Docile students, quiet campuses. Campaigns for democracy have faded into quests for riches
Shanghai — This year marks a decade of market-oriented economic reform in China. This story is part of an occasional series examining how change has affected individual lives. AS a boy growing up on a university campus, Zhou Kaiji listened to more political debates than nursery rhymes. Now that he's in college, though, he doesn't feel at home.
Sidling by students roughhousing in the dark, concrete hallway of a dormitory, Mr. Zhou said, ``I feel out of place. All my classmates think about are love affairs, dancing, and mostly money - they rarely discuss politics.''
Zhou chose to enter one of Shanghai's most distinguished universities because students there demonstrated more forcefully than on most other campuses during nationwide pro-democracy protests two years ago.
Today the campus is quiet: The roaring campaign for freedom has given way to a mute quest for riches.
Intimidated by the Communist Party, lulled by propaganda, or estranged from the common Chinese by a sense of superiority, many students today have abandoned their traditional role as a strong force for political change. Instead they struggle for wealth, pursuing new business opportunities created by economic reform, said Zhou, son of a university professor.
The crackdown on the 1986-87 demonstrations shattered the political innocence of Zhou and others who have come of age during the past decade of reform. They learned that although the party has encouraged entrepreneurship since 1978, it still forbids such go-getting in politics.
Resigned to stringent checks on basic liberties, many students have succumbed to what the official newspaper China Daily calls ``business fever'' and started more than 100 campus businesses in Shanghai alone.
The student hustlers mouth communist dogma as they betray the ideals they marched for two years ago. Their loss of liberal conviction has made the campus a political wasteland, Zhou said.
``Most students just memorize the basics of Marxism-Leninism, then they write it on exams and say it at the right time, but they don't believe in it,'' Zhou said, on condition that neither his true name nor university be revealed.
Fang Lizhi, China's most prominent dissident, told the Monitor that ``the government is controlling the campus very, very strictly today, so it's not easy for students to protest.''
``The government also urges students to get into business while telling them that if they get involved in politics they won't have any future,'' said Dr. Fang, an astrophysicist at the Peking Observatory. Peking expelled Fang from the party last year after accusing him of instigating the student protests.
The political apathy and moneymaking zeal on campuses is ``a very bad phenomena, very tragic,'' said Fang, a strong critic of China's Marxist orthodoxy and champion of free speech.
The student activists paid a high price for the party's lesson in totalitarian politics. Soon after quelling the rallies, conservative leaders ousted party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, one of the leadership's boldest reformers.
The party intensified ideological training and made university admission and study abroad contingent on communist devotion. It also warned students that further activism would bring automatic expulsion and dispatched thousands of students to factories and farms for a ``voluntary'' lesson in the hardship of common Chinese. This fall on Shanghai campuses the party opened stations of the public security bureau, the chief arm for maintaining order and political orthodoxy.
Zhou and other students express most resentment over a punishment that will dog them throughout their lives: a black spot in their personal political files. Many activists have been assigned to dead-end or demeaning jobs because of what is written in their files, students said.
Still an undergraduate, Zhou has already suffered for his activism. He was suspended from university for a year because he joined a demonstration last spring on the steps of China's legislature. With other students, he offered to shine the shoes of National People's Congress delegates who had rejected a request for greater education funding and urged students to moonlight.
Although a mild gesture by Western standards, the shoe-shine satire demonstrated a lasting political boldness in Zhou. A student leader in high school, he refused to bow to the pressure of school officials and join the Communist Youth League.
Since its inception the Communist Party has aggressively sought to recruit activists like Zhou. Communist leaders harnessed the political potency of students as campus firebrands earlier this century. They and their successors know that students have been at the forefront of most major political movements in modern Chinese history, from the 1911 overthrow of the last imperial dynasty to the 1949 communist revolution.
Unlike other generations this century, students are reluctant to mix with common Chinese and muster support for political change, Zhou said. They view themselves as an elite and so perpetuate a legacy from China's imperial past.
``The students should first try to make the people understand them, like the Communist Party did in its infancy,'' said Zhou. ``Students should go into the countryside and the factories, get the people's sympathy and show them that it is their right to have a vote in a multiparty democracy.''
Indeed, ``the demonstrations were a failure, not because we were punished or cracked down on but because we didn't win the sympathy of the people,'' he said.
Conversations with undergraduates in Shanghai and Peking show that the party has thwarted progressive students by restricting their academic inquiry as well as activities. Narrowly trained in Marxist politics, many students misunderstand democracy, believing it merely means ``you can do whatever you want,'' according to Zhou and other students.
Moreover, some students are satisfied with the current system. Wang Houren, called a ``model'' student by officials at East China Normal University, says he believes the party's rare consultations with the Chinese on state policy represent democracy. The party calls such token efforts part of its ``democratic dictatorship.''
``Our understanding of democracy is different from the Western definition. What we understand about democracy is that we can do something through the leaders, we can persuade them to accept our ideas and they will act according to our wishes. We don't advocate multiparty politics in China,'' said Ms. Wang, a senior majoring in child psychology.
Privately, many students expressed a strong desire for freedom within a pluralistic democracy. But they believe activism without popular support is futile. And common Chinese will not demand liberty until they are adequately fed and clothed.
Frustrated by the loss of political resolve among students, Zhou said, ``We learned in the demonstrations that we can't just destroy something without knowing what to build in its place.''
``But today, there aren't many of us who want to build democracy,'' he said, strolling by an outdoor stall where two students hawked cake, chocolate, and other snacks.