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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Not at Peking University, that's for certain

By Anne Meijdam/Beijing

A NEW UPHEAVAL?: Despite growing tensions, changes since 1989 have diminished the chances of another mass uprising

THE JUNE 4 EFFECT: It has changed Beijing's approach to economic, political and social policy

OF HEROES AND VILLAINS: Three student leaders and three officials who played key roles at Tiananmen

'MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER': Lulu Fang was there and wished she wasn't

AS A PEKING UNIVERSITY STUDENT IN 1989, Xue Yongtao often went to see the posters tacked up around the Triangle, the campus's famous three-sided intersection. Most of the slogans demanded democracy, free speech or an end to corruption. "Our system is like an old coat," one declared. "It has holes and it can't protect us anymore against the bitter winds. We should get rid of it." Xue (not her real name) would feel a thrill, standing before those posters. "We were all very excited that maybe something important would happen," she recalls. "We were just naive kids."

Ten years later, posters are again tacked to trees and walls at Peking University. But the messages are quite different. "NATO out of Yugoslavia," says one. "Clinton equals Adolf Hitler," declares another. Today Xue is 32 and manages a computer shop. She smiles bitterly. "Students are much more practical than we were in 1989," she says. "They will not mess in [domestic] politics. But having said that: I am glad I was there in 1989. It formed me as a person and I'll never forgive the government. They sent tanks against us."

Student movements have regularly been at the crest of political change in China this century. Traditionally, century-old Peking U has held its revolutionary banner high - and it was an incubator of the 1989 movement. Since Tiananmen, authorities have viewed with suspicion the slightest whiff of campus activism. When Deng Xiaoping died two years ago, the university's security and propaganda machinery went into high gear. The same goes every June 4. "If I try to talk about issues of national interest," says a student, "my roommates tell me to shut up, mind my own business and study. It's not that everyone is happy but even small actions would be blocked. There's just no point trying." Much, of course, depends on the kind of activity. Peking U students were the first to march on the U.S. embassy following the May 7 bombing of Beijing's Belgrade mission. Some even urged fellow students to enlist in a "defense army for Yugoslavia." In other words, Peking U students are eager protesters - so long as they are being politically correct.

The change of attitude is not merely genuflection to a heavy-handed regime. It is as much a result of China's breathtaking economic expansion over the last decade. Most Chinese college kids would rather talk consumer choice than political choice. Besides, many of their parents missed out on an education during the Cultural Revolution and, as a result, put a heavy premium on schooling. Moreover, parents must now pay for a college education themselves. Many kids are kept so busy with extra-curricular study that they barely have time to hang out with their friends, let alone conspire to topple the Communist Party.

"Peking U students are now about as dangerous to the government as toddlers in kindergarten," says Li Jun, a doctor. Adds 1989 student Xue Yongtao: "The government has put a lot of work into so-called patriotic education. And they have been successful. As you can see, there is a big gap between my generation and the students today."


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