Far From Beijing, the Students Stand Up

<i> Hall Gardner is a visiting professor of American government and comparative politics at the Johns Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University. </i>

For a while it looked as if the democracy movement at Nanjing University would fizzle out.

While university students in Beijing led marches and demonstrations on Tian An Men Square commemorating the May 4th student movement of 1919, the student protest in Nanjing was effectively broken up by the police.

The situation here, however, has changed dramatically. On Tuesday, students took over the Nanjing University public-address system at 7 a.m. and demanded a class boycott in support of the Beijing students’ hunger strike, which was taking place during the visit of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. As four students placed a poster featuring the words of the Chinese national anthem--"All who do not wish to be slaves, stand up! Stand up! Build a new Great Wall with our flesh and blood"--plainclothes policemen took photos and demanded their names. On Wednesday, 20,000 to 30,000 students marched up and down the streets of Nanjing waving banners and shouting pro-democracy slogans.

Like their counterparts in Beijing, the Nanjing students are demanding freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the formation of an autonomous student union, elected by the students themselves. Their message, without directly saying so, is that they want freedom from Communist Party controls.


Nanjing students support the Beijing students’ hunger strike and urge that the government permanently guarantee the absolute immunity of any students involved in the protest. A small group has sat at the main gates of Nanjing University, forming the Chinese character for “democracy” and blocking traffic. They want the government to enter a dialogue with the new independent student union by Saturday, a date that is significant for two reasons: It marks the founding of Nanjing University and also the 1931 action by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in which more than 30 students were killed and several hundred others wounded during a protest against the weak-kneed Kuomintang defense policy toward the Japanese.

This week’s protest is well-organized, the marches are well-controlled and great effort is made to prevent the outbreak of violence. Students are now signing their names and room numbers onto posters. The departments and groups within the university are making specific demands. More than 100 professors have signed a poster declaring their support for the student boycott of classes and in support of scholars in Beijing. Additionally, Nanjing journalists have put up their own poster saying, "(We) cannot write what we say with our own pens, or say what we want with our own mouths.”

Rumors of a strike by 70,000 Beijing steel workers were denied on the government-controlled television--leading many students to believe that there is, in fact, a strike but that the number of workers involved is probably less than 70,000. It is quite evident that students do have popular support--the one force the People’s Republic truly fears--as people from all walks of Chinese society are watching the demonstrations and donating money to the student cause.

The government no longer attempts to denounce the student democracy movement as being controlled by a small faction of radical, “destructive elements.” Instead, it confirms the good intentions of the students but does not recognize the legitimacy or patriotism of the pro-democracy movement. At the same time, it has adopted a policy of “time will tell.” In order to install the government’s own idea of “democracy,” Li Tieying, a member of the Politburo and minister of education who has met with Beijing student leaders, argues that China needs stability, self-restraint and, most of all, order.

The best possible scenario would be for one of China’s aging leaders to resign and accept responsibility for the lack of political reforms, and for the government to begin new initiatives. The second best possibility would be for the government to accept the legitimacy of an independent student union as a gradualist approach to long-term reforms. A more likely approach would be a continued dialogue with the students, yet not granting official recognition. The last possibility is a curfew, or worse, the iron fist of repression.

So far the pro-democracy movement has remained nonviolent, its use of class boycotts and hunger strikes representing new phenomena in Chinese society. If the movement continues to gain strong grassroots support, and if China becomes truly threatened by the strikes, the present climate of toleration could turn toward a crackdown, particularly if the students begin to formulate concrete alternatives to the present political and economic system.

Yet if the momentum and nonviolent pressure can be kept up, the pro-democracy movement also could make some substantial gains to the surprise of many. The government acceptance of an independent student union going beyond a mere dialogue would represent a good start.

As it stands now, the situation is mushrooming beyond anyone’s expectation. While thrilled by the response, student leaders also are keeping a wary eye on news reports from around the country, fearful of a crackdown.


Whatever happens, though, the students know that this protest has marked a moment when democracy in China became possible, and they continue to work for that goal.