Workers Vanguard No. 1070

12 June 2015


On China’s 1989 Tiananmen Upheaval

We print below a contribution by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Joseph Seymour on our understanding of the May-June 1989 mass protests in China centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It was written in response to a longtime reader of the International Communist League press who, in a letter to a comrade, commented on our article “Hong Kong Protests: Spearhead for Capitalist Counterrevolution” (WV No. 1054, 17 October 2014).

Offering several useful observations about political developments in Hong Kong, the reader criticized the article’s assessment of the Tiananmen upheaval, which brought the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime of Deng Xiaoping to the point of collapse. Writing that “there has been an overestimation of the break between the main body of the working class (crucially the section in state-owned companies) and the CCP in 1989,” he also challenged our depiction of the role workers’ defense groups played in the protests and the extent of the repression subsequently meted out against workers.

The imperialists and the bourgeois media falsely portray the events in the spring of 1989 as a movement for capitalist counterrevolution under the banner of Western-style “democracy.” The social explosion was triggered by protests initiated by students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which increasingly drew in groups of workers and spread throughout the country. Far from seeking a return to capitalism, Chinese workers overwhelmingly directed their anger at the sharply rising economic inequalities, rampant corruption and inflation encouraged by Deng’s program of “building socialism with capitalist methods.”

The events of May-June 1989 decisively demonstrated that the Stalinist bureaucracy was not a new type of possessing class but rather a brittle and contradictory caste parasitically resting atop the collectivized economy. While a capitalist ruling class faced with a proletarian challenge to its rule inevitably unites around a program of counterrevolution, the Stalinist bureaucracy, including the military officer corps, began to fracture under the impact of the proletarian upsurge.

The CCP bureaucracy, whose rule undermines the workers state and socialized economy established through the 1949 Revolution, must be swept away through proletarian political revolution that establishes a regime based on workers democracy and committed to international socialist revolution as against the Stalinist bureaucracy’s reactionary, nationalist utopia of building “socialism in one country.” As opposed to bourgeois parliamentarism, such a regime would be based on elected workers and peasants councils (soviets). Proletarian political revolution would be premised on defense of the collectivized economy and would suppress counterrevolutionary elements.

The mass upsurge in 1989 was an incipient proletarian political revolution; what was centrally lacking was a Leninist-Trotskyist party to bring genuine communist consciousness to the working class. Such a revolutionary party would necessarily be internationalist, linking defense of the Chinese workers state to the fight for proletarian revolutions in the imperialist centers to establish an internationally planned economy and lay the basis for the construction of a socialist world of material abundance. The International Communist League fights to build a revolutionary international party, a reforged Fourth International, the necessary instrument to lead the working class to power internationally.

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Our reader raises a number of criticisms of the section of the article in WV No. 1054 that discusses the crisis in China in the spring of 1989. In considering and responding to these criticisms, I’ll begin by restating the assessment we made at the time.

We described the student-based protests as such as having “something of the character of political theater (including a statue of ‘the goddess of democracy’) and pressure politics” (WV No. 479, 9 June 1989). However, these protests evoked widespread sympathy and support among the mass of working people. Thus, the initial attempt by the CCP regime to use the army to suppress the protests in mid May was confronted by spontaneous mass resistance as military convoys sought to traverse Beijing. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets, obstructing the troop movements while imploring soldiers and officers not to use force against the student protesters. The regime then temporized, enabling the protests to continue for another two and a half weeks.

The use of the military to disperse the Tiananmen protests in early June triggered mass, militant protests—heavily involving working-class and plebeian youth—elsewhere in Beijing and also other major cities. We wrote at the time:

“While pro-regime military forces still occupy the center of Beijing, the rest of the city is in the hands of insurgent workers and students: ‘everywhere in Beijing people reacted to the killings by torching vehicles and creating blockades. The troops only controlled a few major thoroughfares, and elsewhere citizens continued to control the streets’ (New York Times, 5 June). In the great industrial metropolis of Shanghai, student activists and militant workers have set up barricades using buses, trucks and cars. And a de facto general strike has brought economic activity to a standstill. In the central industrial city of Wuhan workers and students occupy a strategic bridge over the Yangtze River, a crucial transport link between northern and southern China.”

