China: from revolution to Tiananmen

Thirty years ago, the world’s largest-ever student movement was brought to a violent close by the so-called People’s Liberation Army. For about six weeks, hundreds of thousands, and at one point over a million, students, workers, Communist Party members and Beijing residents had flooded into and occupied Tiananmen Square, the same place from which forty years earlier Mao had proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

Their aims and methods varied wildly, from those calling for the wholesale introduction of deregulated capitalism, to workers and radical students calling for an end to inequality and for workers’ democracy. In general, however, the main demands were for democratic rights and an end to corruption, demands which fundamentally challenged the power and privileges of the state bureaucracy.

In 1989 China stood at a crossroads. Forty years after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had taken power, the threat of capitalist restoration had become a reality. That this was the case reflected the dead end of the bureaucratic Stalinist methods in running the planned economy. The Chinese revolution was one of the two great events of the 20th century. It freed the world’s largest country from the humiliating straight-jacket of imperialism and Jiang Jieshi’s (aka Chiang Kai Shek) corrupt dictatorship. Indeed the present strength of China is owed to the 1949 revolution, which finally built the powerful and independent Chinese state that millions of Chinese, from nationalists to socialists, had identified as the task of the Chinese revolution. To free the Chinese people from imperialist domination, however, it had proved necessary to abolish capitalism and create a planned economy.

But under Stalinist leadership the revolution took many strange twists and turns, arriving finally through the agency not of the organised and class conscious working class, but of a peasant army. The leaders of this Red Army thus conquered the Chinese cities almost as a foreign army, arriving as they did from literally decades of hiding in the remote rural vastnesses of China. The working class was not organised, and had not created powerful, democratic organisations with which to establish a workers’ state under their control. Not only this, but the all-conquering Red Army had the mighty USSR as their model and inspiration. So the regime established mirrored that of the USSR at this time – and not that of the Soviet Union in the days of Lenin when it was a relatively healthy workers' state – that is, it was a privileged bureaucracy that allowed no workers’ democracy to exist and challenge its power.

The domination of such a privileged bureaucracy fatally undermined the planned economy. Firstly, as Trotsky explained, you cannot have a healthy workers’ state without workers’ democracy, which is like oxygen to a human body. This was most graphically revealed in the Great Leap Forward, in which crazy economic policies were pushed through from above with no possibility to criticise and overturn them. Millions died as a result of the famine that ensued. The Cultural Revolution of the following decade was an example of the sudden lurches produced by a short-sighted bureaucracy that was split and yet unable to tolerate any debate or democratic elections.

These methods seriously undermined the planned economy, which in China was hampered to begin with because it was isolated on a national basis and started out from a very low economic level, far behind that of the capitalist powers. Thus when Mao died in 1976, there were strong incentives for the bureaucracy to change course. Discontent with the performance of the economy and the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution were rife. Since it would never countenance the loss of its privileges by granting workers’ democracy to manage the planned economy, the only way forward from the bureaucracy’s point of view appeared to be opening up to capitalist methods, especially investment from foreigners since they possessed advanced technologies and techniques. They viewed the market as a means of placing checks on the errors of the bureaucracy, boost growth and wealth, and thereby strengthen the very same bureaucracy presiding over this transformation.

MaoKissingerFordA healthy workers’ state is run by elected workers' representatives. But because of the conditions in China in 1949, and because Mao modelled China on Stalin’s USSR, the new state was run from the beginning by an elite of privileged and unaccountable bureaucrats / Image: public domain

The second threat to the planned economy from the bureaucracy was their defence of privileges. A privileged bureaucracy is not a feature of socialism, but a vestige of class society. Capitalists need a state bureaucracy that shares their outlook. Under capitalism, the top judges, civil servants, heads of police and military, etc., are the top servants of the bourgeoisie, and are very well rewarded. Their privileges and life-style ensure that they see things as the bourgeoisie do.

It is the task of the socialist revolution to destroy this social caste, but it can only do so by replacing it with the self-administration of society. A healthy workers’ state is run by the ordinary members of society, elected by the workers, not a special caste of highly paid and unaccountable administrators. That requires a working class with enough time to participate in running their own workplaces and communities. Because these conditions were completely absent in China in 1949, and because Mao modelled China on Stalin’s USSR, the new state was run from the beginning by an elite of privileged and unaccountable bureaucrats, in many cases the same local administrators who had previously run Jiang Jieshi’s capitalist state.

