Bid for democracy in China. Student protests cool but test Peking's reform plan

After three days of protests on the streets of Shanghai, the momentum of student demonstrations here has been broken. The city government yesterday issued a ban on public demonstrations without a permit. The new rule - plus student concerns about January exams - appears to have encouraged them to return to their campuses and discouraged further rallies.

Posters from university authorities and the mayor which appeared on the city's 50 some campuses urged students to desist from joining demonstrations, keep off the streets, and return to classes.

According to an official newspaper, Wen Hui Bao, a spokesman for the city government said, ``The majority of the students are proceeding with good motivation: concern for reforms and the speeding up of the process of democratic socialism. Such enthusiasm is understandable. However, we must also bear in mind that some students have an inadequate understanding of the actual situation of our country's reforms and have a muddled view of how to correctly excercise democratic rights.''

Since the student protests began in other Chinese cities two weeks ago, there have been no reports in China's national newspapers. But reports were carried yesterday in Shanghai papers, which denied that any students had been beaten or arrested during a critical confrontation with police Friday. The report stressed how demonstrators had disrupted traffic and generally disturbed public order.

Students contest the government's description of the demonstrations, and one student in Shanghai's People's Square, a central rallying point, said the press reports had ``distorted the truth.''

Although most observers agree that the police have acted with unusual restraint, foreign journalists have seen some instances of police beating youths and of apparent arrests.

On their banners, protesting students have been calling broadly for democracy and freedom, but in the Shanghai protests there have been few specifics other than a demand for freedom to publicize their concerns in the state-controlled press.

So far, the Shanghai rallies have been the crest of a wave of protest in several Chinese cities since earlier this month. The protests come at a time of lively discussion in the press about the need for limited political reform to complement economic reforms senior leader Deng Xiaoping launched more than seven years ago. Some concrete proposals for political reform are expected before the new Communist Party Congress convenes next fall.

The discussion of political liberalization includes an effort to bring the government and the party under the rule of law and to more effectively guarantee citizens' rights already enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. In view of these issues, the student demonstrations have been a test of the government's ability to act with restraint and to permit students to exercise the right to hold public rallies.

Because most Chinese know little if anything about the student protests because of the news blackout, public reaction is difficult to measure. But one Peking newspaper editor commented that the students were acting rashly.

``Only this year we began to talk about political reform, and the students are trying to go too far, considering the social realities and concrete conditions in China,'' he said in a telephone interview.

Those social realities include memories of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when student Red Guards terrorized residents of almost every Chinese city. Since then, maintaining public order has been a high priority, and fears of a return to chaos have offered a popular justification for tight social control.

As the debate about political reform continues, the protests will almost certainly be an issue. Whether they become ammunition for critics of political reform depends on how they are interpreted.

By Chinese standards, the Shanghai government appeared slow in bringing the situation under control, since the marches continued for four days and may not yet be over. The spread of protests to other cities is another problem, indicating the existence of a student communication network linking China's key schools. It is also too soon to know how much political emotion has been stirred and whether the students will translate their broad political demands into more specific goals.

If in the next few days the situation in Shanghai and other cities returns to normal, there may not be a serious setback for advocates of looser political and social control. Those who feel that social quiescence favors progressive political change are reassured by the lack of any public action by students in Peking.

``Everything depends on how stable Peking University is,'' said the Peking newspaper editor. The government is especially sensitive to student action in the capital, where national movements have historically begun - whereas student unrest elsewhere can more easily be contained and ignored.

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