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For Chinese, posters are as much part of protests as marching

Several hundred students huddled in the cold outside the post office at Peking University yesterday, straining to read their colleagues' latest political opinions. One eight-page notice, written by hand on sheets of white computer paper, read: ``These days we are overwhelmed by editorials in the People's Daily and Peking Daily [official Communist Party newspapers] saying that students are disrupting society and creating disorder in people's thoughts. I don't agree with this accusation.''

Posters are as much a part of the current student protests as street marches and banners. They are controversial because they were popular during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as a means of airing opinions and making accusations in the fierce factional fighting of the Red Guards. They were also the centerpiece of the short-lived ``Democracy Wall'' movement in 1979, when critics openly attacked China's political system.

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The writer of yesterday's eight-page poster went on to refute statements in the official press that students are naive and do not understand China's reforms.

``We do understand the reforms and we don't disrupt social order. We took to the streets because we are concerned about the reforms,'' the anonymous writer said. At the end of his lengthy xiaozi bao (``little character poster'' - so-called because it is written in small characters with a pen and not a brush), the writer said, ``Without democracy there is no China.'' The phrase was a variation on the old slogan: ``With the Communist Party there will be no new China.''

Because of the weighty historical symbolism they carry, the right to put up ``big character posters'' (dazi bao) was removed from China's Constitution in 1980, and there is now debate about their legality. In a scathing editorial this week, the Peking Daily said that big-character posters smacked of anarchy and violated socialist law, and that local authorities have the right to tear them down.

Some students disagree.

``Under the leadership of one party, people can't find a better channel to express their opinions,'' read one xiaozi poster at Peking University yesterday. This sentiment is common among students and relates to concern that the party's tight control of the press leaves them few options for public self-expression.

This week's crop of posters has included a controversy over what Vice-Premier Wan Li allegedly told Fang Lizhi, vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei where the recent student protests began three weeks ago. According to student posters, the vice-premier reportedly said that democracy is something granted from above, by higher authority.

``But democracy is not something given by leaders,'' one poster said. Others have said that democracy must be won by the people. (A senior education official tried to settle this debate Tuesday by saying that, since the party upholds socialist democracy, ``the question of winning democracy from the party does not exist.'')

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A common theme for Peking's poster writers has been to rally support for students in Shanghai who took to the streets in unsually large numbers 10 days ago.

One poster at the Peking Teachers' University, signed simply ``volcano,'' read: ``Teachers' University people, stand up! We should act like Shanghai students. We shouldn't keep quiet.''

Another poster at Peking University expressed fear of the authorities. ``They have torn off their kind mask. Their huge palm is coming down on our head. This makes us afraid,'' it said.

Still another gave recommendations on how to stage a successful demonstration in Tian An Men Square here.

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