In a major concession to a student movement for democracy, senior officials met Saturday with student leaders to discuss their demands. Protest leaders, however, denounced the meeting as a government plot to destroy their campaign.

They said 41 universities in Beijing would continue their week-old class boycott until the government accepts their newly formed student union as the true representative of students. The government has declared the group illegal.Despite the complaints, the meeting was an unprecedented event in a country where the people and their leaders have little contact.

Radio and TV stations carried a lengthy broadcast of the meeting, providing some of China's most eloquent citizens with a rare platform to criticize the government.

"Does Premier Li Peng really fear the people?" asked one of the 45 students. "If not, why won't he talk with us?

"Most people I know don't believe the Chinese press. It should be allowed to tell the truth and not used by the party."

The 31/2-hour meeting, with State Council spokesman Yuan Mu, State Education Minister He Dongchang and high-ranking officials from the Beijing city goverment, marked the first time government officials have met with student activists since protests began two weeks ago.

Government officials, speaking on behalf of Premier Li, called on the students to return to class. They made no promises to change state policy but acknowledged student complaints and implied that further meetings would be possible.

The appearance of Yuan, believed to be part of the inner circle of the nation's top decision-makers, was an indication of how seriously the government regards the recent unrest.

Both Yuan and He cracked jokes and laughed throughout the meeting as they sought to adopt a conciliatory attitude toward the student movement.

At one point, Yuan said the government "understood the patriotic fervor, the desire to push democracy and deepen the reforms expressed by the students in their marches."

The statement indicated a radical change from the shrill tone of an editorial last week in the People's Daily, accusing the students of plotting to overthrow the socialist system. An editorial in the Saturday editions of the People's Daily also expressed sympathy for the students' goals.

The government apparently hopes it can split most of Beijing's students from the leaders of the independent student association that has organized the protest. The government has said the group, the United Association of Beijing Universities, is illegal.

If the government succeeds in its goal, it is unclear what awaits the association's leaders. Several fear arrest.

Most participants at Saturday's meeting came from the officially appointed unions. Only two came from the independent association's leadership, although other participants said they were sympathetic to the association's goals.

Student leaders have said the class boycott will go on until Thursday, the 70th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, China's first student demonstrations for democracy.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, criticized a U.S. statement on the recent demonstrations, calling it inappropriate because the demonstration "is purely China's internal affair."