Such people were far more interested in their power and privileges than in the genuine transition to socialism and liberating the working masses. Mao’s death came at a point when the problems of a bureaucratically managed planned economy were glaringly obvious. When the solution in opening up a few key areas to capitalist investment was proposed, large sections of the bureaucracy had no principled objections. And as this policy seemed to be getting the desired aims, a section of the bureaucracy moved from the idea of stimulating growth within the plan to the possibility of getting obscenely rich from privatisations and contracts.

And so China began its experiment of opening up to capitalism with Deng Xiaoping’s installation as leader in 1978. This is not the place for an assessment of exactly how capitalism was reintroduced, or the extent to which Deng and others consciously planned to make China capitalist. It is sufficient to understand that the bureaucracy was an impediment to the transition to socialism, and that capitalism did not develop through a home-grown capitalist class that fought for and won power. It was created via, and was dependent on, the state bureaucracy that had lost confidence in the planned economy and “socialism”, but at the same time wanted to maintain its grip on power at all costs.

China in the 1980s: turbulence, insecurity and inflation

China’s policy regime in the 1980s was characterised by caution in conditions of economic weakness. The general approach was to slowly and carefully loosen the state’s central control over the economy and to encourage the gradual ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital at a local level, especially by allowing farmers to sell most of their produce at unregulated, market-driven prices. In this way they accumulated money and some farmers and rural/small town enterprises grew rich, similar to the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the USSR in 1921. This was called the ‘Household Responsibility System’. This required the retreat of the state to give room for such private development. “Between 1953 and 1978, the proportion of public spending in China in relation to gross national product was, on average, 34.2 percent; from 1978 onward, this proportion dropped every year, and by 1998 stood at 19.3 percent.” (Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution, 2009, p24). This 19.3 percent was, however, of a much enlarged overall GDP. So in absolute terms they were spending more, not less, although the trend of dedicating less of overall state resources is clear.

The basis was being laid for capitalism in a very gradual manner and without resorting to drastic privatisations. The same process can be seen in the political sphere as well, where Deng led a “movement to ‘separate government from business’ (zhengqi fenkai). The essence of this movement was to withdraw the Communist Party from daily management of firms and of the economy. The factory manager responsibility system, which spread broadly through state industry in the late 1980s, pushed in this direction by giving the factory manager the clearly superior position in the enterprise, with the Party secretary implicitly subordinate. After Zhao Ziyang became Party General Secretary in 1987, he pushed this separation much further. He disbanded the Party groups in government bureaus, and further downgraded the enterprise Party secretaries, cutting their allocation of support personnel. While the Party maintained its personnel power, the objective was increasingly to keep the Party itself out of decision-making, turning it into an institution that provided spiritual guidance and administrative oversight. The hierarchy became stronger while the Party became weaker [...]

“Very few workers were laid off, and hardly any SOEs were shut down. Instead, reformers devised reforms that would create flexibility somewhere further down the road. A muted discussion of ownership reform began, with two items clearly on the agenda. First was the privatisation of small-scale firms. The second was the creation of joint stock companies, what we would today call ‘corporatisation’ of large firms. Actual progress was minimal, but reformers clearly saw big things ahead.” (Barry Naughton, "The Impact of the Tiananmen Crisis on China’s Economic Transition," China Perspectives Magazine No. 2009/2)

The aim was to provide space for a more business-minded caste of bureaucrats to run the show and to ensure that profitability became the determining factor in economic decisions. In effect, the state was trying to foster the birth of a bourgeoisie. Dingxin Zhao explains the processes in more detail:

“One of the major goals of political reform was to separate the CCP from the government. Before the reform, for example, the party secretary of a work unit often held the position of general manager of that work unit… Under [the new system], party secretaries could no longer interfere with the decisions made by administrative authorities… Another part of political reform was the meritocratic selection of state bureaucrats and the abolition of tenure in leadership positions. Under the new policy, aging bureaucrats or those with less education were typically either forced out of office or stripped of their chances for further promotion. They were replaced by people who had a better education.” (Dingxin Zhao, The Power of Tiananmen, 2001, p46)

