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Today, of course, is the anniversary of the bloody crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. The writer Ma Jian has written a screed in the London Times criticizing current Chinese writers for failing to speak out about the issue and generally being establishment (read Communist Party) lackeys. I am reading Ma’s latest novel, called Beijing Coma, which is about a young Chinese who is shot in the square during the protests and lies in a coma for years afterward. Obviously for Ma, who lives in exile, this was the central experience of his life and remains a critical turning point in China’s history. But to other Chinese, including many of the younger writers he lambastes (“They purport to be apolitical, but their refusal to question the fundamental structures of society is itself a political act.”) there’s no doubt that the Tiananmen protests do seem an awfully long time ago, practically ancient history. There’s definitely a generational divide there, although just how younger people feel is somewhat hard to pin down concretely given the total blocking of all public discussion on the subject in China. The fact that many of them have only a hazy idea of what happened (and can sometimes get defensive or even testy if questioned about, say, how many people they think were killed in the protests) doesn’t help much. China’s ‘me generation” as they were labeled by some (er, that is to say, me, among others) of singleton Little Emperors has gone a long way to proving that label wrong with their amazing response to the earthquake. (Reuters reporter Chris Buckley has a nice story on this issue here.) But there’s no reason to think that their hands-off attitude to things political and focus on getting on with their lives and families will also change without some external stimulus. It is worth remembering though that the two big complaints that started the Tiananmen protests were corruption and inflation, both of which are massive and growing problems for China once again.

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