Peking — The political importance of the campus protests that have swept through China is no longer in doubt. With students in Peking joining the call for major political changes - freedom of the press, more popular participation in government, and the right to express their opinions - crucial questions are raised about how these demands by students nationwide will affect reforms already under way.
If the students are merely showing youthful impatience with the gradual pace of China's reforms, then observers say the unrest can be contained, and any destabilizing effects on the Communist Party's reforms can be minimized.
But if the campus unrest indicates a more broadly based dissatisfaction with the government, then it could be a serious challenge to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
``If the protests continue, then Mr. Deng's grip on the leadership is far less secure than we have been led to believe,'' wrote Hong Kong's largest English-language newspaper, the South China Morning Post, in an editorial earlier this week.
Urban residents, including office and factory workers, have lagged behind farmers and others in the countryside in receiving benefits from the economic changes of the past few years.
Low pay and rising prices are common concerns, and many city dwellers fear a new round of inflation from additional price reforms expected next year.
The students' boldness in confronting the authorities could encourage others to do the same, and large numbers of younger workers reportedly joined the student gatherings in Shanghai last weekend. According to the Hong Kong press, there was an unusual strike last week of some 20,000 workers at a tractor factory in Henan Province, though it appeared unrelated to the student protests. The workers demanded higher pay, but returned to work without pay increases.
The government is especially sensitive to the political atmosphere in Peking, and schools in the capital traditionally have had a leading role in national student movements. Their actions could encourage the campus ferment to spread even more widely.
``I think it will have a stimulating effect here [in Shanghai] and elsewhere in the country,'' said an informed Shanghai observer.
Last year, for example, student demonstrations that began in Peking to protest economic imperialism by Japan were soon followed by demonstrations at a number of schools in other provinces.
What remains unclear is whether the government will succeed in containing the unrest, if it continues, using its new tactics of persuasion and compromise rather than the repressive measures used in the past.
The police in Peking, Shanghai, and other cities have acted with widely acclaimed restraint, but some students this week have pointedly ignored the warnings from school and municipal authorities not to join in the public demonstrations. Students at Shanghai's Tongji University continued to press their demands Wednesday and threatened to march even after the city government banned further demonstrations without a police permit.
The students in Peking also ignored the warnings, which had been well-publicized in advance of this week's outburst. Police and school officials in Peking are experienced at dealing wih campus unrest, and they appeared ready for the gathering Tuesday of some 5,000 students at Qinghua University. Later, several thousand students marched to nearby Peking and People's Universities to gather support, but they broke up before moving to Tian An Men Square in the heart of Peking.
The students said their actions were taken to show unity with their compatriots in Shanghai, where, at the peak of last weekend's rallies, crowds estimated at more than 50,000 gathered in People's Square.
Observers say it will require better student organization and coordination for Peking University students to achieve anywhere near the level of participation which was reached quickly in Shanghai and which, according to one observer, surprised even the student organizers.
The organizers now appear undecided what to do next and, if comments by one visitor to Hong Kong this week are any indication, China's top leaders are also puzzled.
``I don't understand the students - they want democracy, but democracy is already on the way,'' said Deng Lin, daughter of China's paramount leader during a visit to Hong Kong this week. ``Our society is becoming more liberal, and all kinds of reforms are going on....
``It's perfectly all right to air grievances and make suggestions. Knowing the way things are managed in China, their demands for improvements are probably justified. But I find their demand for democracy rather one-sided,'' Miss Deng said, according to the South China Morning Post.