Whilst these policies did promote significant growth, they also produced rapidly rising inequality and a great deal of economic (and political) insecurity and turbulence. This inequality was strange and unsettling for Chinese people not used to it, and it produced unexpected results. Suddenly esteemed social layers, such as professors, earned many times less than the nascent capitalists of very rudimentary industries – capitalists which everyone had been taught were the ‘enemies of the people’. A profound uncertainty and sense of injustice swept over large sections of society. The attitude of highly educated people, whose skills found no lucrative application in this primitive market-place, was expressed in popular sayings of the time, such as “Those who produce missiles earn less than those who sell tea eggs”, and “Those who hold scalpels earn less than those who hold eel knives”.

Alongside these inequalities, millions of ‘surplus’ rural labourers began to descend into the cities, as rural labour was freed up by the ‘household responsibility system’ that encouraged more efficient production for profit in the countryside. By October 1988, one million migrant labourers were in Beijing alone, and it was estimated there were 200 million ‘surplus’ rural labourers nationwide. Between February and March 1989, 2.5 million migrants flooded into the city of Guangzhou.

This sense of economic injustice produced lots of small scale rebellions. For example, in 1987 there were officially 2,493 incidents of tax rebellion, which led to 1,830 tax collectors being beaten, 263 of which seriously, and 7 of which killed. The figures for 1988 are even higher (Ibid, p48).

However, it was the reappearance of high levels of inflation that signified the horrors of capitalism had returned after a forty-year absence. Hyper-inflation dogged pre-1949 capitalist China, and was one of the major symptoms of the Jiang Jieshi regime’s complete bankruptcy. After the revolution, inflation disappeared. Now it returned to remind working-class Chinese people of the joys of capitalism.

One of the initial causes of inflation was the pent up demand unleashed through decentralisation of economic control. Local authorities and township enterprises were encouraged to spend, and were allowed to retain profits. But the low level of productivity of key industries and infrastructure meant they could not be supplied with the things they needed to grow, and so inflation took hold as demand outstripped supply. It was a classic ‘scissors crisis’ like that of 1923 in the USSR, which also was caused by the NEP.

This inflation also produced massive levels of corruption. China had implemented a ‘dual track’ pricing system to ease the transfer to a market-driven economy. The big state owned industries (SOEs) remained, in the 1980s, state owned, and as explained above, very few workers were laid off. To ease their transition into being market-driven, these SOEs bought what they needed at government-set prices (which were well below market rates), but had the freedom to convert these state-plan products into the category of market products, which meant they could charge market rates for them. The difference between the two prices was huge and thus a massive incentive was created for formally ‘state-controlled’ businesses to effectively loot the state and make enormous private profits. “In 1988 the gap created between the two types of price under this dual system exceeded 3.5tn yuan, representing roughly 30 percent of that year’s gross national product.” (Wang Hui, op cit, p27) It’s no surprise that a survey at the time showed that 83 percent of urban Chinese thought that CCP ‘cadres’ were corrupt, and over 63 percent of these cadres themselves admitted to engaging in corruption! (Dingxin Zhao, op cit, p126).

The economic chaos this produced led the government to declare in mid-1988 that all pricing would be switched over to market pricing, to close the gap and end this source of corruption. However, they failed to anticipate the consequences of making such an advance notice, which led to panic buying of items still in the state plan pricing system, exacerbating the sense of chaos and crisis, and the government went back on this decision. This was combined with a relaxation of credit policy in February 1988, which had also fed inflation.

These inflationary crises provoked a retreat from the pro-market policies by the CCP leadership in 1988-9, which created the impression that the government was not in control of the situation. Those that were in favour of democracy and associated it with the return of capitalism, now feared the government was betraying them and returning to the ‘leftism’ of the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, workers and students suffered not only from the turbulence and inflation of the market reforms, but also the government’s conservative reaction to this crisis, which was essentially a policy of credit and fiscal austerity. As a result real urban incomes declined in the late 1980s. Therefore, this crisis cut the ground from beneath the government, and it lost the support both of pro-capitalists elements in the liberal elite (many of whom were part of the state apparatus), and of workers and students. “Mass grievances over issues of inflation and corruption became widespread by 1988. During the 1989 Movement, many workers even held Mao’s posters to show their nostalgia for the ‘stable’ life under state socialism.” (Dingxin Zhao, op cit. p67).

