China treads lightly with protesters. Student demonstrations draw criticism - and persuasive tactics

The Chinese government is attempting to mobilize public opinion against student protests which have been held across the country in the last several weeks. In its first public statement to the domestic press Monday, the government criticized student demonstrations held in Shanghai over the weekend. The official news agency gave a chronology of the Shanghai protests, which began last week, and claimed the students had beaten policemen and broken into the People's Congress building in Shanghai.

``A tiny number of people are attempting to disrupt stability and unity, [and] derange production and social order by taking advantage of the patriotic zeal of students and their longing for democracy and freedom,'' said a spokesman for the Shanghai government, according to the agency.

But as students marched in the streets of Shanghai for the third consecutive day Sunday, the government affirmed that its citizens have a right to demonstrate and that the students would not be suppressed if they did not violate the law.

In an interview published Sunday, an unnamed official of the state education commission cited the Chinese Constitution as upholding the right of Chinese citizens to hold demonstrations. ``As long as they don't do anything against the law, naturally they will not be suppressed in the course of demonstrations,'' the official said, according to the official news agency. ``It is understandable that college students should be concerned about the restructuring of the political system and hope to express their views on these issues.''

This interview followed a series of unusual student protests that have taken place in the cities of Wuhan, Hefei, Kunming, Shenzhen, and Shanghai since early December. The protests have been broadly political - focusing on student objections to electoral procedures for China's national assembly and generally calling for more democratic government and guarantees of human rights. They have also touched on local issues such as inflation and poor living conditions on campus.

In trying to maintain control, the government appears to have adopted a new tactic of persuasion and compromise, and has not openly repressed demonstrations as in the past.

Even as groups of students and workers in Shanghai held the largest public demonstration in China since 1976, a weekend commentary in the Guangming Daily, an official newspaper for intellectuals, urged the spread of political knowledge and the practice of democracy amongst students and workers.

So far police have not blocked the rallies, though there have been unconfirmed reports of some beatings by the police. Many people in Shanghai say the demonstrations here were caused by anger over the alleged beating of six students for dancing at a rock concert earlier this month. Students also said several hundred demonstrators were arrested Friday and Saturday, though some have since been released.

The police actions angered many students who rallied again Sunday to press their demands on Shanghai's mayor - asking him to guarantee their legal right to demonstrate and to protect them from police. They carried banners saying ``law not authoritarianism'' and ``legal protection for human rights.'' Some banners showed students from a dozen schools in the Shanghai area were participating.

By Sunday evening, students were returning to school. ``Now we need to study for exams and we have to return to school,'' one said. However, reports Sunday night said small groups of students were arriving in Shanghai by train from other universities in the country where there had been demonstrations earlier this month.

The government's attitude has changed noticeably since last year when a series of ostensibly anti-Japanese demonstrations swept college campuses. At that time the official party press criticized the students for indulging in ``extended'' and ``bourgeois democracy.'' The demonstrations were brief and some students reportedly were expelled or received job assignments in remote regions.

This time, except for the one statement from the education official, central government leaders have been silent.

However, there is no doubt that in a country not accustomed to such protests, the government is nervous. Recent debate about socialist democracy and the need for political reform may have encouraged such actions and any blatant attempt to suppress the students would damage the government's credibility.

Late Sunday, students from Tongzhi University circulated a ``manifesto'' which said the protesters' guiding principles were ``to propagate democratic ideals among the people.'' The manifesto said ``Our slogan is to oppose bureaucratism, authoritarianism, and to strive for democracy and freedom.'' According to the students' version, after eight hours of discussion with local government authorities - believed to be officials from the mayor's office - student representatives failed to gain the government's support for their minimum demand: to report student actions in the local press.

The Shanghai demonstrations have been the largest public demonstrations in China since 1976 when 100,000 people rallied in Peking's Tian An Men Square in support of late premier Chou En-lai. Force was used to suppress that rally and some demonstrators were killed.

Many universities held extracurricular activities last week in an apparent effort to divert students' attention from political issues. These included chess competetions, art exhibitions, and talks by well-known intellectuals.

There had also been what one student called ``loyalty pep talks'' by student leaders, members of the communist Youth League. The speakers counseled patience and said the building of democracy in China is a long and complicated process, and reportedly said that students should hold discussions in schools and not take to the streets.

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