June 4, 2009

I’m old enough to remember this. And like Janet, I recall the palpable sense of dismay and reversal of progress.
Those of us in biomedical research fields frequently operate in environments that bring us in contact with other scientists who originate in China. Some of us are lucky enough to know a span of age ranges from the older generations who left China before Tiananmen or in the immediate aftermath down to the young whippersnappers fresh out of undergraduate or graduate education. There is a difference. I don’t know if it is a change in who China trains scientifically or who they let seek postdoctoral training in the US. It is possible. But assuming that is not the case, the political attitudes have shifted in the post-Tiananmen generations. They seem to toe the national political line more. They view the demonstrators and civil liberty political types as dangerous, wrong and subversive. And to view the Tiananmen massacre as either necessary or a lie.
My readers are for the most part domestic US folks. China is a far distant place with a different culture and politics. What could we possibly take away from this?
Well, I think some of our younger generation here, politically active and progressive as they are don’t really get it. Luckily, we have revere. Who placed this into the appropriate context.

And who also talks about his history of Palin’ around with terrorists.
If you happen to work with a lot of younger Chinese scientists who seem to have a different appreciation of the events of 20 years ago on Tiananmen Square…check your attitudes on our own political history. It’s worth a thought or two.

No Responses Yet to “Remembering”

  1. Govt. Bureaucrat Says:

    I also met many of the “first generation” Chinese graduate and post-doctoral students 20-some years back. They were heartbroken and disillusioned by the lost-opportunity of Tiananmen. Most never never forgave their governments, many never returned home.
    I had a Chinese “daughter” (a high school exchange student) a few years back who knew NOTHING of Tiananmen. Other than that her parents told her it was something that she should never discuss. She read the Websites here and was shocked. But still, her attitude towards her government is very, very different than the “first generation” students.


  2. Danny O'Reario Says:

    Well, not to make excuses for overly repressive regimes & all, but maybe some of the attitude shift could be attributable to the fact that China is remembering that it is a world power with 10,000 years of illustrious history and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. While the rest of us try to dig out of an economic and political holes of our own making.
    A couple years back, I was working away in the lab with a Chinese colleague while NPR continued a week of radio stories and interviews focusing on China. We had been listening and working away and finally I asked him what he thought. His insight was veeery interesting. He pointed out that every story featured the opinion of some Western ‘expert’ from Yale or the CIA or some branch of government or whatever. Then he asked: “Why didn’t they ask a Chinese person?”
    I think a lot of the reason Westerners don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to China is that we simply aren’t listening.


  3. JohnV Says:

    In grad school, ~5 years ago, I had some fellow grad students who were from China. One day, one of the other American grad students, for some unknown reason, was attempting to have a chat with them about Tiananmen Square. Their reactions were split between “it didn’t happen” or “it was just a minor protest and nothing bad happened”.
    I thought it was kind of spooky, I hadn’t really realized that younger people in China weren’t aware of it. The guy talking to them got all indignant (he was weird like that at times about stuff). I wonder if my misplaced faith in Colin Powell fits into the same category. I suppose its worse because I should have known better :p


  4. Neuro-conservative Says:

    What a bizarre post. You seem to be equating the freedom fighters of Tiananmen Square with Pete Seeger (a Stalinist) and the Weather Underground (Maoists).
    This is moral idiocy on stilts. And you are chastising the younger folk for lack of historical memory?


  5. DrugMonkey Says:

    Are you really this dense N-c? I think not.
    I don’t support the actions or stances of the Weather Underground terrorists and revere makes it pretty clear he does not either. Pete Seeger, like it or not, was a great agent of positive change whether one agrees with the extent of his left-wing beliefs or not (and I’m not agreeing that you’ve characterized them properly).
    I am drawing parallels in generational forgetting that progress can be fleeting.
    I realize you don’t find the positives in the progress that happened in the sixties and that you revere the rightwing backlash that has led us directly to our current problems. You happen to be wrong on the merits of that. Plus, you align yourself with the demagoguery of our political right, sustained from Reagan through now in our mainstream media, that has led to this woeful ignorance on the part of younger generations. The ones who even if they do understand our current state of affairs might have something to do vaguely with right wing cut-tax-and-spend-like-drunken-sailors-on-OUR-priorities…don’t see the direct roots of this in Reaganism.


