Demonstrations for more democracy by Chinese students on as many as a dozen campuses are like nothing seen here since a short-lived blossoming in 1978-79, according to veteran observers.

The protests are not being reported in the local press and first came to light after thousands marched at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, capital of east-central Anhui province.A few days later, 5,000 people reportedly took part in a march in Wuhan, industrial center of central China.

In Kunming, capital of southern Yunnan, students staged a two-day march linked to elections for the Provincial People's Congress, according to foreign teachers there.

Diplomats believe the unrest began in September at colleges in Shanghai shortly after the reformist leader Deng Xiaoping renewed his call for political reforms.

The student movement really gathered force only at the beginning of this month, however, with large-character wall posters reminiscent of those at the start of the so-called Cultural Revolution.

Student discontent embraces a variety of complaints, including poor food in student cafeterias, but a common theme is the demand for genuine democratically elected representatives to legislatures.

Authorities in Hefei backed down in the face of student pressure, postponing elections to the local legislature for two weeks and increasing the number of student representatives on the school's election committee to seven

from two.

The protests are accompanied by confusing signals from the official press, suggesting a deep division among the party leadership.

Peng Zheng, chairman of the National People's Congress, made a hard-line speech last month championing socialist democracy. Some people yearn for bourgeois democracy as if the moonlight of capitalism were brighter than our sun, he declared.

An apparent rebuttal came in a commentary in the official People's Daily newspaper.

For a long time, we have considered freedom and democracy as slogans belonging solely to the bourgeois class and this is inappropriate, it said.

It should be recognized that the call for freedom and democracy has been greatly liberating for the human race.

A key resolution at September's meeting of the party Central Committee on ideological guidelines was equally ambiguous when it affirmed that there can be no socialist modernization without democracy.

But democratic reforms must uphold the party's leadership and the people's democratic dictatorship. Political reform must proceed step by step, it cautioned, an idea echoed at a meeting of official student leaders reported in People's Daily.

We must not merely copy foreign models of democracy . . . we should re-examine what democracy is before starting to practice it, one leader said.

Some students think mass participation is a form of people's power, but is in reality a matter of self-management, said another.

Some analysts argue that just as the democracy wall movement in 1979 may have been quietly backed by Mr. Deng as a way to establish his power, the new movement also has his support as part of a renewed struggle against conservative opponents.

Why else would so many students take such enormous risks with their futures? pondered one diplomat.

Mr. Deng is known to be trying to push through political reforms in time for next autumn's party congress after being thwarted at this year's Central Committee meeting.

He has not yet spelled out precisely what he wants, despite an unusually open debate which has flourished in the official press since the summer.

The student protests reveal a powerful swell of grassroots support for changes in what has hitherto been a top-down movement.

But the fate of those young radicals who led the last such unofficial movement in 1979 is a harsh warning for those who push things too far.

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