It was a rainy, early summer evening in Beijing, two weeks before June 4. More than 300 students, most in their twenties, packed a classroom at the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) to listen to a lecture by lawyer Zhang Sizhi, famous for his courageous defence of the nation's top dissidents. Titled 'Humanitarian quality and legal spirit', the three-hour speech began with the 83-year-old lawyer talking about his experiences of 1989, when he became involved in defending Wang Juntao, Bao Tong and Gao Yu, all charged with sedition, counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement after the bloody June 4 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. 'I am here to tell you to be good legal practitioners. You need to have a sense of responsibility and some courage to face truth and history, even if they were covered up deliberately for political reasons,' Mr Zhang told his audience. 'I think you need to know these cases as legal students from the top legal school of this country, and you should know what has happened and what has changed China's legal and democratic path.' Outside the classroom plain-clothes police officers were hovering, causing the lecture's organiser, a CUPL professor, more than a little concern. Inside the packed room students took notes tentatively and answered their idol with laughter, waving flowers and applause. 'I know the Tiananmen Square incident and those big names Mr Zhang mentioned, but not that clearly,' one student said. 'After hearing this speech I will definitely try to find more information.' However, open speeches on the June 4 incident on a Beijing campus, especially close to the anniversary, are a rarity. Not all students are interested in looking into this period of history. Over the past two decades, during the 'sensitive period' from mid-May to mid-June, authorities have regularly heightened surveillance on dissidents and liberal intellectuals, and dispersed any attempted gatherings or public events touching on the crackdown. The Tiananmen protests and June 4 have become taboo topics in all college campuses across the nation. Many teachers, academics and some liberal-minded officials were removed from their positions for supporting and protecting the student protesters, including former CUPL president Jiang Ping , a renowned legal professor who was investigated by the authorities. Students were ordered to confess their involvement in the movement, and many were penalised and forever lost their chances of gaining a good career. As Chinese history textbooks barely touch on the June 4 incident and open discussion is censored in the media, people do not generally broach the topic. A dozen students from five top universities in Beijing were approached by the Sunday Morning Post, all of whom, offered anonymity, said they knew about the June 4 incident and were well aware of the official version. They believed June 4 was a 'central government crackdown on movements started by students'. But none said they knew about the crackdown's historical background - the development of the two-month movement and its impact on China's political philosophy and society. 'In our high school textbook June 4 is mentioned in one sentence, saying it was political turmoil in which the students' passion was manipulated by a small number of evil people, and it developed into a riot that was successfully eased by the central authorities' prompt action,' said Mr Cai, 21, a fourth-year student at the Peking University Law School. 'This issue has never been mentioned in any tests, and as our only goal is to pass the college entrance exam we don't pay attention to checking out this part of history or get into any study of it.' A student from the University of International Business and Economics said he had some knowledge of the incident, in which 'students demonstrated to express their dissatisfaction, the government tried to control it and had to shoot in the end when the situation got out of control'. 'But I don't know why such things happened when China had just started its reform and opening-up policy in the 1980s, and it's something too far away from present-day life,' he said. Another fourth-year student said: 'Employment is the top priority of this society, and as a student hunting for a job and a decent life, I need to be more realistic and care about more current issues.' Many young people said they knew June 4 was the hottest topic in the western media when talking about China and its government since 1989, and they knew it was the 'No1 wound that the Chinese government is unwilling to open'. But they also talk about the western media's 'twisted and biased description' and a failure to present the truth about the incident when too many aspects remained enmeshed in controversy. 'I want to know about what happened and have tried to download documentaries from the internet ... and I have read many articles by student leaders and democratic rightists on overseas-Chinese websites since entering college,' Mr Cai said. 'However, their opinions are highly subjective and partial, full of attacks against China ... I still don't know what really happened and I cannot be convinced by either Chinese propaganda or the western stereotyped media.' Participants and witnesses to the crackdown, political analysts and liberal academics mourn Chinese youth's lack of interest in this part of history. Many have criticised the government's 'lame reform', which stresses only the economy, for significantly shaping students' apathy towards politics in the past 20 years. A professor at a southern Chinese university said that the new generation of students who had no first-hand knowledge of the Tiananmen crackdown had quite different views on the tragedy. She said the brutal suppression of debate on political issues in the past 20 years had made it impossible for ordinary people to discuss their government. If people were to keep fighting against the government - as had Liu Xiaobo, the organiser of the well-known pro-democracy guideline Charter 08 - they would be watched and harassed by the police, she said. People were weary of political pressure and preferred to focus their energy on making money. Mia Li, a master's degree student in journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University, disagrees. She is passionate about discussing June 4 with her friends. 'It's too simple and hasty to conclude that we, the younger Chinese generation, don't care about politics or democracy,' she said. Speaking fluent English with an American accent, the 25-year-old added: 'As a Chinese I hope to help this country become better, but how do you realise that? I think democracy and freedom of speech are the most important [concepts]. I want to know what has happened in this country, and June 4 is an inevitable topic. 'The more they want to stop us from knowing, the more eager I am to find out. Considering internet technology and China's opening up, we have enough access to the facts ... as long as we want to find them. I hope this country can become multi-partisan, with full democracy and freedom of speech. And personally I just want to lead a free life in this country.' Sitting besides Mr Zhang in the CUPL lecture hall was Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang . He was a graduate student at CUPL in 1989 and, as one of the top student activists in the protest, went on a seven-day hunger strike in Tiananmen Square and remained there until the last minute when the troops arrived on June 3. Now a human rights lawyer, Mr Pu was asked by a student how to erase the inner fear when facing political suppression and censorship on politically sensitive issues. 'Fear lies only in your heart and if you ignore it, it will disappear,' he said. Overwhelmed by the students' passion, Mr Pu said he always believed 'the truth of history can never be erased as long as there are people who care about a nation's political future and pursuit of democracy'. 'All we can do is write down the history we witness, enlighten the public - especially the youth - with facts, and try our best to create a chance for open discussion and an examination of this historic tragedy,' he said. 'The day will come when this sensitive issue stops being a taboo in this country. Times have changed and hope lies in our youth. I never doubt that.'