THE demand for greater political representation has never been a tidy matter. The American and French revolutions were ultimately disruptive events that profoundly altered the social and economic, as well as political, landscapes within those nations. And for a more immediate example, one need only look at the Philippines, where President Corazon Aquino's movement for a more democratic society continues to spark upheavals. It is against this larger background that the turbulence in China needs to be measured. The street demonstrations there, largely student-led, are not by themselves novel, although, given the large numbers involved, they must certainly be considered unusual in that nation in this decade. Most importantly, the demonstrations of the past several weeks have sent an unmistakable message to the authorities in China: An influential segment of China's people are no longer content with merely token symbols of democratic government.
That is not to say that the dissidents involved - students, some intellectuals, perhaps a few members of China's professional-technical class - want anything like Western-style democracy. What they do want, however, is a political system that provides greater choice, in much the same way that the infusion of Western-style and more colorful attire now seen on the streets of Peking reflects a movement away from the drab uniformity of just a few years ago.
Can China now find a way to balance calls for political reform with the need to maintain the control of the ruling Communist Party?
In what is at the least a gesture of concession to the demonstrators, Peking's municipal government has announced that voters will be offered a ``choice'' of candidates in municipal elections to be held within the next six months.
Some smaller communities throughout China have allowed competing candidates in local assemblies. But the system just announced for Peking must be considered a major change - since it is within the urban areas that most of the dissidents tend to gather.
Although it announced a reform plan for local Peking elections, China's government has also been quick to strike a more foreboding note: It has reportedly arrested a number of protestors. The government-controlled press has sharply castigated demonstrators. And orders have been issued to ban further protests.
Historians will probably find much that is ironic in the current unrest - such as the fact that marches for greater democracy during 1986 took place in Peking, rather than that capital's archrival, Moscow. But in a sense, the Chinese disturbances have been appropriate for a nation that has boldly sought to modernize its economic system. The forces of reform, once begun, have their own internal momentum.