The market drowns the students

Deng Xiaoping 1976 Image public domainDeng Xiaoping summed up the attitude of the Chinese bureaucracy, saying: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, meaning: ‘who cares about revolutionary principles, so long as we get good economic results’ / Image: public domain

Trotsky explained that it is not so much recessions that produce revolutionary consciousness, but the turbulence of sudden shifts from one phase to another, and the insecurity these produce. After the storm and stress of the Cultural Revolution, in which urban intellectuals were vilified, the Chinese bureaucracy sought stability and growth. This deeply felt desire was summed up by Deng Xiaoping, when he infamously said that “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, meaning ‘who cares about revolutionary principles, so long as we get good economic results’.

Deng was one of the most high profile leaders branded as a ‘Capitalist Roader’ during the Cultural Revolution and was purged twice. In fact as late as 1976, the ‘Criticize Deng and Oppose the Rehabilitation of Right-leaning Elements’ campaign was launched. In spite of this, within two years Deng had ascended to the leadership of the Chinese state, a fact which China’s middle layers could only interpret as meaning the victory of the ‘capitalist roaders’. The emergence of Deng reflected the fact that although he had been sidelined by Mao, he represented a large layer of the bureaucracy.

This rise of Deng produced a euphoria amongst certain layers, especially those whose families suffered in the Cultural Revolution. The focus on ‘pragmatic’ pro-growth policies was understood to mean a big role for intellectuals and technicians, and so there was a surge of enrollment in universities. In 1977, China had 303 universities. By 1988, it had 1,075 – meaning China added an average of one university every week for 11 years! Unsurprisingly, for these reasons educated layers were initially very supportive of Deng’s capitalist counter-reforms.

But Chinese students were to get a quick lesson in capitalist realities. Whilst university enrollment expanded 3.5 times, funding for universities only increased by 2.5 times (Ibid, p81). The quality of education worsened. Because of the lack of funds, stipends for students were removed. Whereas previously all students received these grants to live off, now they were awarded to a select few based on academic competition. So student living standards worsened. Absenteeism soared to as high as 80 percent (Ibid, p91).

Just as the economy’s opening up unleashed pent up demand that could not be met, leading to the above-discussed inflation, so the opening up of universities could not keep pace with the demand for education. Not only did conditions in universities decline, but so did the status of students for the very same reasons – there were too many of them, and graduates could not find jobs in China’s backwards economy. Hence the above-quoted sayings regarding the low status of the educated vis-a-vis petty tradesmen. The poor conditions of students therefore reflected the crises and imbalances that come with capitalism. It is therefore no surprise that in 1989 “80 percent of students in a university answered ‘no’ to the question: “Do you agree that the state should no longer take care of job allocation for university students?” (Ibid, p89). Consequently, a certain resentment against the realities of capitalist restoration was a major factor behind the student movement of 1989.

The CCP loses its grip

De Tocqueville famously asserted that the most dangerous time for a regime is when it begins to open up and govern in a new way. This can be seen very clearly amongst the causes for the Tiananmen Square occupation. Because the opening up to capitalism was a reaction to the extremes of the Cultural Revolution, it brought with it a certain political thaw as ‘Capitalist Roaders’ were rehabilitated. Punishments for dissidents were softened considerably and censorship of the media was loosened.

A wide-ranging discussion about the future of China set in. Given that the Cultural Revolution and the planned economy were being abandoned, and Mao was, as Deng declared in 1981, now officially ‘wrong’ 30 percent of the time, the intellectual trend shifted to a sort of existential questioning of China’s path. This was really a continuation of the soul-searching by Chinese intellectuals ever since its humiliation in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th Century as to why it had fallen behind the West. A television show called ‘River Elegy’ passed the censor and became a hit, which was a sort of monologue pondering the crisis of Chinese society and its need to follow the Western path, the path of the ‘seas’ instead of ‘rivers’ (i.e. of global trade as opposed to internal trade).

