Many people in the West remember the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989. Far fewer are aware that nearly 100 years ago another generation of young Chinese demonstrated in the same place.
On May 4, 1919, students unhappy at China’s opaque politics and its corrupt officials paraded through the streets of Beijing. The movement eventually forced the government into making concessions. Ultimately, it was seen as a turning point in Chinese history, and May 4 has become a national holiday: Chinese Youth Day. May retains a special significance with Chinese youth even today; this year two films about the nation’s young, So Young and American Dreams in China, were released in May.
Of course, these movies are not political; sensitive street politics are taboo for the Chinese film industry. The two movies have no relationship with the May 4th Movement. So Young is about young love, while American Dreams in China features young entrepreneurs. But while the bustling crowds at the cinema might not have politics on their minds, young Chinese sitting in front of their computers are trying to influence the national debate with their ideas and their own definition of the Chinese Dream.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Thirty-year-old Song Yangbiao recently "disappeared". He had become known for his rather bold political statements on Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Song is a weekly newspaper reporter in South China, and a "leftist" representative who supports Mao Zedong thought.
There are many young leftists in China like Song. Most are idealists from the post-1980s generation, and they abhor official corruption. Leftists were inspired by the emergence of Bo Xilai and calls to “support integrity and eliminate evil” in Chongqing. With Bo’s downfall, young people like Song began to lose confidence in the Chinese government, and the criticism became increasingly strident. Then the election of Xi Jinping as Chinese president brought a flicker of hope.
Xi and Bo share something in common: their fathers were Communist Party veterans. And both Xi and Bo have a maverick streak and a strong respect for Mao. That was cause enough for young leftists to believe in Xi. Unlike Bo, however, Xi Jinping is not prepared to challenge CPC ground rules and would never allow writers like Song Yangbiao to label him "Bo II". As a consequence, leftists have begun to feel more disenchanted with the Chinese government.
Another group from the post-1980s generation shares the same pessimistic outlook on China's future. Unlike Song Yangbiao, though, they are of the right and they are public intellectuals. Perhaps the best known is the writer Han Han. They do not like the Maoists, advocate constitutionalism, abhor Bo Xilai, and have placed their hopes in Xi Jinping. However, their vision of the Chinese Dream is the one expressed in the movie American Dreams in China. Given that Xi has the same "second red generation" status as Bo Xilai, this group also worries about China’s future.
One example of what concerns them is a recent directive published by the Communist Party on ideological issues, which requires that teachers refrain from teaching their students values such as Western thought in college and cracks down on journalists expressing Western ideals. Xi Jinping is seen as behind the crackdown, to the chagrin of the many young Chinese who find Western values appealing.