One day, not long ago, I was hanging out with a Chinese college student I’d come to know well. We were talking about the usual things—American parties, bad cafeteria food, an assignment he had due, an essay for his freshman composition class on Martin Luther King Jr.—when he abruptly changed the subject.
Had I heard, he wanted to know, about June 4? That is, did I know about the killing of students and other pro-democracy protesters in and around Tiananmen Square in 1989?
I nodded yes. He had been only hazily aware of the demonstrations and subsequent crackdown, he told me. He was born several years later, and “in China there’s not a lot of talk” about the violence in Beijing’s central square.
But now that he was at college in America, someone had mentioned Tiananmen, a friend. And he went online, to YouTube and Google, and pulled up videos and photographs from 25 years earlier, images not easily accessible behind China’s Great Firewall, as its Internet-censoring regime is called. He kept looking at one, he said, “the one.” A photograph of an unknown man, futilely trying to block a column of tanks. The student stored it on his computer.
“I told my mother and father,” he said, “and they told me not to talk about it. They told me I should delete the picture from my computer.
“But I just told my feelings, that I didn’t like that so many people died.” He paused. “We are limited in China. This is a problem.”
Twenty-five years after the protests, with nearly 236,000 Chinese students now at American colleges and universities, it could be easy to assume that study abroad could herald a political awakening among young Chinese. But it may not be so clear-cut.
In her new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim of National Public Radio surveyed 100 college students in Beijing, asking them to identify the same photo that so fascinated the student I know. Just 15 of the students, all of whom were enrolled at elite universities, were able to.
After Tiananmen, the government set out to erase it from the collective Chinese memory, Ms. Lim writes. References to the dissent and massacre cannot be found in newspapers, on television, or online. Chinese professors who speak out politically can pay a price.
The generation of students in college today learned nothing about Tiananmen in their classrooms and textbooks. That’s powerful stuff. A recent study, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that curricular reform in Chinese schools had substantially shaped the ideology and political perceptions of students now at universities.
“It’s an effort to spread amnesia,” said Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, a historian of Chinese protest at the University of California at Irvine, “rather than just a casual forgetting.”
Going overseas would seemingly be an opportunity to explore that forbidden history, to seek out information about the protests. But the Chinese students I’ve met have been more likely to go online to find the latest sports scores, to catch episodes of Korean soap operas, or to connect with friends and family members back home—not unlike their American counterparts, I should add. Freed from strictures, they’re Googling typical teenage things, not Tiananmen.
For many students, and for their parents, studying abroad is a pragmatic choice, more about getting ahead in China than necessarily embracing Western values. There’s a disconnect, Mr. Wasserstrom said, between their priorities and the issues that Americans and others emphasize—like Tiananmen—when talking about China.
Indeed, Mr. Wasserstrom noted that earning a degree abroad, rather than being a liberalizing force, can cause some Chinese students to turn inward, to become more nationalistic. Having grown up in a society where major media outlets parrot the party line, they can mistake Sinophobic bombast on cable news channels as the American view of China.
“It’s possible to come away with the sense that everyone in the West hates China,” he said.
But not talking about the events of June 4, 1989, should not always be taken as a lack of knowledge, said Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California at Riverside. “Many know what happened at the massacre quite well,” he wrote by email from Taiwan, “but also know to shut up about it (even pretending ignorance, sometimes) because there is no future—only risks—in public-massacre memory.”
Delete the tank-man photo, my student’s parents told him. Expunge it from your hard drive. Scrub it from your browser history.
Still, the silence can be damaging. Work on Tiananmen probably got Mr. Link blacklisted by the Chinese government. But it is not the only taboo topic in Chinese classrooms, he said, naming as well Falun Gong, Muslim separatists from Xinjiang, and the personal wealth of political leaders, among other issues.
“Teaching and studying about China without these topics becomes the ‘new normal,’” he wrote, “and even Western professors give in to it.”
Teaching Chinese students about Tiananmen—or Tibet or Taiwan—may not be the only way to raise awareness, Mr. Wasserstrom said. Modeling a warts-and-all approach to American history—a required course at some colleges—can be one way to challenge Chinese students’ ideas about the past. Learning about our history, he suggested, could help them confront their own.