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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 ...

"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."

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.

I have questions in my mind. I don't believe what I saw on the Internet completely

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."

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.

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