WHAT has been remarkable about the student protests in China is not their occurrence. Students have been taking to the streets in many lands these days, including France, the United States, South Korea, Taiwan, and South Africa. Nor is the crowd size the most noteworthy event of the past few days. Put a call out to gather a group of people on the streets of China - with its billion-plus population, over 12 million of whom reside in crowded Shanghai - and you can be almost guaranteed upward of 30,000, or more.
Rather, what has been unique about the demonstrations is twofold: the nature of the protests, aimed at calls for greater democracy, including freedom of the press; and Peking's initial tolerant reaction. At first authorities allowed the demonstrations to proceed. It was reportedly only when the protests got out of hand - and students began entering public buildings - that officials began using force to curb them.
China is no stranger to street disorders, particularly in the crowded Shanghai area. Shanghai, the nation's largest city, is a major student center, home to many institutions of higher learning. It has also been one of China's most cosmopolitan cities over the years, open to many outside political and cultural influences. China's Communist Party was born in Shanghai. The city was the scene of major disturbances in the 1920s and, again, in the 1940s, during the civil war. In the 1960s, thousands of people took to the streets of that city in the turbulent period known as the Cultural Revolution.
Full details of these latest disturbances involving students are not yet widely known. Events may or may not prove to be what they appear to be - namely, demands by students for a greater sense of participatory democracy within both their student life and Chinese society in general. Perhaps there is also more to the story, such as surreptitious attacks on the current market-oriented government by persons or groups using the students. Time will tell of any deeper reasons for the unrest.
But whatever the underlying causes, the protests by themselves cannot be lightly dismissed.
Economic changes have been far-reaching in China during the past several years. In the countryside, farm families have been freed, to a remarkable extent, from the rigidities of collective agriculture. In the cities, industrialism is being stimulated through the introduction of profit considerations. Many jointly owned foreign ventures have been allowed into the country. Tourism has become a major industry.
It would be unfortunate if the student unrest prompted a backlash against further reform. At the same time, China's leaders cannot help perceiving that the winds of reform leading to greater democratic rights are blowing throughout Asia. Look at what has been happening in the Philippines, South Korea, and even the ``other China'' - Taiwan. Peking obviously has to walk a very careful line, balancing the need for public order against honoring its commitment to a liberalization of political rights. Calls for democracy, after all, can only be momentarily quelled by the use of riot clubs and arrests, because such demands are rooted within the deepest aspirations of the individual to be free.