View from the Wall

After Thirty Years


Throughout 2009, official propaganda in Beijing lavished its compliments on the past 60 years since the founding of the People's Republic, and especially the past 30 years since reform and opening-up. Coincidentally, my father was almost nine years old in 1949, and I was almost nine years old in 1979. Two of us witnessed China developing in different ways as we grew upfrom ages nine to thirty-nine, from the perspectives of a young boy to a man stepping into his forties, the threshold of middle age. The years of our youth were passed quite differently.

My Father: 1949 to 1979

The keywords of that era were politics, ideology, collectivism and idealism. Revolution and war ended in the new People's Republic. The founding fathers deemed it necessary to repair the bankrupt economy left by those who fled to Taiwan, yet the Great Leader thought it more vital to change people's mindsets nurtured in a semi-feudal, semi-colonized society to something up to socialist reform. Meanwhile, ideological cleansing and idealistic social-economic campaigns were launched from time to time. A massive scale of social mobilization for a population of four hundred million required a collectivist uniformity in the strictest term and an absolute annihilation of personal interest or individual will.

Sound scary? Yet, the youth back then felt it romantic. A new China! Chinese people stand up! We are called "the morning son around 8 9 am" by our Great Leader! He says, "The world will eventually be yours"! He tells us that "man will surely conquer nature"! When youthful blood was burning with these wonderful thoughts, the choice of "plunging my limited life into the unlimited cause of serving the people" seemed more natural than ever.

When I asked my father about his impression of his youth, he said: "We were busy participating in the political movements." I can hardly imagine the days when young students were inspired by the great socialist cause and the words from the Great Leader. They became avant-garde against capitalism and anything to do with it. They were organized into "Red Guards" and began attacking their teachersthe advocates for the capitalist academic authority. The middle school I attended had a history of the first homicide since the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. One of the schoolmasters, a lady in her 50s, was beaten to death by a group of student "Red Guards" right on campus. Nobody was accused. A few days later, the chief of the "Red Guards" was even awarded the opportunity to meet with the Great Leader himself.

Then, the Great Leader called on young students in China to go up to the mountains or down to the villages, right after high school. Boys and girls from big cities settled down in remote areas of the country. Some got married and were assimilated into the rural population. Most still wanted to go back and, after staying in the countryside for almost 20 years, were redeemed by a new policy after reform and opening-up. Thus, a generation of educated young people lost their youth in the countryside.

I am in no position to judge my father's generation; I only know that he was not with my mother when she gave birth to me. In fact, 100 days after my birth, he asked her to come back to join him in the "cadre school"a farm where civil servants with a college degree had to stay for a period to be re-educated by physical means. I was under my grandma's care, and it was not until I was nine months old that my father saw me for the first time. That year, he was about to celebrate his thirtieth birthday.

There were no birthday cakes or candles for me or for him. Those were luxuries and only rich, rotten capitalists enjoyed them. Here I want to improvise a monologue of my father's generation.

What did we enjoy? Well, we didn't think in terms of "joy." We didn't even try to "feel." Yet, we lived by the great revolutionary will and communist ideal. We only knew that no matter how difficult reality seemed to be, we could overcome it. We would prevail, because we could always find inspiration from the founding fathers and the revolutionary martyrs. We sincerely believed that "the roads twist and turn, yet the future is bright."

Myself: 1979-2009

Now, it's my turn to grow. Keywords are dull to capture the color of this era, so I use key phrases such as "economics as the focal point," "allowing a few to get rich first," "black cat or white cat, mouse catcher is the good cat," and so on. Meanwhile, individualism and materialism have come back to life in China together with capitalism, both covertly and overtly.

The grand parade through Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1984, is in my active memory. I found out that a few students from Peking University made a banner and wrote, "Xiaoping Nin Hao (Hello, Xiaoping)!" on it. They secretly took the banner with them and joined the parade, then suddenly brought it up over their heads. Xiaoping refers to Mr. Deng Xiaoping, the top leader since 1979 and the "chief architect" of China's reform and opening-up policy. In fact, the phrases quoted in the previous paragraph were all from him. People, in general, felt grateful for his leadership, and young students wanted to thank him for deciding to resume higher education in a fair and regular manner. They improvised this surprisingly unique, utterly personal, yet forbidden tributea parade with top leaders watching from the tower of Tiananmen is a highly controlled event. A self-made banner without forewarning and permission is a serious offense and had never happened beforeor since then. Luckily, the words on this banner captured the hearts of everyone, including Mr. Deng himself, maybe, when he saw it and smiled. No investigation was made into the incident. The banner itself was lost in the action.

As a 14-year-old middle school student marching at the end of the parade, I shared the sentiment of optimism over the common destiny: with good reform and the opening-up policy, our future as a nation would be better and better. This promising vision of the future was the natural outcome of the image of our reality, which was becoming more and more colorful. Thanks to the opening-up, we were exposed to pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong, we gained access to television and stereo from Japan, we could wear T-shirts, sing Karaoke and talk about love between the opposite sexes among teenagers.

The young, educated youth began to explore Western ideas and to think critically about traditional Chinese culture. As they became more open to the former and more critical regarding the latter, their discontent began to escalate with the unchanging power structure in the political reality. When public demonstrations broke out on college campuses, top leaders showed their true colors and iron fists. The incidents, disasters and tragedies began to present themselves throughout 1986 to 1989. During the last decade of the 20th century, the youth in China learned to live with indifference and apathy over political issues.

Since 1979, continued momentum of growth has made the Chinese economy the second largest in the world after thirty years. Yet, the growing process of young people in China is halted by a long interval after 1989: the youth stopped being youth when they stopped dreaming, and now all they care about is how to satisfy physical and material needs, how to derive residual benefit from a system to be phased out, or how to get out of the system in any way. Occasionally they have been induced or aroused to cheer for the country's new wonders: GDP growth, WTO entry, Beijing Olympics, Shanghai Expo, and so on.

Our current premiere, Mr. Wen Jiabao, composed a short poem in blank verse titled "Looking up to the Starry Skies" when addressing a group of college students in Shanghai, in May 2007. He said that a nation would be hopeless when everyone only cared about what was happening under their feet. I consider his message much more meaningful than the Great Leader's metaphor for youth as "the morning son around 8 9 am." Everything about Mr. Wen is readily accessible via the Internet, yet the number of those who heed his call might be less than he desires.

After two periods of thirty years, I feel that we are still at a loss in terms of the upbringing of our youth. Our youth should be exposed to the richness of the world including all its absurdities. They should be encouraged to explore the extremes without being tumbled into them. They should not be frustrated or worrying at so early an age. They should develop within them a steady love of truth, freedom and peace.

I am looking forward to what the next thirty years will bring to my son, whose birth date was September 09, 2009.

Image credit: Boy and Kites Beijing Tienanmen Square _0140 by Philip McMaster, on Flickr

Jonathan Li

Jonathan Li is a university professor in Beijing. View Full Bio