Dissident intellectuals were allowed to address students in packed lecture theatres. However, they were always essentially pro-western liberals who supported capitalist measures. Indeed whilst China was ‘liberalising’ in this way, the right to strike was actually abolished in 1982. Freedoms were being granted to intellectuals and the middle-class, because it was felt these would support pro-market measures, whilst they were taken away from workers, who might lose their jobs thanks to these ‘reforms’. Then, as up until very recently, student activism was tolerated and even to a certain extent encouraged, but independent working class activity and any hint of collaboration between workers and students was severely repressed.

This opening up was sponsored by the CCP leadership in its efforts to stimulate support for its embrace of market mechanisms, but they also carried with them the implication that western style democracy and living standards might be just around the corner.

It was also a necessary part of the capitalist counter-reforms, because as the state withdrew from centralised economic control, it naturally lost some of its power. This in particular was a huge factor in encouraging the wave of student protests that swept China. For example, before the 1980s the CCP exercised tight political control of universities through each university’s ‘Committee of Student Affairs’, which was led by the local Party and employed a full-time staff. In the 1980s the full-time staff were cut back and in some cases abolished entirely, and the leadership of this committee no longer had to belong to a member of the CCP. This was part of Deng’s emphasis on ‘meritocracy’ and the professionalisation of the state apparatus.

The universities in Beijing were generally concentrated into a vast complex in one area of the city. In the past this had actually helped in policing students, because a sizeable chunk of the student body were strong supporters of the Chinese revolution and the CCP, and so would actively work to keep the rest of the students supportive, or at least in line (today, the CCP has no such ideological enthusiasts, and so has to rely on AI and digital ‘social credit’ to police the masses). But the experience of the Cultural Revolution and the public renunciation of it by Deng had destroyed this layer of activists and the CCP’s legitimacy.

Another means of discipline had been the CCP’s control of the allocation of jobs to graduates as part of the planned economy. Any student too vocal or active in their criticisms of Mao or the CCP would not be given a job fitting their qualifications, even if they escaped a prison sentence. But Deng’s capitalist counter-reforms meant that the market, not the CCP, now determined who got the best jobs (where there were any). So why fear protesting, especially when criticism of Mao seemed to be sanctioned by Deng’s leadership and appeared in the press and on TV? The market didn’t care if you had criticised the government. Frequently, students simply ignored the CCP full-timers who were supposed to keep them in line.

In these conditions, the ‘ghettoisation’ of students into one giant university quarter became not a means of control, but of rapidly spreading protest. Ironically, the methods of protest taught in the Cultural Revolution, such as mass marches and the production of ‘Big Character’ posters, had been learned by these students. These methods were likely a factor giving students the organisational confidence that helped make the Tiananmen Square occupation the largest student movement ever.

A decade of growing student discontent

Mao’s death (and the subsequent defeat of his supporters known as the ‘Gang of Four’) in 1976 served to open the floodgates. Enormous pressures had built up as a result of the blunders of the Great Leap Forward and the repression of the Cultural Revolution. As they say, the wind blows the tops of the trees first. With the death of Mao, students and intellectuals gained in confidence to push for change.

In general this rising pressure was of a liberal democratic character, reflecting its petty bourgeois origins and exasperation at China’s relative international isolation and backwardness. The first such protest occurred at Tiananmen Square itself, just before Mao’s death, in April 1976, a simple protest against the repression of Zhou Enlai and neglect of his mourning. Zhou was seen as more liberal than the hardline Maoist Gang of Four currently in charge (he had actually pushed for the use of market mechanisms before Deng). It is notable that Deng Xiaoping, always associated with more pro-capitalist measures, was blamed for these protests and was dismissed from his role. When he returned as leader of China in 1978, these protests were ‘rehabilitated’ and celebrated. This is another example of the way in which the CCP leadership’s efforts at pro-market ‘reforms’ led them to give some encouragement to middle-class liberals, since the latter tended to support these measures (believing as they did that they would bring with them liberal democracy).

