‘No New Flowers of Thought Are Blooming’

A young Chinese student studying overseas and a former leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square talk politics.

Wang Dan in a file photo.

Wang Dan, a former leader of the 1989 student-led democracy movement in China that ended when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) opened fire on unarmed civilians with machine guns and tanks, recently founded a think-tank to research democratic reform in the country called Dialogue China. Wang, who is now U.S.-based, but who spent eight years on the democratic island of Taiwan, spoke to a young Chinese person, identified only by the letter A, about generational differences and political awareness in China:

A: Actually Mr. Wang, I always used to think you were a traitor, or a middle-aged "angry youth" as we say in China. The reason for this is that I didn't have enough accurate information. I could tell you ... how intense the brainwashing was, and how off kilter that information was, and that would be objectively true. But there are always ways to come by information; all it takes is the determination to find things out. Nowadays, I really see where you’re coming from.

Wang Dan: Haha! A traitor, eh?

A:Don't laugh. I really did think that.

Wang Dan: Didn't you know that only those in power can betray their country?

A: I think a lot of people in my generation know what happened on June 4, 1989, but very few of them are really interested enough to find out more ... so it makes little difference whether they know about it or not, because no new flowers of thought are going to be blooming.

Wang Dan: That really doesn't matter. Each generation has its own set of stories. It would be better to tell us your own stories rather than to look down on us when we tell ours, so we can give you the thumbs up.

A: I really get what you were trying to do back then—now. The main problem was that you lacked people who were experienced in waging this kind of struggle, so you were vulnerable to being used by people older and less scrupulous than you. And these forms of opposition, while traditional in the West, don't work in China.

Wang Dan: We've done our bit, and made our sacrifices for our country. That's already pretty good going. It would be great if today's young people could also do something for their country, apart from just judging and criticizing the previous generation. I would be content with that. And I hope that you'll do a better job that we did, next time around. There's not much point in evaluating our performance all the time. Wouldn't it be more realistic to think of what you could be doing?

A:  A lot of young people are pretty left wing right now. But do you realize the sort of things that today’s young people believe, now that class divisions are getting more and more entrenched? They have this dream that they will soar above [these contradictions] and become superhuman. Besides, everyone only thinks about making money in their twenties.

Wang Dan: But surely it’s just avoiding the issue, to say you can’t do anything before you’ve even tried?

A: Most young people don’t want equality; they want to be on top of the heap, trampling the others.

Wang Dan: Why do you care what the others are up to? Focus on yourself, on becoming a better person.

A: I do want to achieve something, in spite of what I’ve just said. But won’t anything I do be meaningless if everyone else is like that?

Wang Dan: So you live your life for other people?

A: Nobody can be awakened if they are unaware of blatant class divisions and of their own limitations.

Wang Dan: Well, the question of whether or not to act, and whether or not your actions will be successful are two different things. You are using the latter as a premise to think about the former, don’t you think?

A: I don’t think it would be [successful], so I think that the only thing I can do right now is to be a good student, and work towards becoming a teacher, so I can start turning out students who are genuinely capable of independent thought. I think the fate of the Chinese people begins with the people’s ideological awakening. It’s extremely hard to be objective in this country; there are, of course, people who lack objective rationality overseas as well, I think, but one of the things we are very bad at as a nation is seeing things from an opposing political point of view.

Wang Dan: Being a teacher is a good thing. That is action of a personal kind. I don’t think we should tell other people what to do. We need to work hard to make sure there is some distinction between us and other people; that’s the only thing that gives life its meaning.

A: I hope, Mr. Wang, that you will one day be able to return to Beijing to see the place again. You’d better bring a few extra pollution masks with you, though!

Wang Dan: Haha, I’d like that too. Good luck!

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.