IN the first sign of significant popular support for China's pro-democracy movement, workers joined tens of thousands of students yesterday and surged through police barriers into central Beijing. Despite severe official warnings, a huge mob of student activists and common Chinese defied a ban on demonstrations and poured into Tiananmen Square shouting ``long live democracy.''
The support by thousands of ordinary Chinese appeared spontaneous rather than organized, as students marching from their campuses in northwest Beijing stirred a warm reaction from bystanders, factory workers, and shopkeepers.
Many onlookers quickly became protesters as the movement that began among students and intellectuals drew, at least for a day, from the working class at the foundation of Communist Party rule.
The sudden outpouring of popular support has added the heft of what Communist leaders call ``the masses'' to what had been an essentially elitist movement staged by the well-educated: students at Beijing's universities and intellectuals.
Even before yesterday's march, the mixture of high spirits with high learning - political passion with reason - has clearly shaken the party. The party acknowledged it faces ``a grave political struggle'' in its official newspaper this week amid a spreading boycott of classes that involves thousands of students.
Reversing its cold attitude toward the student campaign, the State Council announced during the march that it would meet with the students, the official television reported, quoting the council's spokesman.
``The government is always ready to have a dialogue with the students and we advise the students to go back to their campuses and adopt a rational and cool attitude,'' said the spokesman for the State Council, China's highest government organ.
For more than a week before the announcement, the state had tried to subdue the students through threats and appeals for ``unity and stability.''
Undeterred by the barrage of propaganda, and a rumor that Beijing had mustered from a neighboring province some 10,000 troops trained in quelling civil disturbances, some 50,000 students set out from their campuses and broke through five lines of unarmed police before reaching Tiananmen Square.
Along the way, the students distributed leaflets that attacked China's totalitarian system with calls for free expression and measures to ensure the accountability of the leadership.
According to diplomats here, students and intellectuals have allied to make China's democracy movement one of the most potent dissident struggles in the 40 years of Communist Party rule.
Although the party has quashed any inkling of an opposition since 1949, the democracy movement hopes to emerge from the current crisis as a sort of gadfly to the leadership. It would serve as the institutionalized dissent that China lacks, pointing out the failings of the party and voicing the concerns of common Chinese, supporters say.
So far, signs of the alliance between students and intellectuals are subtle. At a street-corner rally this week, intellectuals watched from the fringe as a mob gathered, shouting a democratic manifesto and handing out politically explosive leaflets.
While greatly worrying the party, this vibrant movement has pursued moderate goals with peaceful tactics and denied the state a pretext for a crackdown.
The movement aims to spread a student strike to campuses nationwide and trigger widespread student demonstrations on May 4, leaders say. May 4 is the 70th anniversary of a student movement that sparked many of the ideas behind the communist revolution.
The students have accomplished much by organizing unions in defiance of the law and standing up to the government during a marathon, six-day demonstration in Tiananmen Square last week and during yesterday's march, diplomats say.
``This is a movement that would have achieved a lot by doing nothing more than being. But with realistic goals, and the encouragement of intellectuals, they've managed to go head-to-head with the state,'' says a Western diplomat.
Intellectuals pioneered the movement recently by signing a string of petitions calling for the release of China's political prisoners and freedom of expression.
``In the past you could say intellectuals knelt down in front of the Communist Party and begged for democracy. But recently intellectuals have stood up and they have been talking to the party on an equal footing,'' says Bei Dao, a poet and organizer of one of several petitions.
Students have been emboldened by the first organized dissent among intellectuals in 30 years. They used the occasion of the death of a leading reformer among the leadership, Hu Yaobang, to bring similar demands into the open in a series of marches beginning on April 17.
According to Bao Zunxin, a magazine editor and organizer of a petiton signed by about 100 intellectuals in support of the students, the protesters have been advised by graduate students and junior teachers who joined rallies for democracy in 1986-87 and were educated after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when China condoned a modicum of independent thought.
Some 130 junior professors at People's University plan soon to submit a petition calling on the government to meet with the students, consider their demands, and treat them leniently, says Mr. Bao, editor of the Pacific Review.
As the only organized opposition, students and intellectuals must criticize the party, playing the role of promoting stability, clean government, and sound policy, says Mr. Bei, the poet.
``Intellectuals have started to cultivate the party in the good habit of accepting public political pressure,'' he says. ``Without such pressure the party can't fight corruption or be aware of the political situation in China and the existence of crisis.''
Despite its recent restraint, the party has repeatedly warned dissidents that ``stability and unity'' are the highest priorities, implying that further unrest will provoke reprisals.
Yet many intellectuals and students are undaunted. ``There's a possibility the party won't accept the just cause of intellectuals. But after several rounds of conflict they will be compelled to do so,'' says Ge Yang, an editor.