For the First Time, I Hear the “T” Word

“Why were students afraid to keep volunteering for the independent candidates?” — one a political scientist and colleague in my department, Qiao Mu, who teaches political communication. I was talking to a young person, discussing the recent district elections here for People’s Congress, and the intimidation Qiao Mu’s volunteers said they experienced–like being videotaped, asked their name by plainclothes police, and warned by their school counselors. (All that may have led to the upstarts’ defeat; I blogged about it earlier ). “I understand they were told to stop working on the campaigns, but why did they listen? What exactly were they afraid of?” I’m just trying to understand, best I can.

“Have you ever heard,” the young person answered, “of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations?”–earnestly, like I may not have. This is the first time anyone has used the “T” word.

Of course, I’m nodding, Uh, yeah.

“Do you know what happened to those students after?”


The young person says that they (China’s brightest, since Beijing undergrads beat out tens of millions for these coveted spots) were sent to rural areas, never to work anywhere else again.

I’ve given up trying to make the image appear here–it won’t–of an Occupy Wall Street poster graphic where 2011’s Wall Street occupiers face 1999’s Chinese tanks in Tiananman. But please click for a stirring, complex (if contentious at like a million levels) graphic kicker. The Tiananman tank man in Foley Square. ows poster

PS: If you’re one of the 4,000 or so visits we’ve had here, THANK YOU!! Yet we only have 20ish actual followers. Stay in touch by cursoring to the right & clicking “Sign me up.”
PPS: The New York Times’ Sharon LaFraniere devoted a whole story to Qaio Mu’s brave run as an independent, and the suppression he endured.

Qiao himself also wrote an op-ed about it in the Wall Street Journal Online. He also catalogs the wrongs he suffered on

And I helped my friend Vincent Fang, a senior majoring in journalism (not actually my student, but my kids’ Chinese tutor and xbox FIFA football companion), write about it as well. Vince’s first-person piece (he was a campaign volunteer), “Democratic Election in China Through One Student’s Eyes,” got picked up all over the Web, & even translated into Chinese.

3 comments on “For the First Time, I Hear the “T” Word

  1. CNintheloop says:

    My experience as a former BFSU student tell me that many students know about the T word. It’s just that they don’t feel secure enough to talk about it in front of other people.


    • Thank you very much for your comment. I’m sorry that somehow I missed it until now.

      I often try to probe, with my students I know best, to understand (when they know and trust me) what the fear there (“don’t feel secure enough”) is all about. What exactly — in a concrete sense — is that fear? What potential punishment is looming? Is it that they might experience the same fate that befell student protestors in 1989 after the movement was crushed — being sent away forever — just for talking? That someone would report them? Or is it fear of parents being called? Getting a bad report, losing merit on their school record? What is the mechanism of ‘black listing’ if that’s the word? How does this work?
      These are my big questions.
      How does fear of speaking become internalized?
      What is the punishment that dare not speak its name?


  2. CNintheloop says:

    By “don’t feel secure enough”, I mean fear. I can totally understand that why many students choose to be silent on the T word, though I personally wouldn’t do the same.
    When I did a presentation in front of the whole class on the sensitive T word, I was filmed by one of the classmates. I wasn’t sure why she was filming, but I had a very bad feeling that one day those film clips would do me harm. That was not just paranoid for me to think like that. I was advised by a very respectful lecturer to be less expressive on sensitive issues. And, if I do not remember it wrong, there was a final year student in Beijing who was ordered to quit after showing the his class a few photos and video clips from the 1989 movement.
    There are student informants in the Uni and they will keep track of any “outrageous” things that their classmates or tutors say in class. It’s still 1984, only less dramatic.


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