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Chinese students protest: 'you promised free election'

Free elections should be free elections. That is the issue on which students at a teachers college in Mao Tse-tung's home province have clashed with election authorities. A team from the central government is investigating the incident.

"Down with bureaucratism!" "Power to the people!" "Power to the students!" "Support the students!"

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Such were the slogans borne by students from three institutions of higher learning in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province, Oct. 15, according to an eyewitness account.

The students, about 3,000 strong, marched from their respective institutions -- Changsha Normal college, Hunan University, and the Institute of Mining -- to the provincial administration building, where 60 to 70 students had been holding a hunger strike since Oct. 13. It was an orderly march and, according to the eyewitness, no arrests were made.

The background to the protest march appears to be this: Like many other counties and municipalities, Changsha is holding elections at the district level for people's congresses -- similar to ward or borough assemblies in Western cities. China's collective leadership, headed in fact if not in name by Deng Xiaoping (vice-chairman of the Communist Party), is trying to democratize these grass-roots elections as a means of heightening popular enthusiasm for its ambitious economic modernization program.

For the first time, the number of candidates may exceed the number of seats to be contested. Any three voters can recommend a candidate. To bring the number of candidates down to a manageable size, runoff elections would be held before the actual election, the New China News Agency said recently.

Since people vote at their place of work (or of study, in the case of students), large units such as factories or educational institutions themselves constitute an electoral precinct.The precinct that included Changsha Teachers College was entitled to four seats in the district assembly. Runoff elections reduced the large number of original contestants to six, at least two of whom were students -- Liang Heng, who is married to an American, and Tao Xun.

At this point, the election authorities -- in this case, the administration of Changsha Normal College -- inserted a seventh candidate. The students were furious at what they considered an unwarranted interference in the election process.

A hunger strike was started by Liang Heng and others, and the protest march followed. Other institutions of higher learning in Changsha rallied to the support of the Changsha Normal College students, and appeals were sent out to universities nationwide, including Peking University.

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For much of this week Changsha Normal was apparently in an effervescent mood, with a great deal of speechmaking, the soliciting of campaign funds, and even contributions of food from the general public.

Then on Oct. 16 the students were persuaded to call off their hunger strike by a promise that the central government would send a team to investigate the whole affair. There, as of this writing, the situation rests. The students are awaiting the result of the investigation.

The parents both of Mr. Liang and of Mr. Tao are said to be victims of the Cultural Revolution, the 10-year chaos that gripped China during the declining years of Chairman Mao, and that saw the rise of the Chairman's wife, Jiang Qing, and her "gang of four."

The strength of the protest shows that at least in some districts the government's promise of free elections is being taken seriously. The outcome of the investigation will be watched to see whether the government will deliver on the commitment it has made.

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