—“Beijing Massacre—Civil War Looms,” WV No. 479, 9 June 1989

We characterized these protest actions as an incipient proletarian political revolution.

Our understanding of events in China in the spring of 1989 was summarily stated in the document adopted by the Second International Conference of the ICL in the fall of 1992:

“The rampant official corruption and emergence of nouveau riche petty capitalists along with rising inflation and unemployment fueled a growing popular discontent which came to the surface in the 1989 crisis. While the student-based ‘democracy’ movement had illusions in Western-style parliamentarism, the working masses who took to the streets wanted a return to economic equality and security, a restoration of the ‘iron rice bowl.’

“The Deng regime moved to suppress the mass protests by ordering loyal army units to carry out a massacre. Contrary to Western imperialist propaganda, the main victims of this bloodbath were not the student activists, most of whom withdrew from Tiananmen Square unscathed, but rather young workers in Beijing and other cities. In the days following the Beijing massacre—when the attitude of the army as a whole was still in question—China was poised on the brink of a proletarian political revolution.”

—“For the Communism of Lenin and Trotsky!” Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93

During the following two decades we have not significantly revised much less reversed the above-quoted assessment in light of additional empirical research and argumentation.

Our reader presents a significantly different assessment. To validate that assessment, he strongly recommends a book by Zhao Dingxin, The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement (University of Chicago Press, 2001). (The publishers used the English format, putting Zhao’s surname last.)

Zhao was a young Chinese intellectual in the spring of 1989 doing graduate work in entomology at a Canadian university. After visiting China in April for academic and personal reasons, he returned in May to Canada, where he followed the mounting protests and political crisis from afar. The suppression of the Tiananmen protests caused him to change his main intellectual concern from science to social theory. Eventually he became a professor in the sociology department of the University of Chicago. In 1993 and 1997, Zhao visited China, where he conducted interviews with many young intellectuals who as student activists had participated in the ’89 Tiananmen protests. These interviews (in addition to documentary material at the time) are the main source for the empirical analysis presented in The Power of Tiananmen.

In its basic political outlook, the book is an expression of the “death of communism” ideology prevalent among Western bourgeois intellectuals in the post-Soviet period. In the concluding section, Zhao contended that the only alternative to military repression would have been for the CCP leadership to surrender political power in the course of a “transition to democracy” such as occurred, he maintained, in the former Soviet bloc in 1989-92:

“Once such a large-scale social movement gains momentum, a state such as the current China actually has few means of conflict resolution. Often, the state is left with only two choices: surrender or repression. As events in the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries have clearly shown, when confronted with this alternative, a generation with no revolutionary experience may not defend a regime by way of bloody military repression. Even if some leaders were to decide on repression, the more professionally trained soldiers may no longer follow their orders. A sudden surrender, instead of gradual change, made the transition to democracy in the former Soviet Union very painful.”

To avoid replicating the convulsive experience of the former Soviet bloc, Zhao advocated the gradual “democratization” of China undertaken from above:

“Therefore, the current Chinese leaders should place political reform at the top of their agenda. This is not to suggest that China should copy any particular Western political system. However, such a political reform has to aim at changing the foundation of state power from ideology and performance legitimation to legal-electoral legitimation. It should minimally include formally abandoning Marxism as a state ideology, renaming the Communist Party as a socialist party, establishing an independent legal system, and gradually instituting competitive elections with candidates competing only for the office rather than for mutually incompatible ideologies.”

Obviously, our reader does not share Zhao’s program for a “bourgeois-democratic” counterrevolution in China. But it is not clear whether he agrees with Zhao that had the CCP regime collapsed in the spring of 1989, it would necessarily have been replaced by a Chinese version of Poland’s Lech Walesa or Russia’s Boris Yeltsin. More likely, he agrees with Zhao’s analysis in the narrower empirical sense of recounting what actually happened.

