Peking students appear to have won a victory after a week of unusual public marches and classroom boycotts, a new tactic against China's 2,000-year-old bureaucracy.
Students from at least three different colleges and institutes are protesting a relatively new situation: the refusal by Army units and industries to relinquish educational facilities taken over when all colleges were closed temporarily in the late 1960s. At week's end students demonstrating at the People's University said they had word that an Army unit would begin to hand back school cafeteria buildings needed for the growing student body.
The rules of paperwork battles among government departments for a bigger share of the bureaucratic spoils were invented here when Washington's Federal Triangle was an uninhabited swamp. The students' protest constitutes a surprising change, which officials across this city are now trying to decide how to counter.
"We have a bad habit in this country of receiving people who have problems with smiles and promises, and then not doing anything," said one longtime bureaucrat here, talking about the student protest. Four years ago, students ackowledge, public demonstrations would have been squelched immediately by the police, but the government has loosened the reins. Protest marches proceed without incident, as long as marchers are well-organized and well-behaved and are careful to assert their ultimate loyalty to the Communist Party.
"This is a result of the revival of democracy in China," said Zhang Xuezhong, 26, who heads the student association at the Central Institute for Financial Administration. As he spoke, 400 other students and some teachers from his small college stood with banners in front of the city government headquarters. The group was protesting a cigarette factory's refusal to give them back 28 rooms surrendered when the school temporarily disbanded in 1969.
The school has been forced to use unheated sheds for classrooms. Its 800 students and staff use a cafeteria built for only 200. "We've had at least 10 meetings with the factory officials and they still ignore the matter," Zhang said.
Zhang and his colleagues even had with them during the protest copies of Order Number 545 of the city's Communist Party Committee, decreeing the return of classrooms taken during the confusion of the late 1960s.
According to a wallposter put up by students from the People's University, 67 percent of their campus was taken over by the Second Artillery Unit and many soldiers moved in with families because of the chronic shortage of barracks space.
Now, the students complained, as many as eight students have to share a room 13 feet by 10 feet. If the university had the entire campus under its control, a total of 2,000 students could have been admitted. Now only 600 can be admitted, and 16 out of 17 applicants cannot find university places here.
Across from city government headquarters, now a magnet for protests, students from the Peking Sanitation School also appeared Friday morning in white lab coats. They pasted up wallposters denouncing longtime bureaucratic occupation of some of their space.
The students say they have not consulted with parents or college administrators about the protest. Older Chinese remember days when such outbursts resulted in long stays in labor camps for the participants, and it is possible the present relaxed government attitude toward demonstrations might change.
But it is far more likely the students will find that even this new tool is not effective in the long run against the world's most practiced bureaucracy.
The People's University students seemed willing to end their two-day boycott of classes on Friday, because of the promised Army retreat.
The Financial Institute students remained unhappy at the city government's decision to send only an official of the city education bureau to meet them.
"We've seen people like him before," said one, searching for the Chinese equivalent of flak-catcher.