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

The Associated Press

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.

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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.

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.

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"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.

"It's pitiful, the materialism and practicality that has replaced idealism today. This is a real tragedy," said Ding Zilin, a former university professor whose 17-year-old son was killed in the protests that day. "But in my mind, we cannot blame the young people too much. The root of the problem is the Communist Party. They made it policy to mislead the people for 20 years."

A quiet understanding

When a Globe reporter interviewed Beijing students on the 10th anniversary of the crackdown, he found outright denial about what had happened on June 4, 1989. "I do not believe students died in Tiananmen Square," a student said. "Some soldiers died, not students."

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It was the effect of a complete ban that the government slapped on discussion of the events, one that exists to this day. The events of 1989 are never mentioned on state-controlled media, and those who try and speak out about the crackdown usually find themselves in prison or under house arrest.

But the Internet has made it far easier for students to access information the government doesn't want them to have. Only two students interviewed professed any confusion about what happened that day, and even they understood the vague outlines and were aware that the government used force against students who were peacefully calling for change.

"I have seen video of this event. I know what happened," said Mr. Zou, who this summer will take up work at the government-run, English-language China Daily newspaper. "People are reluctant to talk about this event. But you can get materials about this on the Internet."

Mr. Zou and Mr. Ding were preschoolers when the shots rang out in Tiananmen Square. Soon after arriving at Beida, they heard whispers of the event in dorm-room conversations. Brave professors occasionally broke with doctrine to let their students know that something dramatic had happened to their forebears in 1989, gently nudging them toward researching the topic on their own. What they found - foreign press reports of the army turning its guns on students who were calling for more freedoms and an end to official corruption - startled them.

But 20 years of government propaganda efforts have also had their effect. Many Beida students are as critical of the pro-democracy demonstrators for creating the standoff as they are of the army and government for ending it so violently.

"I have questions in my mind. I don't believe what I saw on the Internet completely," said Wanghong Qixie, a 19-year-old entrant to Beida's urban environmental science program after graduating as one of the top students in the city of Urumqi in western China. "I was told that some of the students were quite irrational and impulsive. And I heard that some of the students [who took part in a 1989 hunger strike on Tiananmen Square]stopped eating during the daytime but were secretly eating at night."

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But even if most students at Beida know about their university's dark history, many are still highly uncomfortable talking about it.

"You want to talk about that? First, let me check there are no police around," a 24-year-old international relations graduate says, springing to his feet and scanning the nearby tables in a Western-style on-campus café.

He sat back down, and for a moment shoved aside the thick textbook he had been studying as preparation for the GMAT entrance exam that he is taking in hopes of being accepted to a business school in the United States.

"We know what happened, though maybe not all the details," he explained, lowering his voice and speaking in rapid-fire English. "For me, I want to know these things, so I find a way. I don't know how many of us try, but there's always a channel. But it's always better to claim you know nothing about this."

Many of the students agreed to speak only if their names were not used. The leaders of the Beijing University Student Union refused to be interviewed.

"Nobody wants to challenge the authorities," said a 22-year finance and economics student who nervously observed a man - who seemed too old to be a student - lingering nearby in the Triangle as she spoke to a foreign reporter. "It's a very risky thing to talk about this question."

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Still seeking answers

Seventeen-year-old high school student Jiang Jielian was among the thousands gathered on Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, 1989, when the tanks rolled in.

That evening, the state-run television station had broadcast a warning urging Beijingers not to leave their homes. Defying his mother - a strait-laced philosophy professor at Renmin University and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party who was urging him not to go to Tiananmen - Mr. Jiang locked himself in the family bathroom and climbed out the window to go join his friends on the square.

Outside, he met up with a classmate and they bicycled together toward the city centre. When they arrived around 11 p.m., a tense standoff was already under way between the protesters and the army. Eventually, the troops were ordered to open fire.

When a bullet struck Mr. Jiang in the back, he initially told his worried friends that he thought he had been hit by a rubber-coated round. None of them believed the soldiers would use live ammunition to break up a peaceful demonstration. He was one of the first to die in the crackdown, just after 1 a.m. on June 4.

"My son didn't want to be a hero. He was just a participant. He wasn't doing it for himself, but he was totally devoted to it," his mother, Ding Zilin, said. "His was an idealistic generation."

