Idealists Risk Crackdown : China’s Activists--Shock Troops of Reform Effort : NEWS ANALYSIS

Times Staff Writer

They live eight to a room in gloomy dormitories, subsist on diets heavy on starch and grease, and face the prospect of jobs paying no more than a factory laborer’s wage.

Even so, they are a fortunate elite, those 50,000 student demonstrators who last week drew electrifying support from Beijing residents with a pro-democracy street protest of unprecedented boldness.

Many students realize they risk provoking a crackdown. But they hope and believe that their actions will push economic and political reforms forward and make China a freer place.


The student protesters, who are making such demands as freedom of the press, improved treatment ofintellectuals and a more effective fight against corruption, primarily seek to influence the broad political climate.

In one sense, their greatest accomplishment has been their own escape from the pervasive fear that engulfed Chinese intellectuals at least since the “anti-rightist” campaign of 1957 all the way through the mid-1980s.

For this they can partly thank the changes that have swept China over the past decade.

These students have come of age in a new China of lessened social control and more openness to the world. They have never felt the full weight of the still-powerful Communist Party dictatorship, never experienced the political terror endured by many of their elders, never faced the utter disillusionment of students and other youths banished to the countryside during Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. In their lack of fear lies strength.

Most are critical of the entire Communist Party leadership. They do not appear to be trying to influence factional politics within the ruling Politburo. But their demonstrations still may provide ammunition to various personalities engaged in top-level political rivalries.

The current wave of protests began as mourning for Hu Yaobang, the reformist former Communist Party chief who was ousted from his post by ideological hard-liners in early 1987 after being criticized for failing to suppress an outburst of pro-democracy protests. The current demonstrations thus are most of all a rebuke to those who ousted Hu--including paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who at least acquiesced in the decision.

Deng, 84, has masterminded a decade of generally successful economic reforms. For years, he stood as a bulwark, protecting his market-oriented reforms from orthodox Marxist hard-liners. But he has resisted substantial liberalization of China’s political structure.

Students appreciate Deng’s accomplishments. But now they want more. Many students view him as an old man clinging to power beyond his time, standing in the way of necessary political change. Their protests may accelerate the development of a succession crisis that in any case is probably not too far away.

Most students still hesitate to say too much about Deng, or any other top leaders. But Wuer Kaixi, 21, a student at Beijing Normal University who has emerged as a top leader of the student protests, was exceptionally bold in comments to Western reporters last week.

Deng has served China as a “great reformer,” Wuer said, but now he has become “an obstruction.”

“His iron fist and his dictatorship are what Chinese intellectuals cannot accept anymore,” said Wuer, who is of Uighur heritage, a minority people native to China’s far northwestern Xinjiang province.

Pressed to name which of China’s high-ranking leaders he found acceptable, Wuer mentioned Hu Qili and Tian Jiyun, who are widely viewed as two of the most liberal members of the ruling Politburo.

Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang is generally viewed as the leading advocate of rapid reform in China, but he has developed an image of being somewhat soft on corruption, which hurts his standing among student activists. He also has disappointed some intellectuals by not speaking out more forcefully for political reform.

Frustrated with the slow pace of reform, the more political among Beijing’s university students began months ago to discuss how China can be made more democratic. Of special interest was the question of what students should do to commemorate the upcoming 70th anniversary of the May 4 Incident of 1919, a student protest that developed into a movement to promote science and democracy.

As plans for activities on May 4 were beginning to take shape, Hu died of a heart attack on April 15.

Many students felt genuine grief for Hu. But his death also provided the perfect excuse to take to the streets in pro-democracy demonstrations without waiting for May 4th. With students acting under a veneer of mourning for Hu, Chinese authorities could not readily justify suppression of their protests.

So with innocence and idealism, the students remained unbowed last week when authorities charged Tuesday that a week of escalating pro-democracy protests revealed a “planned conspiracy” to overthrow the Communist Party and plunge the nation into turmoil.

Certain of their own patriotism, feeling insulted rather than cowed, they poured into the streets, swept through lines of policemen and marched for more than 12 hours in a stunningly successful display of the strength that can come from ignoring the possibility of unpleasant consequences.

They say that unless there is progress by the government toward meeting their demands, they will demonstrate again on May 4.

But the fundamental question about the top-level political effects of these protests is whether they create better conditions for reform, or whether they may undercut the positions of the most liberal reformist leaders such as Zhao, Hu Qili and Tian, who probably have some sympathy for the protesters’ goals if not their methods.