  6. becca Says:

    DM- sometimes, it’s only when immense progress has been made that anyone can forget the struggle.
    Also, some of us grew up going to co-operative work camps and singing the forbidden verses and are probably in denial about anyone actually believing in Regan.
    Also, I’d wager NC is intentionally mischaracterizing Pete “Big Joe Blues” Seeger.
    Neuro-Conservative: from your own link, it was Seeger’s view “the American dream meant economic as well as political egalitarianism”. If one agrees with that, why not equate the struggle for political egalitarianism of Tiananmen Square with the struggle for economic egalitarianism during what my family affectionately refers to as “the great folk scare”? Personally I think when zealots fixate on either pursuit to the exclusion of the other, it ends badly.


  7. Tideliar Says:

    I worked with a Chinese technician a few years ago. He revered General Mao and got very agitated when you talked to him about China from a western view point. Tienanmen, Mao being a fucking psycho-loony (not that I used that expression), all were, according to him, propaganda made up by the West to slur the PRC. When i asked him why he was working in the US he hit full logical disconnect and stopped talking to me… weird, ideological programming shit…


  8. Gingerale Says:

    Thanks, DM. Somehow I missed that January post from Revere, so belated thanks to Revere too.


  9. Neuro-conservative Says:

    DM — So let me get this straight — you are not drawing a parallel between the Tank Man who died fighting Communism and Pete Seeger who spent his life promoting Communism. You are drawing a parallel between the Communist-enforced “forgetting” of the Tiananmen massacre and the fact that American youths do not share your admiration for tales of the Weather Underground, or something?


  10. Scrabcake Says:

    My opinion on China has gotten a lot more nuanced recently. I wouldn’t claim to know all that much about the gory details of Tienanmen square, although I do remember seeing it on TV as a child. I think a lot of westerners think that the cultural revolution ended intellectualism in China, leaving only the mindless workers, and I can tell you for a fact that this isn’t true. (One interesting thing that I have learned is that before Tienanmen Square, higher education was provided by the government. After the massacre, potential scholars had to pay for it if they wanted to go. This prevented a large number of very intelligent people from getting higher education.)
    I think we Americans tend to see china through a bit of a funhouse lens. When I was there, for example, I visited several Buddhist monasteries, and walked by a Baptist church. My family has sent back pictures of mosques filled with people in the Uighur areas. This picture that Americans have in their head of all religion being squelched, of the bulldozer knocking down the house-fundagelical church needs to be revised. China allows religion. It allows private worship and monastic dedication. It just doesn’t allow anything that answers to a higher earthly authority than the Chinese Government (Oh, say any charismatic American Fundamentalist), thus the Chinese Catholic church which is separate from Rome.
    The bottom line is that the Chinese Communist party will punish or censor anything perceived as a threat to its sovereignty. Surprisingly, it seems like most people know where those lines are and are happy not to cross them. Not having the freedom to cross those boundaries doesn’t bother most people too much because life is good in China right now.
    If you think about it, the number of people who stand to loose greatly from the fall of the communist party dwarfs the number of those who would benefit. A country of one and a third billion people, a good number of whom are subsistence farmers and industrial workers needs to retain fairly tight control if it wants to stay a single country.
    I visited China thinking I’d be living in 1984, or some childhood perception of the Soviet Union. When I arrived, I had to register my passport with the local police station in a city of 6 million. After that, I could pretty much go anywhere. A realtor I met joked that the only place you weren’t allowed to photograph was the American Embassy.


