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Twenty Years After Tiananmen

Before I left for an assignment in Shenzhen last year, my friend Nicholas, who grew up in that city, offered a primer on journalism in China. "Why do you want to tell people you are a journalist?" he wondered. "You can go, you can talk to anybody you want. If you're not taking cameras everywhere, I don't think there's a problem." As for the whole Tiananmen Square debacle: "This is very sensitive, no one wants to talk about it. In public, no, but in private you can. You can talk about anything in private but not in public."Today is the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. On June 4, 1989, the Chinese Communist Party ended two months of protest. They sent army tanks into a crowd of student activists, labor leaders and average citizens, crushing the idealism of a generation. To date, there has been no reckoning; the government has yet to even acknowledge the massacre occurred.Looking back on my Shenzhen trip now, it's obvious that, 20 years after Tiananmen, many of China's young people have inherited a Faustian bargain. There are those who accept a repressive dictatorship in exchange for economic growth and upward mobility-don't rock the boat, and you can succeed. To others, the memory of Tiananmen is an example of a totalitarianism they steadfastly resist.These opposites were evidenced the day I was shown around Shenzhen by a woman named Echo, a cherubic 29-year-old who runs the volunteer group Shenzhen Greeter. Because her city is so frequently derided as a money-obsessed cultural desert, Yang adapted the Chicago Greeter model, where locals volunteer to show out-of-towners around, to help share her vision of the city. At the time, she worked in procurement at Lenovo, the Hong Kong-based company that acquired IBM's laptop division. Also with us that day was Alex, my fixer and a self-appointed Beijing skeptic. "The Communist Party are bullies," he has told me on more than one occasion.It was a typically mild February day in South China and Echo was guiding Alex and me through the Shenzhen High-Tech Industrial Park. We poked our heads into a cafeteria, where Shenzhen's emerging middle class lined up for lunch. Then we languidly wandered the campus of Shenzhen Virtual University Park, where the centerpiece is a large modern glass building. Leading institutions like Peking University and Hong Kong Polytechnic have established outposts here to recruit emerging technocrats."The bastard child of Beijing and Hong Kong," Alex quipped under his breath. Echo didn't hear him.Lenovo and foreign giants like Philips, Compaq, Olympus, and Epson are some of the firms that have contributed to this booming area, but that day Echo was more excited about local firms, which, she said, were leading the transformation of Shenzhen's economy. She pointed out ZTE, which she described as a telecom company that's "big in emerging markets.""The owner is the son of the General Wang of Xinjiang, who smashed the Uyghurs," Alex said archly. "You say the name in front of the Uyghurs, the baby will cry." He smiled mischievously.A sheepish expression creased Echo's face. "Actually, in public, we don't say that," she said.Alex then pointed across the street at Huawei, a telecom company. "That is also owned by the Party," he said, clearly on a roll."I don't say that," Echo said.The encounter seemed to perfectly encapsulate the double consciousness of China's young people. There are newfangled malls, glimmering office towers, and super-bookstores quadruple the size of a Barnes & Noble. From the outside, it looks like a modern Metropolis, not entirely different from Hong Kong, the hyper-capitalist city-state across the Shenzhen River on which it's modeled.But when one looks closer, that perception crumbles. At Starbucks Shenzhen, customers chose from the usual selection of lattes, but the only English newspaper is the state-run China Daily. Even though Hong Kong is just five miles away, the internet at Starbucks-or anywhere else in Shenzhen-blocks access to the South China Morning Post or any other independent press.I thought about that trade-off a lot today. On most days, China's upwardly mobile young people lead vastly improved lives, in spite of their state-run media's blackout of unfavorable coverage. But today, as human rights advocates around the world marked the anniversary, authorities in Beijing censored the Internet more than usual and blocked access to Tiananmen Square. It was if it never happened.Image via

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