China's leaders are discovering the limits of their political control as they assess the impact of last week's student protests in Peking. Chinese observers say the protests will almost certainly make the government more cautious about economic reforms this year, especially any further price increases. But they hope that it will not threaten the discussion of political reforms.
``It would be a terrible failure on the part of the top leaders if they stop talking about political reform only because of student demonstrations,'' said one newspaper editor. [Story on students' New Year's demonstrations, Page 9.]
Senior leader Deng Xiaoping often told visitors last year that reform of China's political structure was needed, and some specific proposals are expected this year.
So far, none of the country's key leaders - Mr. Deng, Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, and Premier Zhao Ziyang - have made any public comment on the students' actions.
``They still hold some cards and are taking a `wait and see' attitude,'' the editor said.
Meanwhile, the government should be pleased that the police and public security agents succeeded in stifling the demonstrations in Peking, preventing them from running out of control as happened for several days in Shanghai two weeks ago.
In the end, the authorities compromised with the students, who were successful in gaining the release of several dozen of their classmates - detained during an illegal protest on New Year's Day - by staging an all-night march to Tian An Men Square.
The protests were the largest in the capital since 1978, when there were rallies critical of the party's leadership in what is known as the ``Democracy Wall'' movement.
In assessing the political impact of the student actions, Chinese observers say that the government is concerned that the student actions not find a broad base of support, especially among urban workers who so far have benefited the least from economic reforms.
Under Deng's leadership, farmers are richer, and intellectuals have gained new respect. But workers have lost their role as the vanguard of Chinese society and, in addition, have experienced price hikes without comparable pay increases.
One post-graduate student at Peking University who has been counseling moderation on the part of the younger students at his school, offered his views on the role of the workers.
``Workers and students share a critical attitude toward the government, though their attitudes toward the reforms are quite different,'' he said.
``We support Deng Xiaoping and want to quicken the pace of the reformation,'' the student said. But the workers are a challenge to the government because they do not fully understand the reforms, especially the need to raise prices to market levels, he added.
``As the reforms go on, the workers could find common cause with the counter-reformists and oppose the rationalization of prices, which is an essential step in the modernization program. This is a dangerous problem for the reformers,'' he said.
Others say it is too early to assess such things, since the picture is more complicated. Many younger workers are sympathetic with the students, while older workers are more concerned with social stability and preserving their ``iron rice bowl'' - the Chinese expression for lifelong job and income security.
More broadly, people from many walks of life are crediting the students for bringing a postponement of price reforms that were expected to raise prices of food and textiles by as much as 30 to 40 percent this year.
For its part, the government has been attempting to define the issues and shape public opinion in the official press. There has been an abundance of testimonials from workers, bus drivers, factory managers, teachers, and students offering approved opinions on the protests and advising the students to act responsibly and not be troublemakers.
The tone of editorials and commentaries in the official press grew harsher last week as the protests continued.
A day before the incidents in Tian An Men Square, the Peking Daily made a bizarre assertion that agents of the Nationalist government in Taiwan had been told to foment rebellion among the students. In a more serious accusation, it said that reporting by a foreign radio station had ``ulterior motives.'' This was almost certainly a reference to the Voice of America, a source of timely news popular among students and intellectuals.
A New Year's editorial in the People's Daily attacked ``bourgeois liberalization,'' using language that had not been seen in the reform-oriented newspaper for some years.
``The democracy the Chinese people need today can only be the socialist democracy known as people's democracy, rather than the individualist democracy of the bourgeoisie,'' the People's Daily said.
``We must never forget to struggle against a handful of people who are hostile to and are sabotaging China's socialist system,'' the newspaper said. It added that the class struggle will still ``exist for a long period to come on a certain scale.''
Since such editorials must be cleared at a high level in the party leadership, they may be more representative of the views of senior party leaders than the moderate approach taken last week by Vice-Minister of Education He Dongchang.
Mr. He avoided using highly charged ideological language at a press conference last week.
He, who is also head of a government task force to investigate the student protests, said that the students' excesses were understandable and that they needed counsel and a better ideological education.
The Peking Daily, a newspaper under the control of the city's Communist Party Committee, has carried some of the toughest comments.
In a New Year's Day greetings, Peking Mayor Chen Xitong spoke of keeping alert against ``antisocialist elements'' and ``class enemies'' - language reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution years (1966-76).
Comments from senior party leaders such as Hu Qiaomu and Wang Zhen have been in a similar vein.