I didn’t think the other morning to ask the young Chinese student about Tiananmen Square. It seems unlikely she would have known about the demonstrations of 30 years ago today.
According to a report in the Guardian, “hundreds or possibly thousands of people were killed” after Beijing deployed tanks and troops against student demanding democratic reform.
The events in Tiananmen Square three decades ago have been written out of official Chinese history. Discussion of this dark chapter is suppressed, so it seems unlikely a girl born eight years later would know much.
Her parents may have been aware. They are in their late 40s and would have been around 18 at the time.
Yesterday security forces were reportedly deployed in Tiananmen Square. Tourists had their ID cards checked and bags scanned and “plainclothes and uniformed police patrolled the perimeter of the area”, again according to the Guardian.
Activists in China planned to protest by fasting, while the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei accuses the west of being complicit in a whitewashing of history. Hopeful theory assumed the rise in capitalist wealth would make China more democratic as it became richer. Not so, according to this dissident: “China has become wealthier and more powerful on the world stage, but it has never matured into pluralism or democracy.”
None of this was discussed over breakfast the other morning. But our guest did reveal smaller details of Chinese life, including making her own breakfast as a young girl as her parents liked to stay in bed.
She was 22 but looked about 12. She was tiny and slight, spirited and strong. She was doing her masters for a year in England and had already studied in China. She picked a university a three-hour flight from home, a safe removal. Now the distance between daughter and parents was even greater.
What I took away from this breakfast-table encounter was how lively this young woman seemed. How much fun she was, full of what you might call world smarts. She wasn’t that different to the students I teach here in Yorkshire. And that seemed a positive thing.
You cannot generalise from one encounter, however charming. Still, this young woman hinted at a rising generation that may not want to follow their parents’ path. As an only child, she was living proof of the Chinese policy used to control rises in population. Two or three years after she was born, this policy was modified to a two-child policy.
We once had an older Chinese guest (another woman, equally lovely) who told us, rather sadly, that her parents had laid out her life and that of her sister: one would be a teacher, the other a nurse. No choice was offered, and those paths predetermined form birth were followed. I told my young guest this story and it was one she recognised. Her parents had fixed ideas about what she should do, but she wasn’t impressed.
When her mother was the same age, she’d given birth to this lively single child. The daughter laughed off any idea yet about children of her own. Instead she was studying abroad, staying in her first Airbnb, and travelling alone for the first time (Edinburgh next).
Foolish to romanticise one encounter, I know. But if China is raising a generation of such spirited, smart young people, they may one day want to a different life, to shape a different sort of China.
Anyway, I went off to work, driving away as our young guest stood outside the house, staring at her phone. Looking up, she gave a sweet wave.
I’ll remember that wave, and the way she insisted on eating an English breakfast instead of her usual rice. We don’t run to a cooked breakfast (well, it’s only 25 quid a night). She had cereal and toast. Butter and jam were provided, but instead she floated the toast in the cereal milk.