In 1986 a more significant student movement occurred which was a direct harbinger and cause of the 1989 movement. Students, led by liberal intellectuals, protested around the country in large numbers, calling once again for democratic reforms. However, in these protests we can already see the outline of the class questions that the 1989 movement would raise up. What caused these protests? Arguably more important than demands for democracy, were official and widespread corruption, the inability for students to get good jobs, and the poor quality of education and student living conditions. Whilst the demands remained overtly democratic, they were filled with concrete and material content that reflected the problems caused by China’s growing market forces. This is revealed in a ‘Big Character’ poster campaign that followed this movement in June 1988, in which students ironically emblazoned on posters that “Academics are useless, and shining shoes can also serve the people.” “Afterwards, a few Beijing University students repeatedly went to Tiananmen Square and declared that they wanted to ‘shine shoes’ for deputies of the [7th National People’s Congress] in order to make a living.” (Dingxin Zhao, op cit, p139).

Deng understood these protests as a warning that the relative liberalisation that had taken place under his watch had gone too far and now threatened the CCP regime as a whole. Once the protests died down after a few months, he launched an ‘anti-bourgeois-liberalisation’ campaign, which saw the purging of various CCP members seen as dangerously liberal, most notably Hu Yaobang from the position of General Secretary.

Then on the eve of the Tiananmen Square protests, in February 1989, many of the same liberal intellectuals who led the 1986-7 student movement, launched a petition for the government to release political prisoners, who were essentially all activists for democratic reform. This petition was promoted heavily by western media, who hosted press conferences with these intellectuals in China. The campaign clearly had widespread support amongst layers of the Chinese middle class, because the prestigious Beijing University (amongst many others) officially supported the petition.

Thus the political and social spark for the 1989 mass movement was without doubt the growing and increasingly confident liberal middles class of China, who in general were pro-capitalist and thought that the opening up of China to capitalism could and must bring with it western-style democratic rights. But the spark of a mass movement does not necessarily determine its objective content once it becomes just that – a mass movement involving millions.

Hu’s death provides the excuse and cover

Two years after taking the blame for the 1986-7 student movement, Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack on April 15th 1989. His death was a natural lightning rod for more protests to coalesce around, not so much for his legacy and inspiration to students, real though that was, but because activists realised that presenting a mass protest as an expression of mourning was a perfect cover. Despite his removal from the position of General Secretary for ‘liberalism’, Hu had retained his position on the Politburo, and thus was formally worthy of public mourning. The government could not be seen to crack down on those merely paying their respects to a leading member of the CCP.

Protests related to his death started within two days, and were initially very small (around 600 participants) and based at Beijing University. As a result of this demonstration the following demands were put forward:

Reevaluate Hu Yaobang, especially in relation to his pro-democratic views;

Renounce the 1987 Anti–Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign and the Anti–Spiritual Pollution Campaign, and rehabilitate all the people prosecuted in these campaigns;

Reveal the salaries and other wealth of government leaders and their families;

Allow the publication of non-official newspapers and end press censorship;

Raise the wages of intellectuals and increase government educational expenditures;

Turn down the “Ten Provisional Articles Regulating Public Marches and Demonstrations” promulgated by the Beijing municipal government;

Provide objective news coverage of the student demonstration in official newspapers.

These demands express very clearly the contradictory character of the student movement to which they gave birth. Most of the demands call for bourgeois democratic rights, such as for the end of censorship. Though they have no specific socialist or working class content, in the context of China’s totalitarian system such demands are progressive because they would enable the flourishing of independent trade unions and left-wing newspapers, etc. It is to be expected that any movement against such a regime would raise these as their main demands.

1953 huyaobang Image public domainHu Yaobang died of a heart attack on April 15th 1989. His death served as perfect cover, allowing activists to present a mass protest as an expression of mourning / Image: public domain

However, amongst the other demands, we see on the one hand the demand to reveal the salaries and wealth of government leaders, which is a clear attack on corruption and inequality. This reveals the tendency in the movement to go beyond purely democratic demands and to begin to question capitalism. On the other hand, the narrowly student and middle-class character of the movement is clearly revealed by demands 5 and 7, though even these demands Marxists would support.

