CHINESE students in Britain have for the first time petitioned their government in support of student demonstrations back home. In letters to newspapers and a petition to the Chinese Embassy in London this week, students called for democratic reforms and human rights in China. Their protests are still muffled, but they have spoken out more boldly than two years ago when student demonstrations in China shook the government.
``Last time we sent a letter to the Chinese authorities, but it accomplished nothing - it probably never left the Chinese Embassy,'' says a graduate student at the London School of Economics. ``This time we decided to publish a letter.''
The students include groups from mainland China and from Hong Kong. The mainland students, however, are unwilling to identify themselves because of fear of reprisals. The vast majority of the 3,000 mainland Chinese students in Britain are on government scholarship. If they are identified as political dissidents, they could lose their financial support and be sent home to an uncertain future.
The first to speak out in Britain were four mainland students writing an anonymous letter to the Guardian newspaper which appealed to Chinese students abroad ``to wake up, stand up, and contribute their best to the democratization movement in China.''
The letter called for a multi-party system, guarantees for freedom of the press and religion, and an independent judiciary. The students denounced the government's pleas for social stability as ``only a pretext for continued dictatorship,'' and claimed that such policies showed ``the Chinese Communist Party is no longer qualified to lead the country.''
Chinese students in Britain have debated the tactics of the student protests, criticizing the demonstrators in China for poor organization and lack of sophistication in dealing with the government. Typical comments are that the demonstrators are naive and should listen to the advice of the more experienced students abroad, who have observed how democracy works in Western countries.
``The students' demands are obviously right,'' said one student. ``But in my view, the demands are still too general. They just cry out for democracy and freedom - but it's impossible for the government to act on these. If I were them, I'd ask for something like we've seen in the Soviet Union. We should increase glasnost [openness] in government administration and demand that the government hold real elections.''
Another student disagreed. ``I'm pleased with these protests. This time is much better than before [in 1985-86],'' she said. Maybe they still don't know what democracy and freedom is, but they are now proposing some practical steps - like more money for teachers, stopping corruption. These are specific things that can be done.''
The Chinese students from British-ruled Hong Kong have been more open and better organized. Last week they hand-delivered a petition to the Chinese Embassy which carried 1,400 student signatures, the majority from Hong Kong. The petition called for political reforms, implementation of human-rights guarantees, and the immediate release of all political prisoners.
``For us it's quite important that the Chinese government has the confidence to implement these changes,'' says Gideon Yung, a Hong Kong student who helped deliver the petition.