Photographs showed them dressed in the blue or green cotton coats of the Mao era, a reminder of the drab conformity they yearned to escape.
Throughout the Tiananmen upheaval, Xi Jinping (習近平), the nation’s current president, was a local official in Fujian Province in China’s southeast, far from the protests in Beijing. However, his father, Xi Zhongxun (習仲勳), a veteran Communist turned supporter of economic reform, had been a friend of Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), the Chinese Communist Party leader demoted in 1987 for his liberal tendencies and whose death in 1989 sent thousands swarming into Tiananmen Square to voice their grief and demand steps toward democracy.
There are some indications that the elder Xi obliquely signaled opposition to martial law, but stepped into line after June 4, said Warren Sun, a historian at Monash University in Australia.
At the time, China had abandoned the ideological zealotry of Mao’s era and pursued market reforms under then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) that allowed farmers, factories and traders to escape state fetters. The economic changes were accompanied by a ferment of new ideas and calls for political opening and cultural renovation, despite counteroffensives against “spiritual pollution” led by conservatives.
“What we all shared was the belief that China had to reform, and to do so urgently,” writer Chen Ziming (陳自明) said. “The only real division among students and scholars was whether to reform the economy first, or take on political reform first, or do both at the same time.”
Many of China’s current leaders started climbing the political ladder in this febrile atmosphere, when it was not unusual for officials to mix with advocates of more radical change, and even to show some sympathy for them.
As a student, Li Keqiang socialized with Hu Ping (胡平) and Wang Juntao (王軍濤), two firebrands who threw themselves into the unbridled student elections of 1980.
Friends say Li Keqiang sometimes joined in campus salons, where students stayed up late into the night debating electoral politics, Western philosophy and the excesses of authoritarian rule.
Later, friends say, Li Keqiang was cajoled by party officials into giving up the chance to study abroad and instead became a cadre in the Communist Youth League.
“At the time, we had a lot of views in common,” said Wang Juntao, who was jailed after June 4 and left for the US in 1994. “A lot of the issues that came to divide us hadn’t arisen yet.”
Other future leaders came from similar backgrounds. Wang Qishan, the current anti-corruption chief, won prominence in the early 1980s as one of the “four reform gentlemen,” young intellectuals who advocated shifting away from a rigidly planned economy.
Later that decade, he sat on the editorial committee of Toward the Future, a series of books avidly read by students.
Chen Yizi, the former leader of the government institute that organized the Beijing conference, recalled having long chats with Wang and one long conversation with Li in 1988.
Referring to China’s recently retired leadership, Chen said: “This generation should be more enlightened than Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and their generation.”