A Shanghai surprise. First major protests in 10 years challenge the rather apolitical image of China's No. 2 city
When students took to the streets of Shanghai last week, confronting the authorities with demands for more freedom and democracy, it was the city's first major public demonstration in more than 10 years. The demonstrations challenged the perception that the people in this proud and severely overcrowded city had little passion for politics.
``It's very rare for Shanghai people to have the guts to do this,'' said a Shanghai newspaper editor.
Shanghai was quiet during the 1985 student demonstrations in a number of Chinese cities, protesting Japan's alleged economic imperialism. There was also little activity here during the ``Democracy Wall Movement'' in 1979, when Pekingese criticized the Communist Party for its authoritarian rule.
Students say the origin of the past week's demonstrations here was the detention and alleged beating by police of six Jiaotong University students who had been dancing at a concert given earlier this month by the American rock group Jan and Dean.
As Shanghai's traffic returned to its normal level of congestion yesterday, a few remnant marchers assembled in People's Square, where the largest demonstration took place last weekend. By late afternoon, about 1,000 assembled in small groups to hear a few speakers. The tone of the speeches was that of a classroom lecture, quiet and unemotional, as they reviewed the history of China's political development and described the democratic rights promised by China's Constitution.
``We think we have a right to come here,'' said an undergraduate from Shanghai Teacher's College. He denied that students had violated the law by their demonstrations.
But the government has used the official press to try to persuade students that they were mistaken in confronting the authorities. A commentary yesterday on the front page of all of China's major official newspapers, including the People's Daily, called on all Chinese to uphold political stability and unity. It said ``the government welcomes suggestions and criticisms from the people,'' but that ``radical action can ... disturb the smooth development of the reforms and the policy of opening to the outside world.''
The commentary did not mention the student demonstrations, which have occurred in almost a dozen cities over the past two weeks, but was clearly aimed at quelling unrest. Many students have said they are dissatisfied with the results of their protests. There have been threats to boycott classes and to keep up the demonstrations unless the city authorities are more conciliatory.
``Fellow students, we have not achieved our goals. We must be persistent,'' read one dazi (``big character'') poster at Fudan University yesterday.
Despite such sentiments, which sounded stronger on bulletin boards than from the lips of students on the street, the number of marchers has diminished, and the authorities appear to have succeeded in using reason and persuasion to keep the majority of the city's estimated 200,000 university students on their campuses.
Many faculty members here have been sympathetic to the students' demands for democracy and freedom of the press, but they have counseled patience and have shown some concern.
``The kind of freedoms we have now are limited, but we are worried that the political reforms will be affected,'' said a university professor in Shanghai. ``I guess those reformers will have a tough time because of this,'' he said. The professor said that Shanghai students may be politically less mature than students in Peking and that generally the current generation of university students has a very different point of view than the older generation, which personally experienced the Cultural Revolution.
``Because of the policy of opening to the outside world, they have seen more than the generation of the Cultural Revolution. They have seen more than can be satisfied by the government, at least for the moment,'' the professor said, adding: ``Personally, I did all these things 20 years ago - marching to People's Square, shouting slogans - but nothing came of it.''
Clearly, the atmosphere has changed since the 1960s, when there was no consensus in Peking about government policy, but there is no doubt that their expectations of political change have now been raised.
``We can't wait 10,000 years for something to happen,'' read a poster on a Fudan University bulletin board.