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Thirty years ago in Beijing, thousands of Chinese youth led the charge for democracy – and suffered a violent crackdown by the state. Here’s what today’s students don’t know, and don’t want to know, about what happened

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Tiananmen, then and now: At left, thousands of pro-democracy protesters rally around the Goddess of Democracy statue on June 2, 1989, and at right, the same scene is shown on May 18, 2019.Catherine Henriette and Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

They know the two numbers that haunt China’s capital, and they know they mean death.

But the generation of students that has succeeded the idealists who left campus 30 years ago to call for change and then die near Tiananmen Square on June 4 – a date now known as 6.4 – share few of the views of those who came before them.

Peking University has long been China’s most prestigious educational institution, and its intellectual ferment was a wellspring for the student movement that took over Tiananmen Square.

Today, however, the young elite that walk its hallowed halls offer a striking contrast to the victims of the 1989 crackdown and a vivid example of the effectiveness of China’s leaders in reshaping the history of what took place.

Steeped in classes rewritten to instill government-sanctioned patriotism after 1989, the modern cohort of China’s top students have had little exposure to the student protests that arose in hundreds of Chinese cities before they were born. Nor do many feel as if they can judge the past actions of a Communist Party that, they have repeatedly been told, has brought stability and wealth to the country.

“There is no right or wrong,” says Mr. Deng, a fourth-year geology undergraduate who was one of more than a dozen current Peking University students The Globe and Mail interviewed to understand current attitudes toward the events at Tiananmen. The Globe is publishing only the surnames of students out of concern for retribution against them.

Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of the crackdown, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed students and left hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand, dead in Beijing.

The topic is considered dangerous in a country that has renewed efforts to ensure adherence to Communist ideology, particularly among postsecondary students.

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On June 6, 1989, tanks and soldiers stand guard on Chang'an Avenue, leading to Tiananmen Square. Today, the tanks are long gone, but surveillance cameras hang from the lampposts to keep the population in check.Greg Baker and Manny Ceneta/AFP/Getty Images

Twice while interviewing students about June 4, The Globe was warned to be careful lest someone call police. “You’d better not ask this question at Peking University,” said Mr. Chen, an economics student. The Peking University campus is today a restricted space, with gates policed by security who allow entry only to those with formal invitations or university identification.

All of the students interviewed described the basic contours of what happened three decades ago, with the exception of a journalism student who said she wasn’t familiar with those events.

Some heard when a teacher dropped a hint in a history lesson, or when a fellow student whispered a piece of forbidden knowledge. Turning to the internet to learn more accomplished little in a country that has suppressed the stains of its past – a top recent result on China’s Google-like Baidu search engine was for a Volvo car that can accelerate to 100 km/h in 6.4 seconds.

But the difficulty of learning more has only served to heighten interest. ”The most mysterious stuff always arouses the most curiosity,” said Mr. Wang, a second-year biology student who has used software to bypass the Great Firewall that blocked censored online content, and watched documentaries about what happened. He was, initially, shocked by what he saw, events he describes as an “unfortunate history.” But, he says, “it’s hard to say who is more innocent, because taking each perspective, the behaviour on both sides could be considered justifiable.”

There is “nothing good” about killing students, said Mr. Tang, a graduate mathematics student. But China in 1989 remained “weak in national power. The economy was also bleak,” he said. “So developing the country was the top priority for the government and it behaved a bit tough.”

Indeed, the conduct of students in 1989 seems irrational in retrospect, said Ms. Zhang, who declines to name her major, but expresses support for the scant attention paid to that chapter of the past. “We should admit that in our society there are people fraught with ignorance and violence, including those who started that movement,” she said. Some students 30 years ago demanded a new political system for China, erecting a goddess of democracy at Tiananmen Square fashioned after the Statue of Liberty.

Ms. Zhang bristles when asked whether students today might similarly seek political change. It is a “biased” question, she says.

In China, “we have democracy now. Its form probably does not fit with your thinking, but we have reasons to hold onto our own democracy, and I have many arguments to prove it,” she said. What’s important, she added, is to take “into consideration specific national conditions.”

