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.