Campus Activism Takes Back Seat To Economic Progress in China

With new economic opportunities, students are more focused on their personal futures than on politics

AMONG the traditional Chinese halls, wooded walkways, and cool lagoons of Beijing University, business and politics intertwine in an uneasy student quiet.

Today, many at Beijing's elite universities say the stormy days of democracy protests in 1989 are lost four years later as students scramble aboard the new market bandwagon and find ways to make money and land good jobs. The new heroes on campus, they say, are no longer the leaders of four years ago but fast-talking wheeler-dealers earning big incomes editing books, selling garments, or wholesaling scrap metal.

"Money is not almighty, but without it you can't ... expect respect from others," says one student entrepreneur who says he no longer relies on family support. "Now I really feel I am a man."

"One thing is obvious. Presently, the idea of the market economy has a deep influence in the hearts of the Chinese people and the students," said Wang Yiqiu, provost of Beijing University, commonly called Beida, in a Monitor interview. "Students are, of course, concerned about state affairs. But they are more concerned about their personal futures after graduation."

But professors, dissidents from 1989, and new student activists say the calm masks undercurrents of resentment and uncertainty about economic changes.

In a poll of more than 1,600 students organized by the student unions of People's, Beijing, Qinghua, and Beijing Normal Universities in March, about half said they worry about the uneven pace and role of intellectuals in market reforms, and want political participation but lack the channels.

In other polls, many students voiced concerns about the lack of development in their home towns or villages, the "ominous" gap between the fast-growing eastern coast and the poor interior, and the growing burdens of farmers.

Since 1989, those worries have prompted efforts to revive campus activism. In 1991 and 1992, students at Beijing Normal and People's Universities began reorganizing, issuing pamphlets, holding lectures, and issuing a mimeographed newsletter called Dajia, meaning "all of us." But the resurgence ended last year when police tracked down and arrested the organizers.

This spring, Beida clamped down on a flurry of protests. During the annual session of the National People's Congress in March, posters denouncing the rubber-stamp parliament and rigged university student elections appeared.

Wang Jiaqi, a graduate student of law, was chosen as his department's representative on the student union only to have the authorities block his election because of his political activism. He has been threatened with dismissal, students say.

During a campus-wide speech contest organized by the student union, a student who had completed the one year of military training was heckled off the stage when he tried to speak on the training benefits. An Army officer who later took the stage also was booed.

On a May 4 observance of a Chinese intellectual movement, three Beijing law students, Wang Zongqiu, Zhou Hu, and Liu Jun were detained along with a People's University student for trying to organize a march after a rock concert. The university also blames Yuan Hongbing, an outspoken law professor and teacher of the students, for involvement.

But many dissidents admit it will take time to reactivate students. "It seems there is a generation gap. There are no successors to the 1989 leaders, so no impact can be exerted on the students," says a professor who lost his job for backing the 1989 protests. "This is a silent time for intellectuals."

What is new, campus observers say, is the push to get good jobs and to make money, although the extent of the latter is widely exaggerated by the Chinese press, students say.

According to new government regulations, students are not allowed to have part-time jobs or to go into business. But with growing numbers of students paying their own tuition and wanting to improve poor campus living conditions, the need to find a job on the side is growing.

In addition, fewer students are choosing to join the Communist Party, the fast-track to success in the past, not out of political rebellion, but a lack of interest. A student party member at People's University, the most orthodox of Beijing's campuses, estimated that 90 percent of students belong to the Communist Youth League but few become party members.

"Now more students are opting for not working for the government and party organizations because economic changes have brought new opportunities," said the student who plans to work for the party newspaper, People's Daily, because she couldn't get a job elsewhere. Another People's University student and party member also had planned to follow the communist career track until he got into the lucrative but illicit trade of being a campus book agent.

In recent years, many students have begun buying book rights from state-controlled publishing houses under the table. They then translate foreign best-sellers or write and edit books sold on the open market.

The student, who asked that his name not be used, has produced study guides and business books, and can earn up to $500 for each.

Financially comfortable, the student has scuttled all thoughts of pursuing a Communist Party position and intends to work for a private company in south China. Still, he insists, "I believe in communism. It is an ideal system as outlined by Marx."

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