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Today's generation of young people

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James Reynolds | 08:24 UK time, Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Still spookily quiet in Beijing. Have just written a quick piece about today's generation of young people...

For a generation that's never gone to war, never been through famine, getting crushed in the front row of a rock concert counts as fun.

Chinese fans at rock concert

On a Saturday night in Beijing, hundreds of teenagers cram up against each other to watch the band Twisted Machine. Many in this audience were born after 1989. To them, the most dramatic year in China's recent history is as distant as a saga from the Middle Ages.

Twenty years ago, young people and students spent their energy and their anger demonstrating in the streets. Their successors get it all out on the dance floor instead.

"I like this band," says a teenager in the audience. "Their songs express their dissatisfaction with society. It's a kind of emotion we all need to let out. For me it's a very good way to let it out."

In 2009, you can make as much noise as you want, so long as you don't attack the government. For the members of Twisted Machine - Liang Liang and Lao Dao - it's a point of great frustration.

Twisted Machine band member"In China, there's a taboo," says Liang Liang. "A taboo on people's minds, they kill it in the bud. You can't tell this to the public, this is wrong. They judge you, and they just tell you that what you think is wrong, you have to reform."

"When we try to express our yearning for freedom, it's not allowed," adds Lao Dao. "They don't allow you to express your desire for freedom, the urge to overthrow.

"'It is what they tell you it is' - that's what they say. And it's not like we can discuss it."

But in the furthest corner of China, one man is starting a discussion. He Weifang is a law professor from Beijing. In December he signed a charter calling for greater freedom in China.

Shortly afterwards, he was packed off to teach at a university in China's remote Xinjiang region.

But getting a transfer to China's version of Siberia hasn't kept him quiet. He lectures to a class of more than a hundred students on the need for an independent judiciary in China.

Professor He Weifang"Fellow scholars," he tells the class, "you all know the phrase 'knowledge changes destiny'. It applies to individuals; it also applies to countries as well. Knowledge can change a country profoundly."

In 2009 in China, you can't call for the entire system to be overthrown. But you can call for it to be improved.

"I think that we're now reforming, reforming means we can discover the shortcomings of this system," says the professor. "We make criticisms in order to make this system better, not to make it worse.

"Though sometimes my comments are very fierce, some officials may not like them, but on the whole, I don't think I've been in too much trouble for what I say."

The professor's words have already had an effect on a generation brought up without hearing any kind of debate. The students follow every word and every joke of his lecture.

"His lecture has taught me that we learn about the law in order to respect human rights," says Liu Qiong. "We have to pay attention to this as law students. If we learn the law, but fail to respect human rights, no matter how good we are, it will be pointless."

Professor He and his students

"His classes have taught me a lot about China's legal system and how it should be reformed," says Li Junhong. "What should be eliminated and what should be perfected. It has opened our eyes."

In a small way, that is a change. The generation born in 1989 has mostly been brought up to keep its eyes shut.

Today's students know that they won't get what they want by massing in Tiananmen Square. If they choose to take on a system that makes them rich and keeps them quiet, they will have to find a different path.

At the end of Professor He's lecture on the need for reform, this group of students in the furthest corner of China does something unexpected. It gives him an ovation.


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