In November, during a speech at Harvard University, Chinese President Jiang Zemin drew chuckles when he talked about what he had learned to that point on his whistle-stop tour of the United States.
“I have gotten a more specific understanding of American democracy--more specific than I’ve learned from books. Although I’m already 71 years old,” the Communist Party leader went on with a smile, “my ears work very well"--an acknowledgment of the demonstrators outside chanting their rowdy opposition to his visit.
Likewise, Beijing University, where President Clinton made a reciprocal visit today as part of this week’s Sino-U.S. summit, provides an object lesson in authoritarian rule, Chinese style.
For most of the 20th century, the school has been a potent political force in the world’s most populous nation. Its ivy-covered classrooms are legendary for the radical and reformist ideas swirling within, from nihilism to Marxism to populism. Its students have taken to the streets at critical moments in modern Chinese history, demonstrating for government reform as far back as 1919, at the dawn of republican China, up through 1989, before the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square.
Since that event nine years ago, however, much of the independent spirit at China’s most famous seat of higher learning has fled the 100-year-old campus. Although glimmers of a comeback hang in the air, the university is largely a wraith of its former self, crippled by a harsh crackdown on intellectual freedom after the massacre and a sense of futility with regard to political activism.
The result, say instructors and even the young people themselves, is a student body at what is universally known as Beida that is far less politically engaged than in years past, despite the school’s historical reputation as a crucible of change.
“It really is very much the product of a fundamentally changed culture. Part of that changed culture is that it accepts . . . that political activism is somewhat futile,” said Timothy Weston, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is writing a book on Beida.
In the late 1980s, “students continued to see themselves in the role as the conscience of the nation and in the vanguard of truth-telling and getting issues on the public agenda,” said Weston, who visited the campus last month. “That does not seem to be on the minds of very many of these people [now]. They just seem very apolitical.”
Instead, many of Beida’s students are channeling their energy into economic pursuits, taking advantage of the market-oriented reforms undertaken by the same government that still keeps a lid on political freedom.
“They’re much more interested in the economic reforms,” said Julia Chang Bloch, a former U.S. ambassador to Nepal and a visiting professor at Beida this semester. “They want to make money.”
Bloch compared the latest crop of students here to the “me generation” of 1980s America, when pursuit of the yuppie dream supplanted youthful idealism.
These days, Beida’s students--the elite of their generation--tote cell phones for scheduling job interviews rather than for organizing political rallies. Nearly one-fifth of students opt for life abroad after graduation.
“What happened in the May 4th Movement and the June 4th incident, you won’t be seeing that kind of activity now,” said math major Xiao Long, 22, referring to the protests in 1919 and 1989, respectively. “There’s a lot more individualism. Students are more concerned with how to develop themselves.”
“They’re more concerned about getting a job,” one social science scholar said bluntly.
But to highlight the economic roots of Beijing University’s political malaise would be to understate the devastating effects of the government’s heavy intervention in the early 1990s as a punishment for the school’s key role in the 1989 protests.
In the bloody aftermath of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Communist ideologues swooped down on Beida, purging professors sympathetic to the students’ cause and imposing strict military training on the students for the next four years. The number of political science and philosophy majors, whose once-popular departments reverted to teaching Marxist-Leninist dogma, began to decline. And crushed were the freewheeling political discussions that had prompted students to march on Tiananmen.
That pall still lingers.
“There’s so much ignorance and no chance to spread political ideas,” lamented a 25-year-old graduate student who asked not to be identified. “The government has a monopoly [on information].”
Echo of Official Line
Students now seem more apt to issue government-standard answers on political questions of the day, such as the heated debate over human rights.
“China and the United States see this differently,” said junior Zhang Yan, 21, in an echo of the official government line. “China should build its human rights the way China sees fit, and the U.S. should practice human rights the way the U.S. sees fit.”
In fact, several students interviewed last week said that Clinton should steer clear of human rights altogether in the Beida speech he delivered today, despite pressure back home that he address the issue on the campus where radicalism and free-thinking once flourished.
“This is still a sensitive subject,” said Ren Yishua, 20, as she finished lunch in a raucous campus cafeteria. “He should talk about culture instead, topics like education.”
But the 25-year-old graduate student disagreed. “He’s got to bring up Tiananmen Square,” said the student, who longs for the day that Beida can once again be “the political barometer of the nation.”
(Although Clinton did not address the Tiananmen massacre in today’s speech, he did discuss human rights.)
Recently, there have been some small stirrings of hope that Beida’s deep freeze may be thawing, however slightly.
Although many members of the faculty remain extremely guarded in what they say, some scholars see their colleagues once again taking chances, fostering discussion on topics considered subversive by the Communist authorities not long ago. A couple of campus political discussion groups have sprung up again, said one recent graduate.
A computerization drive has also given the students access to the Internet, with its mine of outside information.
Last month, Beida celebrated its centennial with a party that drew President Jiang. His praise for the university prompted some talk that Beida might finally have turned the corner and taken its first step back into the government’s good graces.
Meanwhile, multimillion-dollar renovation projects are giving Beida a badly needed face lift.
The seeds of student activism may yet sprout again, said one 30-year-old alumnus, who participated in the 1989 protests and asked that he not be named. Standing amid Beida’s clipped lawns and graceful classrooms, the man recalled how a small band of organizers was ultimately able to rouse the passions of thousands of fellow students nine years ago.
“When Wang Dan first called for action,” the man said, pointing to the spot where the recently exiled student leader mobilized his peers, “only a few people came at first. But more and more students eventually joined. . . .
“I think Beida’s students still have it in them.”