Her response offers a faithful reflection of content introduced into Chinese textbooks after Tiananmen to emphasize “national conditions education.”

“A lot of the stress in those documents was that students have to understand all of the challenges China is going through with a huge population and significant development challenges. And so Western democracy is not something that is suitable for China’s situation,” said Gregory Fairbrother, a scholar at the Education University of Hong Kong who has studied the curriculum changes.

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June 3, 1989: A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People.Jeff Widener/Associated Press

The roots of the 1989 protests lay in the dislocations brought about by market reforms that began roughly a decade earlier, producing inflation, inequality, injustice and corruption – all while weakening the ideologically communist foundation of party rule.

When problems emerged, as a result, China’s leadership had little way to inspire loyalty, said Suisheng Zhao, the director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver. He has collected and analyzed textbooks produced in the 1990s.

“After Tiananmen Square, I think the government rediscovered a new shared value,” he said. Patriotism, he explained, required no political ideology, and patriotic content entered a suite of school textbooks, from science to history and the civics and political thought classes known today as “moral education.”

Beijing also sought to conjoin the identity of nation and party, so “criticism of the Communist Party became criticism of the Chinese nation,” Prof. Zhao said.

Students raised in that system tend to “think that Tiananmen Square may not be something positive for China’s political development,” he said. ”They have become patriots.” Beijing, after all, can point to the success of its model. With the party at the helm, China has become a rising superpower, with mounting influence in global affairs.

Schooled from a young age in the official post-Tiananmen patriotism, students today are also attending universities that, under President Xi Jinping, have renewed their emphasis on ideological training and rejection of “Western values,” such as press freedom and civil rights. Peking University was among the first in China to form a “teachers affairs department” that operates under party control and aims to boost the doctrinal adherence of instructional staff. In March, Mr. Xi delivered a speech saying ideological and political theory courses are ”an important guarantee for training future generations who are well-prepared to join the socialist cause.”

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Wuer Kaixi, shown in 1998, fled China to live in Taiwan after the Tiananmen crackdown.Simon Kwong/Reuters

The classroom changes have distressed those who were in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.

“The Chinese government didn’t just massacre the peaceful demonstrators 30 years ago. They massacred the idea of free-thinking,” said Wuer Kaixi, who was named the second most-wanted student leader after Tiananmen crackdown. He fled China in 1989 and now lives in Taiwan. Remembering those events this year has been difficult. “Thirty is a number after which something will no longer be a current event. It will be part of history. And this is something I’m very afraid of,” he says.

For Rose Tang, the distress is more personal. As a student, she was among the last to leave the carnage on June 4. Today, she is an activist and critic of China. But “my own sister and my high-school friends who used to support me during the Tiananmen movement have said it was worth it to kill the students in exchange for 20 years of China’s stability and prosperity,” she says.

Still, she adds, she remains optimistic. Often, she meets Chinese students overseas who approach her, eager to learn more about Tiananmen. One stood out, a young woman who recently asked, “So did the troops really shoot people and did the tanks crush people?”

“I told her about me having to crawl over a tank in the square and how my friend Fang Zheng’s legs were both crushed,” Ms. Tang recalled. The student replied, ”Can I give you a hug?” Ms. Tang was touched.

At Peking University, too, years of “patriotic” instruction have not succeeded in fully erasing sympathy with the students of 1989. Indeed, the hardships for students today echo those encountered 30 years ago, says Mr. Zhang, a second-year physics student.

“We are facing terrible developmental inequality in China. The wealth gap from region to region is very deep,” he says. He cites other problems, too: constraints on freedom of speech and strict internet censorship. He points to the smog mask he is wearing as evidence of industrial mismanagement and the pollution it has caused.

What happened in 1989 is a “tragedy,” he says. “Those students were still young.” He shares their concern, if not their spirit.

“I don’t think people should obey the orders of government,” he said. And “I agree that China needs democracy. But I don’t think I would be courageous enough to go out on street and fight for anything.”

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Catherine Henriette and Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

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