HONG KONG—Two decades after Chinese troops suppressed a student-led pro-democracy movement with guns and tanks, economic success has made cynics of the country's intellectuals, and the younger generation must be taught to think for itself amid tight controls over the flow of information, two former student leaders said.
"Some Chinese intellectuals have been silenced by economic interests since economic development took off, because they have been offered good benefits by the authorities," a former student representative of Beijing University on Tiananmen Square, Wang Chaohua, said.
"They take note of what the government says, and they say things in support of social stability and that we shouldn't do anything to cause trouble," said Wang Chaohua, who recently completed her doctorate at the University of California-Los Angeles, and who is about to join a top think-tank in Taiwan.
...We're going to see more and more demands for democracy as economic divisions and social conflicts grow more widespread."
"But there are many other people who are protesting silently, and we don't get to hear about it because of the controls on the flow of information in China. People should try to make more innovative use of the Internet to get news, and to give mutual encouragement and to continue the struggle together," she added.
Former student leader Wang Dan, who recently completed his doctorate at Harvard and will take up a post at Taipei's Cheng-Chih University, said China's intellectuals had become cynical over the last 20 years.
"The economic development of the last 20 years has had a very deep effect," Wang Dan said. "A lot of them close their eyes to the reality that is taking place in front of them."
"The situation is the total opposite of 1989. They don't want to make any public form of protest at all."
Wang Chaohua, in an undated photo. Courtesy of Wang Chaohua
Both former student leaders lauded the continuing efforts of Chinese dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo, who was on Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, 1989, when the first sounds of gunfire were heard by deposed Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, sitting in the courtyard of his home in the capital.
"People like Liu Xiaobo, who continue their support in the face of persecution and oppression and never give up, really are in a minority," Wang Chaohua said.
"It's because of people like him that we can see that Chinese people aren't actually that self-sacrificing."
She called on China's young people to use the Internet to educate themselves in the face of a tightly controlled domestic media which makes no mention of the crackdown, nor of Zhao and his plans for political reform of the ruling Communist Party.
"We should be teaching today's young people to form their own opinions on everything and to be suspicious of everything they hear, and to stand by their own point of view," Wang Chaohua said.
"Of course, these two things must work together. If you are suspicious of everything, then you won't care about anything, and all that will remain for you to care about will be your own personal interests."
"But if you can only hold one point of view, whether it be pro-democracy, or patriotism, or if you can't be suspicious of anything, then you're going to be in the dark, and unable to see a lot of reality clearly," she added.
She said many people in China still feel the spirit of 1989, in which unarmed citizens donated food and bottled water to hunger-striking students, and helped them to bring the city to a standstill.
"There are many other people who are protesting silently, and we don't get to hear about it because of the controls on the flow of information in China," Wang Chaohua said.
"People should try to make more innovative use of the Internet to get news, and to give mutual encouragement and to continue the struggle together."More demand for democracy
Wang Dan, responding alongside Wang Chaohua on the RFA Mandarin service's "Listener Hotline" show, said the fact that last year's pro-democracy declaration, Charter 08, had garnered 8,000 signatures showed that momentum is still building for political change in China.
"Civil society in China continues to develop in spite of government attempts to suppress it," he said. "It's a two-way process, so we shouldn't just look at one side of it."
Meanwhile, Wang Chaohua drew parallels between the People's Liberation Army (PLA) suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy, anti-corruption protests, and military crackdowns in Latin American and Southeast Asian countries, some of which led to later democratic developments.
"As China's economy continues to develop in the next few years, we're going to see more and more demands for democracy as economic divisions and social conflicts grow more widespread," Wang Chaohua predicted.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Wei Lian. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.