  11. Govt. Bureaucrat Says:

    The Chinese are justly proud of what they are accomplishing.
    At the end of the 19th century the USA zoomed past the world’s existing powers with economic growth that had never before been seen–until China at the end of the 20th. China’s economy has been growing at 9-11% per year for the past 30 years in a row! The have moved more people out of abject poverty in the past 30 years than any nation ever in the history of the world. (They also have huge challenges that remain–such as the 400-500 million of their citizens who still live on $1-2 per day.)
    My “Chinese daughter” had a math and science education that, frankly, shamed her American “peers.” But her knowledge of recent world history, politics, etc. contained huge glaring omissions and distortions. This is not “westernism.” We were watching TV one night and there was some story on China with some B-roll of Tiananmen Square. She asked me if I had ever heard of the place–I told her “Certainly.” She then gingerly asked whether I had ever heard of a “bad thing” that had happened there. I told he that I had had many Chinese friends at the time of the “bad thing” and that we had followed the incidents very closely on the radio. She then asked “What happened?” and told me that her parents had told her that she must never bring the subject up. I started to tell her about the “Tank Man” who had thrilled and inspired Americans with his bravery. She had never heard of him! I took her to our computer, Googled “Tiananmen”, and sat her down. When I saw her the next morning at breakfast, it was clear that she had not gone to bed.
    The Communist Party has made a “deal” with its people. (Most of the people could not articulate it, but it is a deal nonetheless.) It goes like this…”We will loosen controls on the economic system, allow private property and wealth to grow so that your standard of living improves dramatically each year and, in turn, you will not question our right to rule.”
    This may not sound like a deal to most Americans, but we should not be too quick to completely discount it either. Median household income in the USA in 2007 ($50,223) was lower that it was in 2000 ($50,557). If our median household income had grown at the same rate as the Chinese economy, it would have been $108,373 (and we would have President McCain.) In 30 years, the median household income would be $880,000 (and everyone would love the government Republican, Democrat, or Commie, that had brought them this kind of increases in their standard of living.) What the Chinese have accomplished is even more impressive when you learn that median earnings for a male in 2007 ($45,113) were also lower–than the median earnings for a male in 1973!! (All dollars in 2007 CPI-U-RS dollars. All data from
    I do believe that the Chinese will eventually (once their economy levels out) again begin to hunger for political freedoms that match their economic ones. But this could take a very long time. And as for why reporters ask “Western” China experts (often Chinese expats) for analysis and criticism instead of the Chinese-man-in-the-street, ask your friend where we can go to watch the 20th-anniversary interviews of the “Tank Man.”
    I love the Chinese people. But I simultaneously celebrate what they have accomplished even as I mourn for the opportunities that they have lost.


  12. Lab Lemming Says:

    It may sound brutal, but I think a lot of physical scientists from China in their 20’s and young 30’s are proud of their country. China has made amazing strides in the past two decades, especially in science and technology. In contrast, Soviet style communism chose to crumble instead of shoot, and those post-communist countries have struggled over the intervening decades. Many Russian scientists lost their jobs when communism fell. Russia and Eastern Europe are no longer competative in many research areas. The Chinese have developed rapidly, and part of the reason is that they quashed dissent instead of allowing it.


  13. bsci Says:

    Govt Bureaucrat,
    No one is denying the huge economic growth in China, but you’re playing with unrelated numbers. The US has also had economic growth in the past 30 years, but the median income has stayed flat (adjusted for inflation). If you want to make comparisons, compare apples to apples. How much has the inflaction adjusted median wage in in China changed in the last 30 years? What is the gap between rural and urban areas in China? How much do wages of the top and bottom 20% vary compared to the US? How low were Chinese median wages 30 years ago compared to US wages?
    Perhaps you can go to the Chinese Census website and just pull up those numbers like you did for the US.


  14. Anonymous Says:

    I am a Chinese immigrant to the US, and I find your sweeping generalizations of my country and countrymen narrow minded. How many data points did you collect before making these conclusions about the Chinese?


  15. bsci Says:

    Hi Anon #14.
    I’d love it if you can point me to more data. Could you show me the results of surveys of current public opinions in China about what happened at Tiananmen Square and public opinions about the Chinese government? We have so many public opinion surveys in the United States, I’m sure some entrepreneur is collecting and publishing this type of data in China.


