A NATIVE of one of China's poorest provinces, Wu Qingyun knows the hardship of growing food on land parched by salt and drought. But he has found cultivating freedom in Gansu Province a tougher struggle. Last spring, Mr. Wu and other students rallied thousands of people in the dusty provincial capital of Lanzhou to take to the streets and demand basic liberties.
Imitating their peers in Beijing, the Lanzhou students carried the campaign for liberal reform to the door of the province's Communist Party headquarters.
But unlike in Beijing, 700 miles to the East, the students failed to build broad-based, popular support for liberal reform.
In fact, the largest protests in Lanzhou came only in response to the June 3-4 Beijing massacre. And when the brutal, nationwide crackdown on dissent reached Lanzhou, the residents in one of China's most destitute cities quit rallying and resumed their grinding effort to survive.
Police seized nine student activists at Lanzhou University in September and jailed them together with 10 schoolmates who had been hustled from their dorms after the massacre in Beijing in June.
The police are interrogating the 19 students. Gansu officials have neither brought charges against the protesters nor said how long they will be jailed, say teachers and students at universities in Lanzhou.
The collapse of the democracy movement in Lanzhou demonstrates the difficulty of inspiring poor Chinese to look beyond their struggle for adequate food and clothing to political freedoms.
``Many workers and peasants gave us food and water and moral support. But when we asked them to join us, they hesitated,'' says Wu, a soft-spoken youth.
``Workers just think about practical things. They are always thinking about their salary and immediate needs and they overlook the needs of the nation,'' he said, asking that his real name and university not be identified.
Interviews with people from a cross section of Lanzhou society suggest that protesters lacked the commitment to simple liberal ideals that unified many of their counterparts in Beijing. Outside of the campuses, the only conviction Lanzhou citizens appeared to share before the Beijing massacre was a keen desire to get by.
Peasants skirted the rallies, intent on hauling their produce to city markets. Private entrepreneurs, dependent on the favor of the state to keep their market stalls open, gave the students little more than money for megaphones, banners, and other supplies. Upholding portraits of Mao Zedong, the nemesis of liberalism, most workers who demonstrated called for an end to corruption and unequal incomes.
Indeed, unlike in Beijing, students in Lanzhou mixed pocketbook concerns with politics.
``Most university students in Lanzhou are from peasant families in Gansu, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Anhui, or other poor provinces, and they have a strong tie to the countryside,'' says Tim Hogan, an American teaching English at Lanzhou University.
``These students are shocked by the poverty they see when they go back home,'' he says.
The disparity of wealth in China, caused by a decade of market economic reform, was second only to corruption as a grievance among the protesters, according to Mr. Hogan. Lanzhou residents can find fuel for their anxiety over achieving mere subsistence just by looking at the desolation out their doors.
THE city hugs the murky Yellow River, shrouded under dust blown in from the surrounding loess plateau. Often the ``black and yellow dragons'' (soot and carbon dioxide) ride through the brown haze on wind blowing from massive state factories to the west.
Heavy state industries in Lanzhou and other cities lift the average annual income of Gansu residents to about $155, according to state statistics. Yet about one in four of its 22 million people could not survive without food provided by the state.
Although Gansu's needy are largely in the countryside, migrants and beggars carry habits from centuries of privation into central Lanzhou. With them comes a different idea of freedom: adequate clothing and a full stomach. Many workers here expressed resentment toward the comparative riches of residents along China's thriving coast.
The burden of poverty also appears to provoke an indifference to politics in many Lanzhou residents.
``It doesn't matter who rules,'' said a peasant dressed in torn and dirt-caked clothes on a road outside Lanzhou University.
``I just want to get my vegetables to market,'' he said, bending with slow, constant steps before a wooden cart filled with cabbages.
Several private entrepreneurs at the New Railway Village Market said they skipped the rallies so as not to waste the daily, $4.80 fee for their market stalls. In Beijing, entrepreneurs were among the most devoted activists.
``Beijing is the capital; its business is politics. We're just trying to get along day-to-day,'' said a woman selling fashionable pants made in Xiamen, a coastal city.
Wu blames himself and other students for their failure to win sustained, popular support. Yet, taking a cue from students in Beijing, they deployed the same bold activism that aroused the capital so successfully.
In several marches around Lanzhou from April 21 until June 8, the students sang the national anthem and Internationale, shouted slogans, and waved banners and flags.
THE students boycotted classes and entered factories and suburban fields seeking the support of workers and peasants. They halted trains by flinging themselves across railroad tracks. And they staged a sit-in and hunger strike at the city's main square.
At the height of the hunger strike in Beijing on May 18, some 100,000 students, workers, journalists, and teachers coursed through the streets of Lanzhou, according to both official and unofficial accounts.
The students did not muster a larger crowd until June 5, when the 3,000 workers at the Lanzhou Steel Works and thousands of other factory workers began a three-day strike in outrage over the carnage in Beijing.
But the strikes came too late, according to the students and teachers. Hundreds of police armed with machine guns entered the city on June 9 and cleared the East Is Red Square.
Three days later the armed police stormed onto the Lanzhou University campus and retook a building occupied by the Lanzhou University Autonomous Student Union.