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At first, Ms. Ding kept silent about what had happened, even as she frequently contemplated suicide. It wasn't until 1991 - after then-premier Li Peng told a press conference that the government wouldn't publish a list of those who had died on June 4, 1989, because the parents of the dead didn't want the names released - that she decided to speak out. She couldn't tolerate the suggestion that she was somehow ashamed of her dead son, whose portrait hangs in the living room above an urn containing his cremated remains.

Ms. Ding began meeting with other parents of those who had been killed on Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Mothers, as the group became known, defied government surveillance and pressure to painstakingly gather the names of 195 students who died that day. Ms. Ding, now 72 and still leading a campaign to get the government to reveal the full truth, believes the real number is higher but that it won't be known as long as people are scared to talk about it.

Twenty years on, Ms. Ding is well aware that the cause her son died for is almost dead itself. She says today's students are more materialistic and practical than her son's generation, something she blames on a successful government "brainwashing" campaign that has kept discussion of Tiananmen Square out of the media and the classrooms.

"It's a cruel reality that today's young people don't know the truth. They say what happened 1989 wasn't necessary, and the people who were involved in the movement died for nothing. Today's students would never have given their lives. They think [their]life is most precious," she said bitterly in an interview at her apartment, where she still lives under constant watch.

She acknowledges that improving economic conditions have played a role in dulling students' desire for change, and says parents - who remember all too well what happened on Tiananmen - have also contributed to raising a generation that is almost completely uninterested in how their country is run, or why.

"Parents don't want to see their children get hurt, so they try to keep their children far away from politics, because Chinese politics are so terrible. There are no guarantees about your life if you get involved."

Ms. Ding's allegations that today's Chinese students aren't fully informed - or allowed to speak their minds if they are - are backed by a high-profile vote conducted by students in Hong Kong, a special autonomous region of China where free media is allowed and dissent is largely tolerated. After an awareness-raising campaign on campus in April, students at the University of Hong Kong voted 93 per cent in favour of a motion to condemn what happened on June 4, 1989, and to call on Beijing to apologize for killing pro-democracy demonstrators.

"The more important matter is to really learn about what actually happened and not just listen to what others say and not just blindly believe in one set of media," Jenny Ngai, the Student Union's acting external affairs secretary, told reporters. "In order to move your country forward, you have to learn about history."

Wang Dan, a first-year history student who emerged as one of the leaders of the protest movement back in 1989, is now 40 years old and still trying to raise awareness of what happened that day. He recently issued a call for all Chinese to wear white, a traditional colour of mourning, next week on the 20th anniversary, a call that few ordinary Chinese will hear because of a state media ban on discussing either Tiananmen Square or dissidents such as Mr. Wang.

Nonetheless, Mr. Wang, who was at the top of the Chinese government's most-wanted list after June 4, 1989, believes the pro-democracy camp can find hope in the changing attitudes of students and the fact the Chinese government can no longer completely hide what happened.

"More and more young generation [have]started to look for the truth," he said in an e-mail interview from Taiwan. "[Right now]there is no room for Chinese people to talk about politics. I believe once the political situation changes, the passion for politics will re-appear."

China's campuses are still indeed known to erupt from time to time. Twice in the past month, university students in major provincial centres have marched off campuses and blocked roads to show displeasure with local authorities. Photographs posted online of a large demonstration at Nanjing University showed students carrying banners written in Chinese and English, including one that read "Non-violent and Non-co-operation."

With some 6.1 million new graduates about to enter a suddenly bleak job market, joining more than a million from the class of 2008 who have yet to find work, the government is openly concerned that the days of Chinese student unrest are not over. "If you are worried," Premier Wen Jiabao told a student audience late last year, "then I am more worried than you."

But those Chinese students who know their history appear to have taken a dual lesson from the events of 20 years ago. They're horrified at what the government and army did, but they also assign plenty of blame to Mr. Wang and the protesters for pushing things too far, too fast.

The sense you get on Beijing University's campus is that the next student revolution, if and when it comes, will likely be a far slower-moving and more cautious affair than the students of 1989 had the patience for.

"I agree with these ideas, with freedom and equality. But still I think that what the government is doing might be good for this moment. We need to change things gradually," explained the 24-year-old cramming for his GMAT. "These things that happened 20 years ago are never going to happen again."

Then he furrowed his smooth forehead and stared back into his textbooks. "Actually, I don't know that. I really don't know."

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