BEIJING -- A year after widespread university protests led to a Communist Party crackdown, most of China's students are silent, looking out for their own careers and rejecting demonstrations as a way to reform the political system.
Many of the students now say the way to achieve their goals is working within the system, and not taking to the streets.
Others simply want to escape from the system by studying abroad or by joining Chinese enterprises that do business overseas.
"We'd rather deal with foreign businessmen than with Chinese bureaucrats," said a student at one of Beijing's leading universities recently.
In interviews at three universities in the Chinese capital earlier this month, students ruled out the possibility of renewed demonstrations for democracy such as those last winter in which students called for free elections and freedom of expression.
Students said such protests could lead authorities to put a negative mark in a student's personal file that would end his chances of getting a good job. Such files, which universities keep for every student, are the greatest deterrent to further protests, a foreign academic expert here said recently.
But while students are retreating from political protests, a recent demonstration at an elite university in Beijing over a campus issue showed that students are still capable of taking to the streets to voice opinions on matters that affect their everyday lives.
Hundreds of students from the University of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade marched into the center of Beijing on Dec. 7 to protest university negligence in failing to give prompt medical treatment to a student who was stabbed on campus and later died. The students also complained that the campus was unsafe.
But the students were careful to say that their protest had nothing to do with last year's demands for democratic rights.
The student democracy movement erupted on Dec. 9, 1986, when several thousand university students staged a demonstration in Hefei, a provincial capital, demanding more of a role in local elections. By the end of that month, students in more than a dozen cities had demonstrated, calling for democracy in an unprecedented outburst of protests.
The demonstrations frightened Communist Party leaders, who suppressed the movement and launched a campaign against western democratic ideas. As a result, party chief Hu Yaobang, accused of showing weakness in the face of the demonstrations, was forced to resign. This was far from what the students intended, since Hu is considered an advocate of political reform.
"The demonstrations were a failure," said a sophomore from Beijing Normal University who participated in last year's protests.
"We didn't really gain much from the demonstrations," said a third-year student at Beijing University who also took part in the protests. "Most of us joined in because we thought it would be interesting, or fun. We should have thought through what we were doing."
Since Hu's ouster as party general secretary, his prestige among students has increased. But many students also admire the new party chief, Zhao Ziyang, who is considered a strong advocate of reforms designed to transform China's Soviet-style economy into one more responsive to market forces, profits and losses.
Students said they are skeptical of Li Peng, the new acting premier, because of the training he received in the Soviet Union and because they say he had no visible achievements when he served as a vice premier.
Some students at Beijing University are reported to believe that the military offers the greatest resistance to reforms and that they must somehow find a way to influence it.
But a Chinese newspaper editor explained the constraints now imposed on university students.
Most universities now ban outside speakers and mass protests, he said, and have increased the number of "political workers" who supervise the students.
"If you offend the university authorities, it's recorded in your personal file," he said. "This will influence the allocation of your job."