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Faced with protests, Peking finds limits to its political control

By Julian BaumStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1987


China's leaders are discovering the limits of their political control as they assess the impact of last week's student protests in Peking. Chinese observers say the protests will almost certainly make the government more cautious about economic reforms this year, especially any further price increases. But they hope that it will not threaten the discussion of political reforms.

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``It would be a terrible failure on the part of the top leaders if they stop talking about political reform only because of student demonstrations,'' said one newspaper editor. [Story on students' New Year's demonstrations, Page 9.]

Senior leader Deng Xiaoping often told visitors last year that reform of China's political structure was needed, and some specific proposals are expected this year.

So far, none of the country's key leaders - Mr. Deng, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, and Premier Zhao Ziyang - have made any public comment on the students' actions.

``They still hold some cards and are taking a `wait and see' attitude,'' the editor said.

Meanwhile, the government should be pleased that the police and public security agents succeeded in stifling the demonstrations in Peking, preventing them from running out of control as happened for several days in Shanghai two weeks ago.

In the end, the authorities compromised with the students, who were successful in gaining the release of several dozen of their classmates - detained during an illegal protest on New Year's Day - by staging an all-night march to Tian An Men Square.

The protests were the largest in the capital since 1978, when there were rallies critical of the party's leadership in what is known as the ``Democracy Wall'' movement.

In assessing the political impact of the student actions, Chinese observers say that the government is concerned that the student actions not find a broad base of support, especially among urban workers who so far have benefited the least from economic reforms.

Under Deng's leadership, farmers are richer, and intellectuals have gained new respect. But workers have lost their role as the vanguard of Chinese society and, in addition, have experienced price hikes without comparable pay increases.

One post-graduate student at Peking University who has been counseling moderation on the part of the younger students at his school, offered his views on the role of the workers.

``Workers and students share a critical attitude toward the government, though their attitudes toward the reforms are quite different,'' he said.

``We support Deng Xiaoping and want to quicken the pace of the reformation,'' the student said. But the workers are a challenge to the government because they do not fully understand the reforms, especially the need to raise prices to market levels, he added.

``As the reforms go on, the workers could find common cause with the counter-reformists and oppose the rationalization of prices, which is an essential step in the modernization program. This is a dangerous problem for the reformers,'' he said.