My first morning in Beijing, I gained a surprising glimpse into what it means to be young and educated in China.
Our 32-year old guide, Mary, had an unusual approach, a warm, open, “ask me anything” attitude that seems unheard of amongst the experiences of other western travelers to whom I’ve spoken. Our get-to-know-you conversation quickly turned to talk of her younger sister, who had almost not survived China’s one child per family policy.
When Mary’s mother became pregnant with a second child in 1985, neighbors began to talk. Five months later, a government official showed up at their door to forcibly escort her to the hospital. Only by bribing her way out the back door then going underground was she able to give birth to her second daughter.
By very lucky timing, Mary’s aunt delivered a baby girl 10 days later. The newborn girls were registered as twins and only through this deception was the second daughter able to survive. She was raised by her biological aunt acting as her mother, and still, 29 years later, lives under this false identity for fear of government repercussion.
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This story, and the deep and frightening interference of the Chinese government into the lives of its people are not ancient history. This story is now; the experience of my contemporaries and my generation.
The fear and deception characterizing the attitudes of the people toward their government flows both ways. Arriving at Tiananmen Square, Mary whispered to us, “We will not speak of the events that have happened here; people are listening.”
This sudden shift in tone stood out starkly against the background of our American sensibility, where so many freedoms are taken for granted.
Across the boulevard, the long queue for security check at the Forbidden City felt normal in the context of our own post-9/11 metal-detector reality, until a soldier approached us quickly against the flow of bodies, dragging behind him a wailing woman. Everyone averted their eyes immediately, ignoring her cries. Unable to understand her words, I couldn’t contextualize the episode until later, when Mary whispered, “She was here to protest the government taking away her family land; she said that without it, they won’t be able to feed themselves.”
“What will happen to her?” I asked.
Mary answered, “I don’t know. No one knows.”
When it comes to speaking out about the government, there definitely appears to be a big, dark line that you do not cross; but where this line lies, and the repercussions for stepping over it seem to be quite fluid. Despite the government’s long and hard efforts at carefully engineered censorship, the information age, the allure of capitalism and the associated pursuit of higher education have cracked open China’s walls.
Young people are very aware of freedoms and opportunities they are missing. The flood of Chinese Gen X and Y students educated abroad have experienced the other side, and their knowledge is broadly shared despite the fact that the government has banned Google, Facebook and Instagram and censors everything from western movies to private emails.
It seems such a contradiction that our young, bubbly guide tells us that she and her friends are “miserable” in their lives. They are angry, really angry, about their lack of prospects and personal freedoms. They believe that things will never change. They say they feel trapped. They say they feel hopeless.
Still, Mary dreams of going back to school for a second degree, and of having a baby. There is some optimism within her, underpinning her hopes and dreams. And clearly she possesses ample determination and perseverance to even allow these dreams to bloom in spite of such fear and apprehension.
Living with this familiar, tangled mix of worry and doubt, love and hope, is she really so different from me? From us?
If thoughts and beliefs like these define her generation, then what internal forces will fuel the future of social oppression in China? If youth now feel that they are sacrificing themselves under the current system, what will stop them from sacrificing themselves for their dream of change in the future? With the powerful force of capitalist consumerism wrenching open the door, how will the government hold back the hearts, the strength and the sheer number of its increasingly more educated young citizens?
I don’t think it can. I don’t think it will. The fiery heat of the global cultural melting pot will light the already smoldering tinder of China’s youth someday.
Amber Herzog Lyman of Clovis is married with one son.