student activists online. A social work major, he’d interned with a nongovernmental organization helping injured laborers seek compensation for work-related injuries.
“The government doesn’t take care of them. The NGOs help them to protect their rights,” he said.
The NGO founder, He Xiaobo, a former worker who lost three fingers in a factory accident, was detained for several months in 2016.
Li says he doesn’t support Marxism or Maoism — “I haven’t read Mao’s books; my impression of Mao is not very good” — but admires the Peking University Marxist Society’s dedication to worker solidarity.
Inspired by what he read online, Li led a group investigation of labor conditions on his school campus, gathering friends to interview janitors, gardeners, cooks and other workers about their salaries, working hours and whether they had insurance.
They found multiple violations of labor laws, especially with a lack of insurance for elderly employees. Li’s group published the results in an 11-page report online, gathering 4,000 views on the first day.
On the second day, the report was blocked. School officials called in local police to interrogate Li and his classmates, asking whether anyone had incited them to prepare the report and warning them not to continue their efforts.
Li, who was born in 1997, said he knew about Tiananmen but didn’t see a connection to today’s activism.
“Our generation is very isolated from the June 4 people. They’ve either left China or are silent, except very few who are active on Facebook and Twitter,” he said.
Whereas 1989 was about democracy and top national party authorities, today’s workers’ movement is about capitalism and local authorities — a completely different focus, he said.
“For people who believe in Maoism, this isn’t socialism. This is capitalism combined with authoritarianism. It’s a transaction of money and power,” he said.
Li says he believes most labor rights activists just want to improve workers’ situations, not to overthrow the government or implement radical “isms” of any sort.
“It’s not an ideology telling me to help workers,” Li said. “I just see that they’re being bullied and oppressed. I don’t think this is OK. And it’s necessary to make some changes or do something to help them.”
‘Don’t talk about national affairs’
In some ways, censorship of June 4, 1989, may have contributed to the new surge of youth activism, Hong Fincher said.
“A lot of the young activists are fearless because they don’t believe the government is capable of extreme brutality,” she said. “They don't believe that they would actually be killed for their activism.”
The brutality of the past has traumatized older generations in a way that many young activists simply don’t understand — in part because there is no public conversation about the past.
“Feminism is something that’s closely related to my daily life. But I haven’t been affected by 1989 at all,” said Chen, who also grew up without knowledge of the Tiananmen protests. “Maybe my dad has, but they never talk about it.”
“We’ve grown up knowing, ‘Don’t talk about national affairs,’ but we don’t know why we can’t talk about them. Everyone just says don’t talk, it’s dangerous. So no one asks about it.”
Chen followed feminist social media for several years before becoming an activist herself. Her turning point came in 2015, she said, when five prominent feminists were detained in Guangzhou for planning to hand out anti-sexual-harassment stickers on the subway.
“When that happened, I realized Chinese feminism is so fragile. There aren’t so many people, and there isn’t that much power,” Chen said. “So then I thought, if I can do something, I want to do it.”
The next year, Chen moved to Beijing. She joined Bcome, a feminist volunteering group, and staged underground performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” rewritten for Chinese women.
She worked with Feminist Voices, the most influential feminist media outlet in China, until it was shut down in March 2018.
Chen believes many of her peers live in a different world, where the Chinese internet promotes Korean dramas and celebrities while censoring Chinese activism.
“My classmates would say, ‘Well, the things you’re saying don’t seem to be real.’ They believe what’s published, but the media has also been censored,” Chen said.
When she tried to tell classmates about feminist arrests, even making a class presentation about the “Feminist Five,” they refused to engage.
“Some people don’t believe it,” Chen said. “Or they might think, even if they speak up, it’s useless. My classmates hear about this and they think: ‘What’s the point of me knowing about this? I can’t help them, and it might make trouble for me.’”
Chen thought her classmates’ mentalities were influenced by their parents, who lived through the Cultural Revolution.
”Their attitude is this kind of, ‘Don’t talk about things, just pretend they don’t exist and you’ll be fine,’” Chen said. “If you hear of someone detained or anything negative, just pretend you never heard. That’s how you protect yourself.”
Discussion is even tougher with her parents, Chen said. Her father often asks her to stop pointing out “negative” news and focus on the positive state media reports instead.
“He’s really insecure. He thinks if everything I’m talking about is true, then how rotten would this country already be? He doesn’t want to believe it,” she said. “But our country is so big. Isn’t it normal that there’s some bad news? Why do we only show good news, and make everyone feel they’re living in an illusion?”
Activism isn’t necessarily a challenge to stability; it’s a way of holding power accountable for the public good, Chen said.
“The whole society is just in unconscious silence,” she said. “But we’re not stupid, especially our generation. We stopped believing in this rhetoric ages ago. We want to follow real problems and push for social change.”
‘We wanted to save the nation’
Zhao Dingxin, a University of Chicago sociologist who wrote a book about Tiananmen, said the 1989 killings demonstrated China’s dire need for a more open, tolerant and accountable form of state-society relations.
Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, Zhao witnessed teenagers beating people to death on the streets, watched classmates set his vice principal’s hair on fire and stepped over freshly crushed bodies of people who had plunged in suicides from high buildings.
The mass violence and chaos Zhao and those of his generation experienced shaped Chinese society in radical ways, he said.
Having lived through extreme violence, many of his peers — himself included — wanted to take extreme measures to “save the nation.”
“We are really children of a master narrative — children of the May 4 generation. We wanted to become heroes like Lu Xun, to save the nation,” Zhao said, referring to the 20th century student movement and the writer whose essays exhorting youths to wake up and save China are taught in Chinese schools.
That sense of self-martyring patriotism wasn't always helpful. Interviewing participants who spoke of intolerance and divisions within the 1989 student movement showed Zhao another side to the Tiananmen tragedy: not just state brutality, but also the immaturity of some protesters.
The government couldn’t stand a challenge to its legitimacy, while activists couldn’t compromise or tolerate differences of opinion among themselves — often acting in authoritarian ways themselves.
“Without civil society, nothing institutionalizes the coexistence of multiple opinions, multiple agendas and crosscutting identities,” Zhao said. “Under an authoritarian regime, the people are bullied, but they’re also bullies."
China's best hope post-1989 was to develop civil society, Zhao said, which balances the state but also develops citizens’ maturity.
It teaches people with different opinions to debate, disagree and yet coexist, he said — lessons that his generation, raised in radicalism and violence, sorely missed.
The new generation gave him hope, especially in the early 2000s as he saw the growth of NGOs and student volunteerism.
But China has now turned in the opposite direction. State censorship silences discussion and covers up social problems while celebrating wealth and power.
It treats civil society actors as potential threats to state control. It does not grapple with its past.
That closing of space for civic engagement is a dangerous lurch back toward the conditions that created Tiananmen, Zhao said.
“If you want to keep this high level of repression on civil society, you get a society that looks peaceful but accumulates problems and tensions. When tensions break out, you cannot even find the people to negotiate with,” Zhao said. “It’s repressive, depressive, and feels so sad.”