NEW YORK — I had last been at the Shanghai Airport in 1979. Not much has changed. The baggage claim area is dark and dingy. Young men in military uniforms wander about arguing, having nothing else to do.
As soon as I left the airport, however, I began to see China had changed dramatically. Unimaginable numbers of people still clog the streets. But the depressing conformity conveyed by the sea of blue and grey Mao jackets has given way to a buoyant stream of color and fashion. Modern buildings dot the skyline in many cities. Passers-by now eye Westerners with curiosity, but then go on their way. In 1979, I was usually followed by 50 or more, all bewildered by their first contact with a foreigner.
China is no longer in isolation. With the political and economic reforms of the 1980s, the Chinese became part of the international community. The success of this decade of transition--economic gains, new diplomatic and academic contacts, political liberalization--made the violent repression of the student movement on June 4, 1989, more painful for the Chinese. "Not only has reform ground to a halt," one student told me, "we're actually moving backward."
I was invited to China in the spring to give a series of lectures on international politics. The itinerary included a hectic week of meetings in major cities as well as a leisurely week of travel in more remote regions. For this, my rusty Chinese proved indispensable, few speak English outsie the coastal cities. Virtually everyone I met wanted to talk about June 4 and how it changed their lives. Nor were these casual chats. People spoke with an urgency, a passion. The fearful events of June 4 stirred up powerful currents of discontent that have yet to subside. Massive opposition to the government runs strong beneath the illusive surface of calm.
The student movement captured the hearts and minds of much of the urban population, despite continuing debate over exactly what the students were after. The ambiguity of the movement actually proved to be the key to its popularity--everyone identified the objectives of the movement with his own specific grievances.
For intellectuals, the movement was about democracy--a catch-all phrase that stood for political liberalization. Beijing University students who participated in the demonstrations admitted to me that they took to the streets without mapping out their objectives and how to attain them. But they agreed that freedom of expression and accountability were the unifying themes. "Our main aim," one graduate student put it, "was to express our frustrations openly and to demand government officials start being held responsible for their actions."
For workers, the movement was about fighting inflation and corruption. During the second half of the 1980s, high inflation had been eating away at living standards and pervasive corruption only made matters worse. A worker from Sichuan Province explained: "The corruption is so bad that it now touches everyone. Bribing officials has become a way of life. It was the students' demand for an end to corruption that linked the workers to the democracy movement."
For the older generation, the movement was of symbolic importance; the specific grievances addressed were less significant than the message that students were sending. "The student demonstrations restored my faith in China's youth," a woman in her 60s told me. "Before, I thought students just wanted to dance and prepare their language exams in order to study abroad. I thought they did not care about the country. Now, I am hopeful about the younger generation."
Sympathy for the student movement, pervasive in China's coastal cities, begins to wane in the country's rural interior. About two hours southwest of Kunming, not far off the highway that runs from Yunnan's capital to Burma, I pulled over to chat with farmers sweeping up grain they had left on the road to be threshed by the tires of passing cars.
After the necessary discussion of this year's crop, I turned to the student movement. The peasants said they had supported the demonstrations until the imposition of martial law. "After that," one said, "the students had to be stopped to prevent turmoil and chaos from spreading all over the country." This was the same line the government had presented on the television news. "What do you expect?" a student in Kunming said. "The farmers are very isolated from the cities. Forty percent of Yunnan is illiterate. Most people have no reason not to believe what they hear on TV."
Lack of sophistication, however, is not the only explanation for the more conservative attitudes of the countryside. The farmers have economic incentives for supporting the status quo: Many benefitted enormously from economic reforms. Workers in cities, in fact, are beginning to resent the growing economic disparities between urban centers and countryside.