Workers, Students and the Effects of “Market Reforms”

Before discussing Zhao’s empirical research and analysis, I want to compare his views with those of Wang Hui, who emerged in the 1990s as the best-known left-critical intellectual in China’s academic milieu. Wang identified with the main current of the Western far left that found an ephemeral organizational expression in the “anti-globalization” protest movement of the early 2000s. As it happened, he was teaching at the University of Washington when the first major “anti-globalization” protest took place in Seattle in late 1999. Perhaps influenced by that event, Wang wrote a lengthy essay retrospectively analyzing what he termed the “1989 social movement” in China. Unlike Zhao Dingxin, Wang Hui personally participated in the Tiananmen protests. According to his own testimony, he was in one of the last student groups to leave the Square in the early morning of June 4.

Looking back, he saw a fundamental difference in the attitude and aspirations of the student protesters and the mass of working people who sympathized with and supported the protests. Most young Chinese intellectuals welcomed the post-Mao market-oriented economic “reforms,” which they associated with greater personal freedom, and favored their expansion. The mass of working people were reacting against the negative effects of the “reforms”—rising inflation, unemployment among youth first entering the labor market, the loss of job security for workers in state-owned enterprises as well as in the growing private sector, pervasive nepotism and corruption among the CCP officialdom.

With regard to these differences, Wang wrote:

“Taken as a group, however, the intellectuals not only lacked the capacity to provide practical social goals, but they also never understood the full extent of the social mobilization that had taken place. This was partly because, as an intellectual movement critical of the practices of state socialism, the social thought of the 1980s could neither perceive nor comprehend the social contradictions peculiar to the times. Neither could it understand the socialist tendencies inhering within the grassroots social movement nor transcend the intellectual blinders imposed by Cold War ideology. It is necessary to distinguish between two conceptions of socialism: one is the ‘socialism’ of the old state ideology, characterized by a system of state monopoly; the other is the movement for social security that developed out of that system of state monopoly and the expansion of the market system, characterized by its opposition to monopoly and its demands for social democracy.”

—“The 1989 Social Movement and the Historical Roots of China’s Neoliberalism” in China’s New Order: Society, Politics, and Economy in Transition (Harvard University Press, 2003)

Here I want to comment (parenthetically, so to speak) on Wang’s misuse of the term “neoliberalism” with regard to China. It is, or at any rate was, common for Western leftists to identify the market-oriented economic policies undertaken by Deng and his successors with the ideology and program of neoliberalism. Mainstream Western bourgeois intellectuals also contend that capitalism in some form has been restored in post-Mao China. Nonetheless, the latter recognize that China’s economic system is fundamentally different than capitalism, not to speak of neoliberalism. The favored term used by Western academics and financial journalists to describe China’s economic system is “state capitalism.” For example, this term is used throughout with respect to China by Martin Wolf, chief economics commentator at the London Financial Times, in a recent book on the post-2008 global economy, The Shifts and the Shocks: What We’ve Learned—and Have Still to Learn—from the Financial Crisis (Penguin Press, 2014). Moreover, Wolf, a highly regarded and influential bourgeois intellectual, judges China’s Keynesian-type economic policies favorably compared to the policies pursued by the leaders of the capitalist world:

“The great recession that followed the worst of the financial crisis, in late 2008 and early 2009, hit many emerging and developing countries hard. Those who were least hit—China, above all—had to make bold policy decisions to offset the impact of the shock upon their economies. Those decisions also created troubling longer-term challenges.

“The result, none the less, was an acceleration of the already rapid shift in the balance of the world economy from the high-income countries to the emerging countries, particularly China.”

For sophisticated bourgeois intellectuals like Martin Wolf, China’s supposed “state capitalism” lies at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from neoliberalism.

Liberal Political Bias

As previously noted, Zhao’s empirical analysis draws heavily from interviews he conducted in China in 1993 and 1997. Almost all of these interviews were with young intellectuals who as students had participated in the Tiananmen protests. Very few of the interviews were with non-students who had taken part in the actions that prevented military units from converging on Tiananmen when martial law was first proclaimed on May 20. And there were no interviews with those (e.g., young workers and unemployed plebeian youth) who engaged in militant protests in the immediate aftermath of the military’s clearing of Tiananmen. Zhao’s narrative account as well as the calendar of events listed in the beginning of The Power of Tiananmen ends on June 4.

