PEKING — An American visitor happened to be traveling through the sleepy Yangtze River port of Zhenjiang a week ago when he looked outside his bus window and saw about 1,000 students carrying banners and marching through the town.
"Oppose Bureaucratism," one of the banners proclaimed. "Support the Students of Shanghai," said another.
From accounts such as these, it has become clear that the demonstrations, first in Shanghai and now in Peking, by Chinese students for the cause of democracy, which have attracted worldwide attention, are part of a widespread movement--one that affected even some of China's smaller cities and towns.
From Kunming in China's far southwest to Shenzhen near the border with Hong Kong to Tianjin in north China, young Chinese students have dared to challenge local authorities by conducting protest marches and putting up wallposters, a practice that is illegal under the Chinese constitution.
Repeatedly, the students have expressed classic Western libertarian ideals.
"We want public elections. We want to elect our leaders," one Peking demonstrator said. Many of the protesters have called for freedom of the press, and a few have borrowed American symbols such as the Statue of Liberty or American sayings such as Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty, or give me death."
Largest for a Decade
In both numbers of protesters and of locations, it has been by far the largest such movement since the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. The tens of thousands of people in the Shanghai demonstration alone eclipsed anything seen during China's famous but short-lived "Democracy Movement" of 1978-79.
Who are the protesting students, and what lies behind the sudden outbreak of student demonstrations? Have they been organized or encouraged by any higher authorities or factions within the Chinese leadership? What role will they play in China's domestic politics?
Although there is no agreement yet on the answers to these questions, analysts are beginning to form tentative judgments--and to admit that they are reconsidering some of their earlier assumptions about current Chinese society.
Pace of Change Affected
"This changes the whole way we think about this place," admitted one Western European diplomat, a man who has been in China for more than four years. "We have to think through again the long-term effects of China's opening up to the outside world and the possibilities for reaction against it."
No matter whether they now continue or subside, the student demonstrations have already had considerable impact.
According to several political analysts, the wave of demonstrations has called into question whether the Chinese regime can proceed as fast as it wants with planned economic reforms. Any substantial new price increases or factory changes could cause urban workers to join in the unrest.
Furthermore, the analysts say, the student protests have raised the political stakes within China's ruling Communist Party, touching off a new and seemingly bitter round of infighting between what are commonly called reform and conservative factions in the months before a nationwide party congress this fall.
Press Tone Grows Strident
The party-controlled press began to take on an increasingly strident tone last week. Newspapers issued rare warnings that "class struggle" has not yet ended in China and attacked unnamed "people in ideological and cultural circles" who were said to have encouraged a "trend toward bourgeois liberalization."
On the surface, the demonstrations by the students seem a long way from such high-level political infighting.
The participants in the democracy demonstrations are generally young. Some are first- or second-year university students, and a few are as young as 17 or 18 years old--people who were not even born at the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In some instances, they have been joined by recent university graduates, people working in scientific institutes or as teachers.
Their wallposters are often written not on old newspapers or cloth, but on computer printout paper. Many of the participants wear what are, for China, fashionable clothes. At the end of one demonstration in Peking last week, protesters asked police for a bus to transport them back to their campus.
The tone of some of the posters is one of rebellion against authority, somewhat similar to that in Western youth movements.
Movement Lacks Leadership
"I don't understand why some of our youth are so vulgar," said one drippingly sarcastic poster at Peking University. "We should really keep silent and listen to the party and the government. We should mind our own business.
"If things under heaven rot, the worst that could happen is we'll be like everybody else. This is the consistent logic and philosophy of us Chinese. Why shouldn't we believe it? Aren't we just puerile university students?"