For some, being born in the year of Tiananmen Square serves as a constant reminder of what an autocratic regime is capable of when met with dissent. For others, the tragic event is merely a piece of history that continues to fade with the emergence of first world worries.
Exactly 25 years after the bloody crackdown, 25-year-olds from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland remain divided on their perception of June 4.
“This part of history is very taboo for us, the exact details are not very clear,” Sun Xuebin, a Shandong-born Beijing resident, said.
Sun, who now works in the education and training industry, says he didn’t learn about the event until he was 18. “My mother told me that my uncle was in Beijing at the time and she was worried he would end up in jail.”
When asked to summarise the event, Sun said: “There was a power struggle between some very educated students and the party, and to preserve its power, the party declared martial law against the students and many innocent people died, I don’t know how many.”
Similarly, a Sichuan-native who only wanted to be known by his English name, Alex Li, said he did not learn about the event until he was studying abroad in France. Li recalled watching clips of a documentary on the incident with his dorm mate.
“We began searching for more videos online and ended up watching them late into the night,” Li said, “I thought it was absurd, how could I not know?”
“When I first learned about it, I got very emotional and even angry; the documentaries on the incident were obviously made with the intent of making people angry.”
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“But now, I think the situation was not so simple as that. It could not have been just a student demonstration, I think some of the protesters in the square really enjoyed being leaders, not everyone was protesting for the right reasons” Li said.
In the digital age, mainlanders have more access to information than ever before, despite the authorities’ internet censorship and Weibo, a microblogging service, serves as a forum to express opinions online.
“I don’t feel like I’m not free, as the students in the documentaries probably did,” Li said. “But I have no interest in pursuing politics, I have enough problems of my own.”
Since 1989, China has become the world’s second largest economy, behind only the US after years of unprecedented economic growth. Western lifestyles and products have flooded into the mainland, offering young adults like Sun and Li luxuries their parents never had. Some critics believe young people have become more materialistic and less politically aware.
“I worry about rent and my personal life. I know many people in government are corrupt, but I don’t feel the need to stand up to them,” Sun said.
Lin Junjie, a graduate student from the Graduate Institute of Building and Planning at National Taiwan University, said that he began learning about the incident around the fourth grade (age 9-10), but even now he finds it difficult to know how to feel.
“At first I was like everyone else, I felt like China was a dark and violent place with no freedom. But now, I can only say that the truth surrounding the incident was stifled and injustice was done, but I cannot relate to it,” he said.
In Hong Kong, where students like Lo Yan-chi took the path of social activism – he was among those who protested in the city against the high-speed railway to Guangzhou in 2010 – emotions run high.
“I didn’t realise there’s more to life than studying for exams before my secondary teacher showed us in class a documentary on the Tiananmen massacre,” said Lo, a cultural studies graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It’s moving to see that some young people back then could go that far and sacrificed their lives for the common good,” he said.
While the “nativist” movement in recent years has suggested that Hong Kong should sever its ties with the mainland and even stop holding the annual candlelit vigil to commemorate June 4, Lo insisted the ritual must carry on to “enlighten the politically apathetic”.
“Whether you like it or not, Hong Kong’s fate since the handover has become intertwined with China’s, and that’s why it’s essential for Hongkongers to better understand the nature of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
“Our generation will live to see what our hometown will become after 2047 and witness this growing sense of local identity transforming into a political force.”
Emerging social movement figures like Joshua Wong Chi-fung have made him more hopeful about the city’s future as young people demonstrate that they are already thinking about subsequent generations.
But those from his parents’ generation should not shy away from social activism, he said.
“They have a moral obligation to give back to their hometown after enjoying most of the benefits from the prosperity and economic boom during the 1970s and 1980s,” he said.