BEIJING (Reuters) - Final year Chinese university student Li Teng knows finding a job during the global economic crisis will be tough. Yet he shakes his head at the thought of taking to the streets to protest.
“I think the government is working hard to fix the economy,” the fashionably dressed history major said. “Besides, this is not a problem which started in China. I have confidence.”
How things change.
Two decades ago, China’s youth were at the forefront of a movement to bring democracy to the world’s most populous nation in demonstrations bloodily put down around Beijing’s central Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
Today, after years of breakneck economic growth, the young are more pro-government, more suspicious of the West, and genuinely proud of China’s achievements, such as the Beijing Olympics, making a repeat of June 4 unlikely.
The China of 20 years ago, where the chaos of the Cultural Revolution was still fresh in many people’s minds, is also very different from the China of today, with its shining skyscrapers, bustling malls and expanding middle class.
“One good thing about young people today is that they are luckier than in the past,” said Bao Tong, a former senior official purged after the 1989 demonstrations.
“My son and daughter grew up in difficult circumstances, with rationed food ... They didn’t have enough nutrition,” he told Reuters in a recent interview. “Now, there are no grains coupons, no meat coupons.”
That is a sentiment post graduate student Zhang Haiping understands. “In that era, people were very idealistic. But students have changed since then,” Zhang said. “China has changed, whether you’re talking about reforms or the economy.”
The potential for unrest among a disaffected youth has not gone away though thanks to the global economic crisis.
More than six million university students will try to enter China’s workforce this year. Up to a quarter could have difficulty finding jobs, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in December, as the economy slows.
Many are already getting desperate.
The Yangtse Evening Post reported earlier this month that in the relatively affluent eastern province of Jiangsu, 46 university graduates had applied for jobs as public toilet attendants, such was the state of the labor market.
“Better to be a ‘toilet master’ than unemployed at home,” it cited one of the applicants as saying.
China’s stability-obsessed government has reacted fast to the economic crisis, unveiling a 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) stimulus package and trying hard to find work for graduates, even as village officials in China’s rural heartland.
“In the short term, it’s probably something the government will be able to cope with because they are doing quite a lot to find places for these people as they’re worried about having large numbers of unemployed graduates,” said Rana Mitter, Chinese politics lecturer at Oxford University.
“I think over the longer term they will be worried that urban youth in particular have grown up with much greater expectations of what they can have.”
Other students say politics simply does not interest them.
“I‘m interested in charity work and the like, but not at all in politics,” said Jiang Yun, a first-year medical student at the prestigious Peking University. “I may pay attention to it, but I won’t get involved. I don’t really have any opinions either way.”
Today’s young also no longer look at the democracies of the United States or Europe as much for their inspiration.
The NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 prompted student attacks on Western embassies in Beijing. Some 10 years later, young people went online to vent their invective at “biased” reporting in the Western media of unrest in Tibet.
“The students became very disillusioned with the West, especially with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade,” said Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute.
“They learned that the West was trying to ‘get’ China whether or not China was going to have democracy,” he added.
For Li, the history student, questions about the sensitive events of 1989 are met with blank looks.
“I don’t know much about that period,” he mumbles.
Zhang Xianling, whose teenage son was shot during the protests, says she does not blame the youth of today for their lack of interest in politics, or lack of knowledge about 1989.
“This is a society in which materialism reigns. Young people go after enjoyment and so on. You can understand why they don’t care as much about society’s advancement or democracy,” said Zhang, one of the founders of the Tiananmen Mothers, which campaigns for a reassessment of the government verdict that the movement was a “counter-revolutionary” plot.
“But we have a responsibility to tell them the real story.”
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby and Tyra Dempster, Editing by Dean Yates