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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Chinese Student Protests: Explaining the Student Movements of the 1980s and the Lack of Protests Since 1989

  • Author(s): Kim, Patricia
  • et al.

Chinese students today are growing up in era that is significantly different, both politically and economically, from that of their predecessors. Today’s youth have been characterized by the media as pragmatic, materialistic, and uninterested in politics. In light of such developments, one may wonder if the days of pro-democracy student protests are over in China. Have students become too uninterested in politics and satisfied with their economic situations to spearhead protests like their Tiananmen predecessors? What factors initiated student protests in the past, and why have they not occurred since 1989? This paper argues that current students are, in fact, not too different from their protesting predecessors. Both groups share similar characteristics of pragmatism, materialism, and lack of interest in politics, as well as similar political grievances. Therefore, the lack of protests since 1989 cannot be explained by a decline in political interest or the appeasement of political grievances. Instead, three other factors seem to be crucial for a student protest to occur in China. First, political opening by the government is necessary to “awaken” and prompt students to protest. Second, progressive elites inspire students to protest. Third, some salient event often serves as the final catalyzing force for student movements. This paper asserts that the lack of protests since 1989 is not a consequence of changing student attitudes and situations, but rather due to the limited degree of political opening that has occurred since 1989. Finally, although the Chinese government has done a noteworthy job of improving living standards and economic opportunities, students today still harbor political grievances similar to those of the 1980s generation. Therefore, if the government sends signals of political relaxation in the future, perhaps the incumbent generation of students may rise up to protest like their predecessors.

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