BEIJING, China - Wang Dan, a key figure in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in China, said Thursday he hoped the nation would be "covered in white" to mark the anniversary of the bloody Tiananmen crackdown.
"We are promoting a campaign called 'White Clothes Day,'" Wang, who was jailed for years in China before being exiled, told AFP.
Studying at Peking University in 1989, Wang was first on a list of 21 most wanted students in China after the army cracked down on the Tiananmen demonstrations, killing hundreds, and possibly thousands.
After being arrested, Wang was sentenced to four years in prison in 1991 and freed in 1993.
He was re-arrested in 1995 after continuing to campaign for human rights and democracy and sentenced the following year to a further 11 years in jail.
"It's pitiful, the materialism and practicality that has replaced idealism today. This is a real tragedy," said Ding Zilin, a former university professor whose 17-year-old son was killed in the protests that day.
"My son didn't want to be a hero. He was just a participant. He wasn't doing it for himself, but he was totally devoted to it," his mother, Ding Zilin, said.
Ms. Ding began meeting with other parents of those who had been killed on Tiananmen Square. The Tiananmen Mothers, as the group became known, defied government surveillance and pressure to painstakingly gather the names of 195 students who died that day.
Ms. Ding's allegations that today's Chinese students aren't fully informed - or allowed to speak their minds if they are - are backed by a high-profile vote conducted by students in Hong Kong, a special autonomous region of China where free media is allowed and dissent is largely tolerated. After an awareness-raising campaign on campus in April, students at the University of Hong Kong voted 93 per cent in favour of a motion to condemn what happened on June 4, 1989, and to call on Beijing to apologize for killing pro-democracy demonstrators.
"The more important matter is to really learn about what actually happened and not just listen to what others say and not just blindly believe in one set of media," Jenny Ngai, the Student Union's acting external affairs secretary, told reporters. "In order to move your country forward, you have to learn about history."
But those Chinese students who know their history appear to have taken a dual lesson from the events of 20 years ago. They're horrified at what the government and army did, but they also assign plenty of blame to Mr. Wang and the protesters for pushing things too far, too fast.
The sense you get on Beijing University's campus is that the next student revolution, if and when it comes, will likely be a far slower-moving and more cautious affair than the students of 1989 had the patience for.
"I agree with these ideas, with freedom and equality. But still I think that what the government is doing might be good for this moment. We need to change things gradually," explained the 24-year-old cramming for his GMAT. "These things that happened 20 years ago are never going to happen again."
Then he furrowed his smooth forehead and stared back into his textbooks. "Actually, I don't know that. I really don't know."
Wang Dan recently issued a call for all Chinese to wear white, a traditional colour of mourning, next week on the 20th anniversary, a call that few ordinary Chinese will hear because of a state media ban on discussing either Tiananmen Square or dissidents such as Mr. Wang.
In the past two years, the internet has transformed debate in China. I bet a lot more people in China will hear about this, and wear white, than you might imagine.
That's why I'm going to wear white this Thursday, in solidarity with those Chinese who know just as much as those Hong Kong students but are afraid to talk about it.