YOUNG activists carrying the same banner for democracy that students raised in vain 70 years ago say China is still not ready to rally to their liberal ideals. Although more than 100,000 students mustered thousands of Chinese last Thursday in one of the largest anti-government demonstrations under communist rule, mass support has wavered under recent pressure of state propaganda and administrative controls.
The students so far have failed to turn the moral support of common Chinese into firm, organized activism.
Many students in China today say that, without a broad base of support to build a viable opposition, they can only promote free expression and democratic freedoms through sporadic demonstrations.
They say the well-educated alone cannot stand up to the state in a long-term, overt struggle.
``We're acting out a tragedy. We're destined to fail to bring about democracy now - but even as a tragedy this movement will benefit China in the long run by at least raising the dream of democracy,'' says Ye Feng, a philosophy student at People's University.
The student movement, in a meeting with officials over this past weekend, won tacit official recognition that appeared to strengthen its role as an occasional critic of the state.
Broadcast in part on national television, the meeting was the first of its kind since the Communist Party took power in 1949.
Yet during the meeting officials from China's State Council and the State Education Commission formally recognized only two official student organizations, not an umbrella group representing students from more than 40 campuses.
``The government failed to acknowledge the true representatives and aspirations of the students, and so its talks are just designed to fool the media,'' the spokesman for the independent group that has organized the recent demonstrations said Monday.
The group said at a press conference at Beijing University that students will continue to boycott classes and stage another mass march tomorrow, the 70th anniversary of a student rally in Beijing seen as the catalyst for China's modern political movements.
University students in five other cities have also rallied in favor of greater democratic reform.
While appearing conciliatory by meeting with students, the state has tried to discourage workers from supporting the movement by tightening controls over Beijing's ``work units,'' the basic organs that administer essential needs to Chinese workers.
The state has also persistently urged common Chinese to uphold ``stability and unity.''
Politburo standing committee member Hu Qili warned about 2,000 workers gathered to celebrate International Labor Day on Monday that China's ``reforms, open-door policy, and construction will achieve nothing if social stability is not guaranteed,'' the official English-language newspaper China Daily reported.
The Communist Party's newspaper, People's Daily, sounded the same refrain Monday, saying in a front-page commentary that ``all the people should work to safeguard political stability.''
Student leaders say the firm hold of the state on housing, jobs, and other essential needs of workers virtually guarantees it popular support and frustrates their efforts to make the movement a mass rather than elite struggle.
``Peasants and workers have their own livelihood to think about, so it's hard for them to commit themselves to our cause,'' said Zhou Yongjun, president of the students' independent umbrella group.
The outpouring of mass support that hailed Mr. Zhou and tens of thousands of other students as they marched through central Beijing April 27 is likely to remain incidental and spontaneous at best, he said.
As members of what is perhaps China's most effective dissident movement under communist rule, students at People's University talk politics with a youthful, radical zeal that clashes with the ancient, traditional role of scholars in China as advisers to the state.
With China's illiteracy rate exceeding 25 percent and its per capita gross national product just $280, many Chinese are too ignorant and poor to pursue anything other than mere subsistence, student Yang De says.
``During the great French revolution they had a middle class. In the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan they've had a large middle class to carry on reform. But our middle class is too small and too firmly controlled by the [Communist] Party to back reform,'' Mr. Yang says.
Thus, students today face a lonely struggle against autocracy and rule-by-whim rather than by law, like the Beijing students in the May 4th Movement of 1919 who vainly tried to transform China with the slogans ``democracy and science,'' he says.