Tiananmen students' legacy forgotten on China campuses

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 01 2009 03:59 PM | Updated as of Jun 02 2009 12:00 AM

BEIJING - Wei Yining is a bright, well-spoken history major at a top Beijing university, but somehow his knowledge of the best-known protest against Communist Chinese rule remains fuzzy.

The 22-year-old admits being "not too familiar" with the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the resulting bloody crackdown that shocked the world 20 years ago this week.

More strikingly for a budding history scholar, he doesn't care.

"That was a different time. It happened when I was just a baby. Things have changed and China's young people have other things to think about now," he said.

Twenty years after their forebears stood up for political reform, today's Beijing students shrug that off with a mixture of ignorance, political apathy, and different priorities.

Content with China's overall prosperity, the students offer blank stares when asked about the idea of standing up for one's political rights.

"Get involved in politics? You mean join the (Communist) party?" said student Tan Li.

The events of 1989 remain taboo in China, where the government blocks any mention of it in the press and on the Chinese Internet.

The resulting ignorance is largely to blame for the students' attitudes, said Wu'er Kaixi, one of the most visible student leaders of 1989.

But it is an ignorance many students are happy to accept, said Wu'er Kaixi, who fled into exile after the crackdown and now lives in Taiwan.

"Today's students have much more control over their lives than we did," he said, noting that students in the 1980s could not even choose where they worked after graduation.

"This is the deal the government has made with China's people -- you get rich but you have to cooperate with us," he said.

Like many other students, Tan has evaded the censors to read the truth on overseas websites.

But he criticised the students of 1989 as rash and expressed admiration for the Communist Party for steering China to new glories, including last year's spectacular Beijing Olympics.

"We performed magnificently for the rest of the world. Like all Chinese, I was very proud," said Tan, a philosophy major.

Raised on a steady diet of the Communist Party's accomplishments, many students accept its promises of a slow transition to a vague "Chinese-style" democracy.

"We are moving in the right direction under the party's leadership," said a male student from Beijing University, an institution that provided many of the students who were key instigators of the six-week-long protests.

Yet fear also remains a powerful deterrent to speaking out on politics.

Most of the nearly one dozen students interviewed by AFP declined to provide either their names or their universities, fearful of punishment by school authorities for anything they may say.

Political discussion on campus is limited to praising the party's successes, with the only "debate" centring on how the party can do even better in future.

"Most of us do not get involved with politics. That is for the party and university administrators to handle," said a female Tsinghua University student.

If they have a concern, it is China's job market.

More than six million students are set to graduate this year even as 2.5 million previous graduates are still jobless amid the economic crisis, state media said recently.

Communist Party membership is widely viewed as a career aid and recruitment has been stepped up on campuses in recent years, said several students.

The education ministry said in December that party membership on campuses had grown from 168,000 students in 2002 to 808,000 in 2006.

But students say simply that they see little reason to take to the streets these days.

Their comments reflect the results of global survey by the US-based Pew Research Center that found 86 percent of Chinese in 2008 were satisfied with the way things were going in their country, the highest of the 24 countries surveyed.

"China has developed a great deal since 1989. Many people are happy now and focused on going forward," said Wei Yining.