How China's young idealists are turning to the soil

Tiananmen Square in June 1989

In June 1989, on the orders of China's ruling Communist Party, the army crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds of people. Twenty-five years on, a different type of protest against the values of modern China has emerged.

My hunt for China's young idealists, the inheritors of the Tiananmen spirit, started with a three hour drive through snarled traffic. Ironically the route took me first across the north end of Tiananmen Square, under the gaze of Chairman Mao's portrait on the gate of heavenly peace.

Then west along the avenue of eternal tranquillity, the very same route the tanks took in the opposite direction 25 years ago, rumbling into the heart of Beijing to kill both an untold number of young people and the idealism of a generation.

These public spaces haven't changed much, but the Beijing beyond is unrecognisable from the one the students marched through a quarter of a century ago. No more mule carts, markets and teeming brick alleys. Beijing has supersized - it's now all six-lane ring roads, high rise glass and concrete.

The young idealists I was hunting had renounced city life and decamped to the countryside. After much to-ing and fro-ing on bumpy tracks, we finally stumbled upon a flaking sign proclaiming the Righteous Path farm.

A man works on the Righteous Path farm in China

Inside, I found the Righteous Path farmers full of enthusiasm. There was Zhu Chengcheng, born in the year of the Tiananmen protests.

She said her parents had been optimistic about political reform in China but their generation had suffered after 4 June 1989.

When she got to 18 and told her parents she wanted to study politics in Beijing, they said no politics, it's too dangerous. Instead they persuaded her to study international finance.

But Zhu Chengcheng knew she had a calling. And when her peers left university to get trading jobs and start saving for apartments and cars, she got involved in helping earthquake victims and running rural education projects.

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Matter-of-factly, she explained that young people with an education should think about society. That when individuals make an effort to help someone else, society changes.

In 1989 any one of the young people in Tiananmen Square might have told you the same, but it sounds almost quaint nowadays. It's not overstating it by much to suggest that thinking about society is actively discouraged by government and parents alike.

In the field behind Zhu Chengcheng I came across a swarm of children giggling under buckets of apples.

Ducking into a polytunnel I met 29-year-old Ji Zhe who stood up from his strawberry plants and told me their seeds had been sent into space.

The only link between his old life and his new one. Because until two years ago this strawberry farmer was a designer of spacecraft and satellites.

A career swerve particularly mind-bending in a nation of only children where sacrifice for an education and white collar career is every family's mission statement.

Discussions in the greenhouse about what to grow

Ji Zhe explained his move by saying there's more wisdom in nature than in science and that turning to the ancient eastern philosophy of cosmic harmony had made him freer than friends sitting behind computers waiting for promotion.

Holding this community of several dozen young idealists together was a rather bookish looking 26-year-old, Wu Yunlong, who shrugged off comparisons with Chairman Mao's fanatical commune movement, pointing out that everyone on the Righteous Path farm was there out of choice.

The political philosophy is pragmatic, he said.

Tiananmen Square protests

  • In the spring of 1989, more than a million Chinese students and workers occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square, demanding reforms
  • The protests followed the death in April of Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, a leading reformist
  • On 19 May the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, came to the square and pleaded with the protesters to disperse. He was later ousted
  • Martial law was declared the following day but soldiers were ordered not to fire on civilians
  • On 2 June the Communist Party leadership ordered the "counter-revolutionary riot" to be crushed by force
  • On the night of 3-4 June thousands of soldiers moved in to break up the protest, killing hundreds of demonstrators. The exact death toll remains unknown
  • The following day a man was filmed obstructing tanks in Chang'an Avenue. The footage was shown on TVs worldwide but never in China
  • On 9 June China's leader, Deng Xiaoping, praised the army and blamed "counter-revolutionaries"

Learn from what worked in communism and learn from what didn't.

Wu told me some fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the old values with religion, others with shopping, computer games or Korean soap operas. But here he said the answer is organic farming. I wondered whether this was a political message in a country where air, soil and water are so heavily polluted.

But everyone on the farm is careful to avoid criticising the government. This is a big country, they say, everything needs to be done cautiously.

When I asked Wu directly about the spirit of the student protests 25 years ago he mused: back in 1989 they wanted freedom, democracy and equality.

But their method was rebellion and criticism. Our attitude, he said, is positive and practical, building a better society not just condemning others.

On the long journey back to the inscrutable tower blocks of the capital, I reflected on the young idealists I'd met.

Not everyone's answer to the future, possibly. Not even their own long term future perhaps.

But they were likeable, sincere, looked me in the eye - and they seemed happy.

Which made them stand out in a China where life often seems so insecure and where most people's experience seems an anxious struggle against daunting odds.

The Righteous Path farmers may be careful to pose no direct threat to China's rulers, yet with their sustainable farming, renunciation of consumerism and sense of moral purpose, they offer a quietly devastating indictment of the economic model and the values those rulers have enshrined.

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Carrie Gracie Article written by Carrie Gracie Carrie Gracie China editor

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