  16. Govt. Bureaucrat Says:

    Dear bsci:
    Sorry I confused you. I was trying to make the point that Chinese have seen a remarkable, historically unprecedented, increase in their standard of living in recent decades. And, I believe, this has gone a long way towards quieting political dissent in that society. We will see if it continues to work that way (especially if they ever have a serious recession!)
    The US has experienced nothing like this level of economic growth (even during the Post-WWII boom) for a long, long time—if ever. I pointed out above that the median earnings for a male in the US has fallen in the 34 years between 1973 and 2007. Median household income has risen in that period (about 15% from $43,848 to $50,233 in 2007 dollars). The fact that male income is down but median household income is up means that more income from women accounts for the small increase over that period.
    Let’s compare that 15% increase in median household income to the changes in the US’s GDP over that period (again all figures in 2007 dollars—unless otherwise noted.) In 1973 GDP in the US was $5.153T and in 2007, $13.78T (a 2.67 fold increase.) In terms of GDP/capita the increase was from $23,840 in 1973 to $45,054 in 2007 (1.89 fold increase.)
    Now let’s see just how dramatic the change in China has been. GDP in 1973 was $0.515T, and $3.40T in 2007 (6.6 fold increase.) GDP/capita went from $587 to $2604 (4.44 fold increase.) These numbers have translated into enormous increases in standards of living (from cities full of people riding bicycles, wearing “Mao suits”, and living in hutongs to modern cities, choked with cars, and a mobile phone grafted to the ear of every young Chinese.)
    Note: The Wolfram calculations below are returned in nominal (current) dollars…
    In terms of income inequality the US and China are currently pretty evenly matched with Gini coefficients of 45 and 47 respectively (somewhere in between Sweden at 23 and Namibia at about 71). Data from
    Hope this helps.


  17. bsci Says:

    You can also look at Japan to see the same “historically unprecedented” growth from 1970 to 2000. It’s a bit spikier than China and has leveled out, but they start at approximately the same point and Japan still has double the GDP of China according to Wolfram. It’s just that Japan didn’t seem to need to suppress free speech to get that growth rate. (Note that the CIA factbook #’s don’t seem to be showing the same GDP measures at wolfram, but the CIA doesn’t have the historical data and I’ll make comparisons with the available data.)
    It’s also a bit odd comparing a country that already haad it’s growth spike (the US) to a now developing country. I’m sure US looked quite similar from 1900-1930, but the data might not be completely comparable.
    Back to the CIA factsheets
    China’s 2008 GDP/capita is $6,000 while the US GDP/capita is $47000 and Japan’s is $34200. Alas, it would be nice to be getting these numbers from China instead of the CIA so that they could be more accurate, but I guess we’ll need to use what we can find.


  18. Govt. Bureaucrat Says:

    Do you have a bit a problem with log plots bsci? (Or is it Dr. bsci?!) You know… Wolfram has that “Linear scale” button right there to help you out…?
    That you choose 1970-2000 and highlight Japan–a period that includes what the Japanese and economists around the world call the “Lost Decade.” (Google it.) And you know that whole Keynesian spending spree we are on right now here in the US? Its to try to avoid that “spikiness” and “leveled out” thing. You highlight this example because…?
    And what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? (Google it.)
    For the last time–its the Chinese people and their culture I have come to love–not their repressive government! I think (hope? pray?) that their government is headed to the “dustbin of history.” (Google it. Its a joke. Have someone explain it to you if you are still confused.) You see, as the Chinese economy progresses beyond the stage of simply employing technologies borrowed from elsewhere they will be forced to innovate. And to do that businessmen will (hopefully) pressure the government to open up the free flow of…
    Oh forget it! I yield! I give up! You have bested me! Return now, to the fog that must be your life!
    But do get a little help with that whole “data analysis” thing–or have I wandered into “InnumeracyBlogs” by mistake?


  19. bsci Says:

    um. I did convert it to linear plots. Even including the lost decade, the raw growth of Japan from 1970 to 200 was greater in Japan than China. This is due to Japan’s growth from the mid 80’s to mid 90’s that is even more rapid than China’s. Look at the chart. I’m not denying China’s amazing growth. I’m also not accepting that huge growth can be used as a legitimate excuse for suppressing free speech and democracy. If you love the Chinese people and their culture, stop being an apologist for their government’s behavior.


  20. Govt. Bureaucrat Says:

    You cannot point to a single thing that I have written that constitutes apologia for that government! You misunderstand me entirely!
    A couple of links from Fallow’s blog to give you a sense of what people are putting up with there…


  21. Neuro-conservative Says:

    It’s happening in Iran right now. Check out #iranelection on twitter (or
    They are also promoting a worldwide solidarity campaign — wear green on Monday to support the Green Revolution.


  22. DrugMonkey Says:

    Thanks for the alert N-c. It is very strange to follow the twitts. Still hard to get a bead on what is really going down is a big country.


  23. 2cents Says:

    My partner and I were denied entrance to Beijing U the day before the anniversary. Each entrance we tried gave us a new excuse. We didn’t initially realize why things were so locked down until after the 2nd strange excuse (perhaps they always have those fences up blocking access).


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