Chinese government officials held a highly publicized meeting Saturday with a handpicked group of students in an attempt to end a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations, but protest leaders denounced the move as an empty gesture.
The group of 45 students from 16 universities met with Yuan Mu, spokesman of the State Council, and He Dongchang, vice minister of the State Education Commission, for a three-hour dialogue, much of which was later broadcast on nationwide state-run television.
Yuan pledged to recommend to the State Council, China’s Cabinet, that organizers of recent pro-democracy rallies and class boycotts should not be punished. But Yuan and He insisted that the government will not recognize a new independent student association formed last week.
Students at the meeting included invited representatives of two government-controlled student associations plus some activists who participated in the past two weeks of demonstrations. The pro-democracy activists, however, went as individual invitees, not as representatives of the new independent student association.
Wuer Kaixi, a student leader who was selected last week by fellow activists as president of the United Assn. of Beijing Universities, said that his invitation to participate in the meeting as an individual was withdrawn after he refused to agree to restrictions on what he would say. Wuer said he had intended to denounce the government’s position that the association he heads is illegal.
Several students stressed public anger about corruption, especially guan dao --a term that refers to the practice of some officials of obtaining goods at controlled state prices and reselling them at market prices. China’s two-tier pricing system for many commodities makes this an extremely widespread and lucrative method of official profiteering.
Student Quotes a Chant
One student quoted a common chant of protesters: “Guan dao, guan dao, bu da, bu dao.” (Official profiteering, official profiteering, if you don’t strike it, you can’t knock it down.)
“Now in the party, the nation and society there is a rather severe phenomenon of corruption,” this student said.
Yuan acknowledged the seriousness of the problem but stressed that the government is trying to fight corruption and that it wants help from citizens in this effort.
“On behalf of the State Council,” Yuan declared, “I state again, that whoever in society, including students, knows of corruption--no matter who is doing it--we welcome reports on it and will conduct serious investigations.”
Despite the official display of candid talk about corruption, Wuer later told a press conference that the student association rejects Saturday’s meeting as falling short of a real dialogue between protesters and the government.
“This is like the government talking with the government,” said Peng Tuo, another spokesman for the independent student organization. “It seems that the possibility of dialogue is not very high as they have not accepted our right to exist.”
Yuan adopted a conciliatory tone on a variety of issues discussed at the meeting but yielded little ground. He stressed that a harshly worded editorial attacking student protesters published Wednesday in the official newspaper People’s Daily--which angered students and helped prompt about 50,000 of them to join an all-day protest march Thursday--was directed not at “the masses of students” but rather to “the unlawful activities of a handful of people.”
Yuan delivered a message from Premier Li Peng acknowledging that “out of patriotic enthusiasm” the student demonstrators “wanted to push forward democratic process, deepen reforms and get rid of corruption.” This wish is in keeping with the desires of the party and the government, the message said.
Yuan also quoted Premier Li as urging the students to end their class boycott and to air their opinions on state affairs and social problems through “normal channels.”
“We do not want to see a repeat of Cultural Revolution chaos,” Yuan said.
Authorities have raised the specter of the widespread disorder of the radical leftist Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 in seeking to mobilize public opinion against pro-democracy student protesters. During the Cultural Revolution, many of today’s top Chinese leaders were driven from office. Some were brought before crowds and publicly ridiculed by youthful Red Guards mobilized by Chairman Mao Tse-tung to attack his political rivals.
An editorial in Saturday’s People’s Daily contained some conciliatory language, acknowledging the importance of political reform. But it also stressed that demonstrations must not be allowed to lead to a repeat of “the tragedy” of the Cultural Revolution.
“If we allow the spread of slandering, cursing and attacks on party and government leaders, the widespread appearance of political posters and the grabbing and seizing of power, if there are classroom strikes everywhere . . . then China very likely will fall again into overall chaos,” the official newspaper declared.
Students, meanwhile, issued the first edition of an independent student newspaper as a response to what they consider misreporting of their demonstrations by the official media.
Produced with funds collected at street corners, the mimeographed paper, the Herald, contained student accounts of the last two weeks’ events, slogans used during their marches, and a letter of support from Chinese students in the United States.