The unbalanced selection of the interviewees presents a picture of China in the spring of 1989 in which liberal-minded students and their ideology of “pure democracy” were the only possible opposition to the continued “authoritarian” rule of the CCP. What Wang Hui termed the “socialist tendencies” among the working masses is written out of this book.

The biased nature of Zhao’s empirical research is evident with respect to the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Union (also known as the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation). His analysis of this group is partly based on interviews with leading student activists involved in it. Evidently, no worker members of the group were interviewed by him. At any rate, none were quoted in the relevant section of his book.

Arguably, the most important event that occurred in Beijing in the spring of 1989 did not take place in Tiananmen Square. Rather it took place in working-class and other lower-class neighborhoods whose residents effectively blocked the military units converging on Tiananmen. The investigation of this pivotal event in Zhao’s book is meager compared to the exhaustive chronicling of the student-based protests and the various competing factions therein. When martial law was declared, numerous protesters vacated Tiananmen and some leading student activists went into hiding or were preparing to do so. Only when the troops were turned back in the outlying neighborhoods did the students who had left return to Tiananmen. The occupation continued, mainly with the influx of students from other cities.

In order to avoid a repetition of what happened during the first attempt at a military crackdown, in early June a large number of soldiers were infiltrated through Beijing wearing civilian clothes and not carrying arms. They were then provided with arms as they approached Tiananmen. That the CCP/People’s Liberation Army leadership had recourse to this unusual tactic indicated that they recognized the extent of popular support for the student-based protests.

Zhao’s empirical analysis does substantiate one of our reader’s criticisms to a certain extent. This concerns the nature of organized working-class presence in the Tiananmen protests. The Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Union was formed on May 18 at the initiative of certain leading student activists. The group attracted very few workers. The main documents put out in the name of the Union were written by young intellectuals who were active in the various student organizations. The protest actions in which worker members of the group participated were under the direction of leaders of the student organizations. Zhao concludes, I believe correctly, that “if we examine the role of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Union through such criteria as leadership, sources of material resources, and major activities and participants, it becomes obvious that the union was basically only an appendage of the student movement.” But it does not follow that even the small number of workers who joined this group shared the political views of the young intellectuals who organized them and directed their activities.

At this historical juncture it wasn’t possible for members of the working class to intervene in the Tiananmen protests in a way that was politically and organizationally independent of the main body of student activists. The various student organizations formed in the course of the protests had been incubated, so to speak, in the broad regime-critical milieu that emerged in Beijing’s universities in the mid-late 1980s. A number of leading student activists had been involved in discussion circles grouped around professors who expounded somewhat critical views of the CCP regime and its history. Compared to university students, workers in Beijing’s factories were atomized and had no institutional framework for discussing and developing shared political views, not to speak of independent organizations.

But that does not mean that the inchoate political attitudes of most Chinese workers corresponded to those of liberal-minded young intellectuals. Nor does it mean that they supported the CCP regime, as our reader contends:

“In short, the students and those who backed them tried to produce a Solidarnosc-type ‘independent workers’ movement’ as an appendage of the ‘democracy movement’. They failed because the main body of the working class did not heed their message, and were largely loyal to the CCP.”

I think he does not understand the specific historical conditions that underlay the mobilization of the mass of workers in Poland on a counterrevolutionary basis in 1980-81. The organizational basis for Solidarność was provided by the Roman Catholic church, which had functioned as a quasi-official opposition to the Warsaw Communist regime since 1956. The coterie of social-democratic intellectuals (e.g., Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik) involved in the formation of Solidarność acted as political front men for the Catholic hierarchy headed by the Polish pope Wojtyla. The political authority of the Catholic church was closely linked to the popular strength of anti-Russian (i.e., anti-Soviet) Polish nationalism. Neither of these factors was or is relevant to the potential for a mobilization of workers in China on a counterrevolutionary basis.

The extent of illusions in bourgeois forms of “democracy”—a government supposedly based on freely contested elections with universal and equal suffrage—is another question, one that we will certainly encounter and have to confront when the political situation in China opens up.