China's Harvard shuns hotbed past In marking 100th year, university that fueled Tiananmen is cool to it

May 06, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- As Beijing University celebrates its 100th anniversary this week, it looks little like the school that helped ignite the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising -- and that is just how Chinese leaders want it.

Long gone are posters calling for human rights and salons where people openly discuss democracy and public protest.

Traditionally a powerful force for political change in China, many students at the country's most prestigious university are now more interested in finding well-paying jobs or studying for graduate school exams.

In the inaugural issue of the university's student magazine, Current Affairs, the editor wrote wistfully about the school's idealistic past and its more pragmatic present.

"Walking around the campus I do not feel the fresh air at all. I can only feel depressed because there are only TOEFL [Teaching of English as a Foreign Language] training and help- wanted ads left on the most popular bulletin boards," he wrote. "Beida [as the university is known] is like a giant whose spine is taken out. He cannot stand up anymore."

After two issues, the university's political protection bureau confiscated copies of the magazine and shut it down.

The depoliticization of Beijing University -- the nation's equivalent of Harvard -- is part of a much broader generational shift among Chinese youth.

The idealistic days of the spring of 1989 when hundreds of thousands filled Tiananmen Square to demand the overhaul of the nation's authoritarian system seem a distant memory. Chinese young people today are more apt to spend their time chatting on cell phones, watching American movies on video compact discs, applying to U.S. graduate schools or saving to buy a car.

Various forces have driven this change in attitude, including government repression, deft control of the state-run media, increasing economic opportunities for youth and an explosion in the availability of consumer products.

"The major emphasis should be on the economy, not politics," says a Beida law student who gave her surname only as Sun. "Did the students' concerns about politics in the 1980s help the economy grow faster? I don't think so."

Since its creation in 1898, Beijing University has often been a hotbed of political thought: both Marxist and democratic.

On May 4, 1919, Beida students took to the streets to protest corruption and territorial concessions to Japan, sparking a decade of nationwide, political activism.

In the 1920s, Communists held underground meetings at the school where Mao Tse-tung once worked as an assistant librarian.

Beida students played an integral role in the Tiananmen movement -- seven of them made the government's most wanted list.

Wang Dan, one of the nation's most famous dissidents, is a former Beijing University student and was a leader of the Tiananmen protests. Wang was released from prison last month and forced into exile in the United States.

At the university's centennial celebration Monday, Chinese President Jiang Zemin glossed over the school's democratic tradition and never mentioned Tiananmen. Instead, he emphasized Beida's drive to become a world-class university and its role in improving the nation.

"The modernization of China must center on economic reform and stick to the strategy of revitalizing China through science and education," he told an audience of more than 8,000 at the Great Hall of the People -- the Chinese parliament building that borders Tiananmen Square.

Beijing University's atmosphere has changed over the past decade for various reasons -- some obvious, others more subtle.

After the military assault on Tiananmen protesters in 1989 left hundreds dead, Chinese officials cracked down on campus free speech. Students must now apply for permission to stage demonstrations, and political banners are forbidden.

Security was tight during Monday's festivities.

Wang Youcai, a Tiananmen leader and former Beijing University student, planned to attend but police arrested him late last month to keep him away, according to the Hong Kong-based Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China. He was released yesterday -- after the ceremonies were over.

Intimidation isn't the only reason the campus is quieter now. Beida students live in a world of greater economic opportunity than the Tiananmen generation.

Students in the 1980s grew up in families which lived through the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao set the Chinese people against one another in an attempt to destroy creeping capitalism.

"The students came from families that had suffered during the Cultural Revolution, so they were very eager to reform the current situation," says Qian Liqun, a professor of Chinese language and literature.

When most freshmen set off for Beida these days, their parents plead with them not to get involved in politics.

Students don't know much about Tiananmen because the government has recast the event as a counterrevolutionary movement and the state-run media has blotted out the ugly details.

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