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Chinese Students Have New Priorities, 15 Years after Tiananmen Square Protests - 2004-06-03

Fifteen-years ago, Chinese students were emboldened in their bid to rid China of autocratic rule, corruption and nepotism. Their fervor was silenced, when the communist government used guns and tanks to crush their demonstrations, killing hundreds. But today's students seem more interested in making money than politics.

Following their crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators on June 4, 1989, China's leaders embarked on an intensive campaign to speed up economic reforms and improve living conditions. With annual growth reaching almost nine percent this year, some analysts say the government achieved its goal, and, to some degree, has gotten people, especially younger generations, to focus on economic prosperity rather than on politics.

The 1989 pro-democracy movement was born on the university campuses. Fang Lizhi, an astrophysics professor in central Anhui Province, is credited with inspiring students' demands for democratic change in the late 1980s.

Exiled after the 1989 crackdown, Professor Fang says he believes the government has attempted to buy out China's young people.

"The government says, 'If you do any political activities that's very dangerous.' On the other hand, they encourage people to do business, make money, and forget the poor people and forget the other political issues, and especially forget the June 4 massacre," he said.

On this June 4 anniversary, the Chinese government is, as it always has, prohibiting any public commemoration of the event. At Beijing's Tsinghua University, from where many of the 1989 demonstrators emerged, students today are unwilling to discuss June 4.

This 26-year-old engineering student, who is about to get his degree, says he was 11-years old at the time, and does not recall much about the incident. Preferring not to use his name, he says his main goals right now are to launch his career and buy a car.

"We just want a high standard of living. We want to make sure that we have a good life," he said. "And there are many opportunities in China right now. I have signed a contract to work for a joint-venture company after graduation."

The student says he has chosen to stay away from political activities during his college career.

Analysts say the same could be said of early 1989. Many students then were more focused on taking advantage of new opportunities to study abroad, or work with then-fledgling international joint-venture companies.

It was the death of Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, in April of 1989 that sparked the Tiananmen Square protests. Mr. Hu was seen as the only party leader who favored significant reform. Students had championed him for his refusal to smash earlier protests, an action that led to his sacking as party chief.

Tong Yi was one of the students who led the 1989 demonstrations. After spending time in a so-called re-education labor camp, she went to the United States, where she is now a lawyer. She says a sense of duty for the common good is what drove her and her classmates to the streets.

"When we were in school, most of my classmates were pretty high-minded. They cared about the future of China. They were taught to be selfless," she said. "All these communist indoctrinations, in a way, helped them to look at the bigger picture, rather than themselves only."

The sight of Chinese troops firing on unarmed citizens caused many people to lose faith in the Communist ideology, and some analysts to refer to June 4 as the day that Marxism died in China.

The China of today shows few signs of socialism, and Communist slogans have given way to billboards touting American fast food, gourmet coffee and sportswear.

Economic growth following the 1989 crackdown has been tremendous, and those who have enjoyed it are largely in the class of people who took part in the demonstrations, educated urban dwellers.

With the vast majority of China's rural population living in poverty, analysts say, the new source of instability may be in the countryside.

Fang Lizhi says rural poverty, a financial collapse or even an economic downturn, present new dangers for the communist party's monopoly on power.

"During Tiananmen Square, many people [were] involved in the movement," he said. "That [was] because they hated the corruption. [It] also the same now. They hate the injustice in the economic system."

The 26-year-old Tsinghua University engineering student says, while he and his colleagues' goals, for now, are focused on improving their economic situation, it is only a matter of time before Chinese society will start demanding political changes.

"I think the most important thing for China now is to improve people's lives," he said. "I understand if the government wants to focus on economic development first, even though the political situation is not perfect. But sooner or later, they do have to improve our political situation."

Some dissidents say that with hopes for democratic reforms dashed in 1989, China's people were left only with promises of continued economic prosperity. They warn that failure to meet these could result in new upheaval.