China's defiant student demonstrations for free expression and ``democracy'' have spotlighted a longstanding reality in that country's political life. The calls for democracy are familiar to Westerners. So it is tempting to see them as simply one more popular protest against the authoritarianism of a communist system.
But this should not obscure an important theme: Student protests have long been a sign that China's political leadership is either ineffective, divided, or quarreling over power and policies for the years ahead.
This month's protests by thousands - on the streets of Hefei, Shanghai, Nanking, Peking, and other cities - carry with them special significance. They come amid high-level jockeying to allocate power and set policies for a future that looms closer as elder statesman Deng Xiaoping's retirement draws nearer.
The prospect of a ``new dynasty'' without Mr. Deng increases uncertainties at every level. The stakes are increasingly important, and the uncertainties become less tolerable as the 1987 Communist Party Congress approaches. The congress, with the accompanying high-level appointments and retirements, is expected to set the stage for the post-Deng era.
The tie between student protest and the politics of ``who will follow'' was quite clear in Deng's own emergence as leader following the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. In 1978, when the newly rehabilitated Deng was struggling for supremacy over Mao's chosen ``heir,'' Hua Guofeng, student protest became a public part of the power struggle. Posters calling for greater freedom were a daily event at Peking's ``Democracy Wall.''
But by 1979, after Deng won out, the euphoria cooled. Authorities banned the posters and imprisoned young dissident Wei Jingsheng as a clear reminder of the limits of expression.
Mao himself was a master at exploiting the heady mixture of student protest and the politics of who takes power next. The aging leader enlisted China's students in the mid-1960s to organize a nationwide network of Red Guards to defeat his chief opponent, Liu Shaoqi. Mao encouraged student protests and nationwide marches to humiliate his opponents, destroy remnants of traditional culture, and lay the basis for the ``left'' government he hoped would follow his passing.
Twenty years later, China's youth struggle with a mixed legacy. Deng has shown a significant but limited ability to produce for them a promising vision of rapid reform. He has argued for caution and order in setting economic change. He has unshackled many restrictions and eased many abuses left over from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But since 1980, arrests and cycles of discipline have made the limits clear.
So it is hardly surprising that those who once saw Deng as their champion must now grow more vigilant about the limits of his policies and also about the future after him.
Just what kind of ties there may be between student protestors and various factions jockeying at the top remains obscure. But it is clear that high-level policy disputes have already been joined. According to some analysts, preparatory maneuvering for position for the 13th Communist Party Congress scheduled for next October is already under way.
Hints of the issues come from Peng Zhen, standing committee chairman for the National People's Congress, which met in late November. Mr. Peng, a high-ranking party official purged during the Cultural Revolution, gave a speech this Nov. 25 vigorously attacking advocates of radical democratization and defending what he called ``socialist democracy'' as ``superior to bourgeois democracy.''
He is reported to have urged that socialist legal systems be strengthened so that they ``are not subject to change with the change of leadership, or changes in the views and attention of leaders.'' Peng's warnings may be designed to prevent the personal domination of new leaders now being groomed by Deng.
Today's protestors are reminiscent of the Red Guards of the '60s in that both air student grievances and resentment against bureaucrats thought to control their lives. Both want a greater voice.
In a society with strong authoritarian traditions, the young are always potential rebels if their elders are discovered to have ``feet of clay.'' Today's rebels talk of freer expession and more democracy. Unlike the left-wing Red Guards of the '60s, who attacked those ``taking the capitalist road'' and disliked anything thought contaminated by the West, many of the young today seem to want more contact with the West. Yet large-scale Chinese student demonstrations in September 1985 against import of Japanese goods are a reminder that student sentiment can also move in an ``anti-foreign'' direction.
Indeed, in China the politics of student protest has rarely been divorced from the difficult issues posed by the question of how to adapt to a foreign military, economic, or commercial presence.
The 1985 anti-Japanese protests harked back to lingering resentment against the Japanese invasion and occupation in the 1930s. Yet a number of analysts have suggested that Chinese officials tolerate or even encourage such protests to pressure Japan into more favorable trade terms. It is difficult to separate what happens in the streets from the calculations of high officials.
Two of China's most famous student protests took the ``be firm to foreign pressure'' view. Peking student demonstrations in December 1935 called for Mao's Communists and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists to end their civil war and to jointly fight Japan. Even more famous was the ``May 4th'' incident of 1919, when Peking students demonstrated against their government's forced acquiescence against Japanese territorial gains made in China as a result of World War I.
The ``May 4th Movement'' is seen as the birth of contemporary China's nationalism, a major 20th-century event from which both communist and noncommunist forces for modernization sprang.