CHINA'S democracy movement has made dramatic gains in recent weeks in part because of the state's unusual reluctance to impose an iron-fisted crackdown. While student activists have advanced one of China's most potent campaigns for democracy under communist rule, the state has resisted its penchant to quash any signs of dissent. Instead, it has tried to tame the movement by appeasing, dividing, or absorbing it.
Tens of thousands of student protesters yesterday shouted slogans and carried red and yellow banners calling for democracy in a march through Beijing marking the 70th anniversary of China's most explosive student movement.
The students and hundreds of sympathizers, protesting against widespread corruption and autocratic rule, broke through a cordon of 500 police and rallied in central Tiananmen Square in defiance of an official ban. Students staged smaller demonstrations in Changsha, Shanghai, Wuhan and Xian also to commemorate the May 4th Movement of 1919, the catalyst for China's modern communist revolution.
The demonstrations marked the 17th day of the most widespread anti-government unrest in at least 13 years. In a blitz of pro-democracy activism, students have led large protests in five cities and boycotted classes on campuses in Shanghai, Tianjin, and Beijing. (Student leaders in Beijing announced yesterday that they will return to class today.)
The activists have promoted the ideals of democracy and freedom before common Chinese more freely than at any time since the Communist Party took power four decades ago. For the first time, a publicly active dissident movement for democracy has extracted the tolerance of China's communist leadership.
The reasons for the leadership's unprecendented restraint range from a fear of foreign censure to a belief that the current movement poses a comparatively mild threat, according to Chinese intellectuals and Beijing-based diplomats.
Beijing has restrained its police partly to avoid alienating potential foreign investors and sparking strong criticism from overseas, says Zhang Zianyang, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
After welcoming trade and finance from abroad for 10 years, Beijing feels compelled to at least partially honor the basic human-rights norms observed by its democratic trading partners, Mr. Zhang says. Its concern is particularly keen this month with the current meeting here of the Asian Development Bank and the Sino-Soviet summit scheduled to begin in Beijing May 15.
At the same time, although the movement has mustered the numbers of supporters often associated with political upheaval in China, Beijing has allowed it to continue because its ends are relatively moderate, according to Chinese intellectuals and Western diplomats.
Rather than seek a revolutionary overthrow of the Communist Party, the students are calling chiefly for democratic reform and an end to corruption - aims that the party has repeatedly said it shares.
Also, as a movement of the educated elite, the pro-democracy campaign challenges party power far less than would one backed by the organized support of peasants and workers.
University students in Beijing won the support of thousands of workers in a march of more than 100,000 demonstrators through Beijing on April 27. And after the outpouring of mass support, the state broadcast nationwide a meeting between officials and selected student representatives on the issues of corruption and reform.
But state control over the jobs, housing, and other needs of workers has made the prospect of organized popular backing of the movement highly unlikely. Without the development of such sustained, mass support, the student movement will not trigger harsh reprisals, diplomats and analysts say.
A government crackdown on journalists who sympathize with the students also demonstrates the difficulty in totalitarian China of turning support for activism into concerted action. The Communist Party has dismissed the editor of the World Economic Herald, one of China's boldest newspapers, and tightened controls on other publications that have backed the student movement. Nevertheless, more than 100 journalists from several Beijing publications joined the demonstration yesterday to protest strict state management of the press.
At the same time, China's leaders have begun to acknowledge that moderate, peaceful opposition can strengthen rather than undermine the ``stability and unity'' that many recent official editorials have identified as China's top priority.
``The most important work for China to do is to maintain political stability,'' Politburo Standing Committee member Hu Qili said Tuesday. ``Of course, stability doesn't mean that people cannot voice their opinions,'' he said, adding that facets of democracy will in fact help promote social order.
The leadership recognizes that it can no longer hope to wipe out distasteful liberal ideas through crude political campaigns. After struggles against ``spiritual pollution'' and ``bourgeois liberalization'' fizzled without significant popular backing earlier this decade, the leaders realized that the Chinese have become too independent and sophisticated during the past decade of economic reform to join such political warfare.
``The image and reputation of the Communist Party has greatly declined - it can't be compared with how it was in the 60s - so the Party just can't excite people or move people the way it used to,'' says Bao Zunxin, editor of Pacific Review.
Discouraged from using its traditional, heavy-handed methods, the state has so far tried to halt the student movement peacefully. It has pursued a policy as effective as rough repression but without the high cost to its popularity.
Beijing has tried to divide the students by agreeing to negotiate only with select groups. Initially, it would only meet students at Qinghua University, China's most prestigious school of science. After the April 27 demonstration, however, the state met a broader range of officially-selected students last weekend. But it called an indepedent student group that has organized the protests ``illegal'' and said it will only meet with the two official university student organizations.
``The government has tried to play students off one another - it's using a strategy of divide and conquer,'' says Yang De, an activist at People's University. The talks last weekend appeased many student demonstrators who viewed the meeting and its nationwide broadcast on TV as a significant conciliatory gesture, leaders of the independent student group say.
Also, during the talks with national and Beijing officials, some leaders of two official university groups pointedly questioned the authorities, shoring up their low repute in the eyes of many students, according to student leaders.
``The government is trying to strengthen the image of the official university organzations to get students to either forget about the movement or give their support to official channels,'' said Mr. Yang.