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Students died with their bicycles near Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4, 1989. (Associated Press)
Students died with their bicycles near Tiananmen Square in the early hours of June 4, 1989. (Associated Press)

Tiananmen dream: Dead in one generation Add to ...

If Beijing University has a beating heart, it's a three-sided plaza in the centre of the graceful campus that students simply refer to as "the Triangle."

The hub of China's most prestigious and politically active university, it has repeatedly served as a launching pad for the country's often volatile student movement.

In 1989, this serene, tree-lined spot was very nearly the nexus of a peaceful revolution until Deng Xiaoping ordered the army to crush the student-led protests that had paralyzed Beijing. Back then, the Triangle was awash in posters calling for democracy and an end to corruption inside the Communist Party. Students regularly gathered here to begin their marches to Tiananmen Square.

Twenty years after hundreds - some say thousands - of protesters, many of them Beijing University students, were massacred on Tiananmen Square, revolution is the last thing on the mind of the students who still gather here.

The political posters are gone, replaced by an Internet bulletin board that is carefully monitored by authorities. Students who gather in the Triangle are surrounded by job ads, movie posters and tables offering free samples of Acuvue contact lenses and Avon cosmetics.

Few of the Tiananmen-plus-20 generation seem bothered. The commercialized Triangle fits a generation that thinks of getting ahead in their careers first, and of changing a fossilized political system far later, if at all.

"In 1989, the focus was on political reforms. But nowadays, the students have more diversified demands, not only political ones. Because of the rapid development of the economy, many things are going on, and will go on, the right track and in an orderly way," said Ding Deliang, a 24-year-old international relations student who plans to join the government-run Xinhua news agency after he graduates this summer. "Some of the students' demands were met by the government. The government is doing things on democracy and freedom that it wasn't 20 years ago, so I think people have a sense of satisfaction."

Today's students are far better off and have far more to lose than their predecessors did in 1989. Then, isolation from the outside world and soaring inflation helped turn the students' demonstrations into a nationwide protest, with workers across the country staging strikes to both support the students and put forward their own demands. But after two decades of rapid economic growth, many students are willing to give the government more time to pursue the country's current development path.

It's pitiful, the materialism and practicality that has replaced idealism today.

That's not to say that students at Beijing University, better known here as Beida, are entirely apolitical. In more than a dozen interviews conducted with students on and off campus, nearly all expressed some concern with the direction in which his country is heading, and most voiced a desire to have more freedoms, if not necessarily Western-style democracy.

But unlike in 1989, many today believe that the government, gradually, is taking the country in the right direction. Among the students interviewed, several who were most critical and outspoken of the government said they were joining the Communist Party and going into public service, hoping to help speed systemic change from within.

"Why are there not so many protests now? Because students today like to vent their patriotism in a different way," said Zou Jianye, a 24-year-old international relations student, sipping green tea at a campus cafeteria. "Going into the streets is not a good way, in the short term or the long term. Sometimes you have to reconcile your dreams and ambitions with reality. Bread comes first."

In other words, the Communist Party's economic reforms have bought time and breathing space for its seemingly anachronistic system of one-party rule. Without ferment from below, the party's 60-year hold on power looks a good bet to continue for some time.

That victory for the government is difficult to swallow for those still grieving the events of June 4.

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