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In China today, a popular saying goes: People pick up chop sticks to eat meat, then put them down and curse the government.

For Chinese students at the University at Buffalo -- one of the largest concentrations of Chinese scholars studying in the United States -- that saying helps summarize the frustration fueling a nation's rebellion against its leaders.

The students explain that China's people may have meat on their tables today, but the Chinese political system has failed to develop in step with China's blossoming economy.

China's people, according to the students, are fed up with their government leaders because they continue to behave like feudal lords, abusing power and peddling influence. They talk democracy but have no intention of relinquishing their unlimited power.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Chinese students at UB have nothing but praise and great expectations for the peaceful efforts of their cohorts in Beijing, who are fighting for widened free speech and more checks and balances in China's governing structure.

"I feel really excited about what's happening," said Gordon Wang, a graduate student in UB's department of learning and instruction who grew up in Beijing and took part in earlier but less fruitful protests there.

When Wang watches network television reports of the current protests, he sometimes spots his friends in the crowd.

"If I had the money to go back, I would," Wang said.

So would Han Xiao, a postdoctoral student working at Roswell Park Memorial Institute whose wealthy, intellectual parents were punished for their views during the repressive years of China's Cultural Revolution.

"We are proud of what the students are doing," Ms. Xiao said. "They are playing an important role for our future."

Weihsung Lin, 26, a soft-spoken graduate student in UB's School of Medicine who came to the United States in 1987 from Canton, nodded enthusiastic agreement.

"We all wish we were a part of it," he said.

To Americans, who sometimes give little thought to the daily freedoms they enjoy, the actions of the students and people of Beijing and their thirst for democracy may seem romantic and remote.

Such a popular uprising would have been unthinkable even as few as two years ago, the students indicate. Since then, however, inflation has been dramatic. The price of pork, for example, has tripled. Many basic consumer goods are now entirely out of reach.

"My mother and father are both retired on a fixed pension," Lin said, "and two years ago they had a decent living. Now things are very tight for them."

Lin said he felt skeptical when he first heard about the student hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square. He wondered how much they would really accomplish. He thought average people resented the government but never would dare to speak out. He was wrong.

"People in China used to let others think for them," said Y. Li, a graduate student in social sciences at UB. "They trusted Mao (Tse-tung). The Cultural Revolution was a disaster. A lot of people began to think independently, but they still dared not speak. Now, people want to speak out."

To Li's way of thinking, China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, is cast from the same mold as other Chinese leaders over the centuries, even if he consistently has been portrayed as the great reformer.

His feelings are shared by C. Wang, another UB graduate student who said she was among the thousands who made pilgrimages to a democracy wall in Tiananmen Square beginning in 1978. It was a symbol of freedom of speech that later was suppressed by Deng.

"I was a freshman in college at the time, and I thought democracy had come to China," Ms. Wang said. "I was so excited. I went to the wall every day." Soon, however, China's people felt betrayed by Deng.

Students 11 years ago felt powerless to do anything about the situation. "To use a Chinese expression, it was like trying to crack a rock with an egg," Ms. Wang said. Average working people in China were not yet caught up in the democracy movement.

"In that sense, it is a kind of a generation gap," said Jilin Yin, 30, a student in UB's Law School, who came to the United States three years ago. He now is president of the Chinese Scholars and Students Club, which he said has a membership of 300 students, 100 scholars and 100 associated family members living in the Buffalo community.

"When I was president of the student association at my university in China, we would debate government policies among ourselves. My parents would never discuss these things."

What happens now is far from clear.

"I can't predict what will happen, but big progress has been made," Li said. "Before the dawn, there is a period of darkness. It is very dark, but short."

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