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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 January, 2005, 14:03 GMT
China's students changed by Tiananmen

By Louisa Lim
BBC News, Beijing

"Give me democracy or give me death!" read a banner waved by the students who occupied Tiananmen Square, China's political heart, 15 years ago.

Students were very much the driving force behind the demonstrations, and elite establishments like Peking University and Tsinghua University were convulsed with activity, organising hunger strikes and marches.

Chinese students at the gate of the Peking University, 17 January 2005
Fifteen years on, students' priorities have changed
Now the campuses are calm and some are empty - their students gone home for Chinese New Year holidays, conveniently out of the way when one of the heroes of the pro-democracy movement, Zhao Ziyang, died in a Beijing hospital on Monday.

Some students posted notes on the Peking University online message board, sparking several dozen messages in response, many of them brief and elliptical.

One message read: "May history give him a fair evaluation." Another said: "Is this the end of an era?"

But there was no sign of the revolutionary fervour of days gone by.

One reason may be that many university students know next to nothing about Zhao Ziyang.

After his last public appearance, tearfully urging students in Tiananmen Square to end their vigil, he was removed from his position as Communist Party general secretary.

For the next 15 years, he was largely confined to his house, effectively whitewashed from history.

Vivi Lin, 23, is a former Spice Girls fan now learning Latin dancing.

She professed almost total ignorance about Zhao Ziyang's life, and had to go online to find out more about him after hearing of his death.

1989 TIANANMEN EVENTS
A man tries to stop Chinese tanks in 1989
15 April: Reformist leader Hu Yaobang dies
22 April: Hu's memorial service. Thousands call for faster reforms
13 May: Students begin hunger strike as power struggle grips Communist Party
15 May: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visits China
19 May: Zhao makes tearful appeal to students in Tiananmen Square to leave
20 May: Martial law declared in Beijing
3-4 June: Security forces clear the square, killing hundreds

"When he was out of office I was very young, about eight or nine years old," she said.

"I only remember that once I saw the television mention him, then he did something wrong, then he was out of office. And then [he was] never heard of in the Chinese media again."

Two weeks after Zhao's last appearance, tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, crushing and killing hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

That act of violence scarred those who took part in the protests, like former journalist Zhu Hong.

For him, it marked an end to idealism.

"At that time people still had one aim. They wanted to make the party, the leadership, the country even better," he said.

"It's not the same now. Chinese society has fragmented. I don't hold out any hope for you because your life is nothing to do with me."

'Not so impulsive'

Today's students tend to believe that their forebears' idealism was naive and misguided.

Jenny Zhu, a 23-year-old journalism student, says her own peer group would not act so impulsively.

I don't have much to protest about. If I did, I wouldn't use their revolutionary ways. I'd tell the media
Vivi Lin, 23-year-old student
"We wouldn't go onto the streets because we are more mature," she said.

"We are not so young as to say whatever [we feel like] without a second thought."

She condemned the loss of life in Tiananmen Square, but said she disagreed with the students' methods.

And while there are aspects of today's society she is not satisfied with, she said she was convinced the Communist leadership was acting in the interest of its citizens.

"I'm from the countryside. I can see from my own eyes, China has changed a lot over the years, and we have more freedom than before," she said.

"The government has tried its best. I am optimistic about myself, about my future, about this country," she said.

"I don't need to protest, and actually I don't have much to protest about," added her classmate Vivi.

"If I did, I wouldn't use their revolutionary ways. I'd tell the media," she said.

Zhao Ziyang, 19 May 1989, addressing the students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing
Zhao's tearful appeal to students presaged his downfall
Their friend, Allen Yen, is bleary-eyed after 30 hours straight without sleep.

As a computer science student, he has been writing code throughout the night.

His hobbies include taking off with a backpack to travel around the country, something which was almost unheard of 15 years ago.

Allen says he would not protest for the sake of an ideal, nor would most of his generation.

"I think many young people like me pay less attention to politics, and more attention to living better and economic improvement. They don't care about politics in China," he said.

It is a trend that has been noted by their elders.

"My own criticism is that this is the most apathetic and indifferent generation China has ever produced," said Teng Jimeng, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"This is a situation... that is unprecedented in Chinese history. The general level of people's living standards is greatly improved and with the economy doing so very well, people feel satisfied and pacified," he said.

The events in Tiananmen Square 15 years ago have divided China into those who remember and those who were too young.

For those who witnessed the bloodshed, their trust in the government was shattered.

But for millions of others, schooled in the mindset of the party, the economic gains from the ensuing stability might go some way to justify that loss of life.




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