Three days later, protestors gathered outside the headquarters of the Chinese government right next to Tiananmen Square and demanded a dialogue with the top leaders. This protest quickly ended when police forcibly put the students onto a bus back to Beijing University, leaving many of them bloodied and battered. News of this quickly spread, as it always did in the university quarter, and led to the first mass protest at Tiananmen Square two days later. This is known as the Xinhua Gate Bloody Incident.

As the student protests grew, and clashed with police, workers inevitably got drawn in. The speed with which this escalated into the formation of a consciously working-class organisation indicated the widespread and deeply felt discontent across society. According to Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia:

“For the next several evenings, ten to twenty young workers – all in their twenties and thirties – met after work at the monument to discuss the situation and decide what to do. As they told tales of their treatment within their work units, of the effects of inflation on themselves and their friends, and cursed the corruption and incompetence of China’s leaders and bureaucrats, they discovered that they all had similar experiences and points of view. By 17 April, as university students began their marches in the streets of Beijing, these workers discovered that the students were denouncing the officials’ speculation and corruption – the same kind of things they had been griping about. By the 18th, as more joined in their discussions, they began to talk of forming their own organization, and some advocated going back to their work units and carrying out the movement there. They resolved to talk over the issue of a new organization with their co-workers during the day, and they pasted up wallposters in the city asking citizens whether they would welcome an independent organization for workers.” (Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia, "Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation," The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 29, January 1993)

The members of this proto-organisation were organised in time to witness the Xinhua Gate Bloody Incident on 20 April, and in response they “issued two handbills challenging the Party leadership, their economic policies, their personal corruption and that of their families.” (Ibid)

The class composition of this group immediately asserted itself. As compared with the mostly democratic demands of the students, the workers of the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation (BAWF), as they would come to be known, concentrated on the way in which Deng’s ‘reforms’ increased inequality and worsened the conditions of workers:

“In one of the handbills it distributed, [the BAWF] blamed the ‘steady decline of people’s living standards’ and uncontrolled inflation on the ‘long-term control of a dictatorial bureaucracy’. ‘In order to safeguard the extravagant lifestyles of a minority’, the statement continued, ‘the rulers issue large numbers of bonds, like treasury bonds... to take away forcibly what little income the workers have’. The workers punctuated their inaugural handbill with demands to stabilize prices and to make public the incomes and expenditures of high state officials and their families.

“The workers asked how much money one of Deng Xiaoping’s sons had bet at a Hong Kong race-track; whether Zhao Ziyang paid any money for the privilege of playing golf; how many villas were maintained for political leaders and at what cost; and (again) what were the personal incomes and expenditures of top officials. The workers also wanted an explanation of how the Party leadership viewed the ‘shortcomings’ of economic reform and why proposed measures to control inflation never seemed to work. They expressed fear about China’s mounting international debt, asking how much this amounted to per capita and how its repayment would affect living standards in the years ahead.” (Ibid)

Elsewhere on the night before Hu’s funeral on 22 June, about 50,000 students gathered in the university quarter and marched to Tiananmen Square, armed with three demands on the government: to guarantee the safety of protestors; to allow a delegation of students to attend Hu’s funeral the next day, and that no retributions be meted out on students after the movement ends. The government, fearing this sudden mushrooming of a mass movement, partially acceded to the demands, promising that instead of having a delegation at the funeral, the students would have the funeral broadcast live to them and that their safety was guaranteed, satisfying most of the students. By now about 100,000 were gathered in Tiananmen Square.

On the day of the funeral, three students staged an important act with ritualistic significance: they walked up to the Great Hall of the People at the western edge of the square, with a petition which they insisted Li Peng, the Premier, receive. They would not be satisfied until he personally came out and took it; this symbolised the general demand of the students for a dialogue with the highest leaders of the CCP. As they waited, the students whipped themselves up into a sort of frenzy, with many crying, and constant chanting for Li Peng to come out. But when he failed to emerge, many of the students became shocked and outraged, partly because of the time-honoured Chinese tradition of the head of government receiving petitions from the people.

Whether consciously chosen for this reason or not, this was quite an effective tactic for heightening the tension and militancy of the burgeoning movement, because it demanded point blank that the government prove its respect for the movement there and then. The government’s very visible failure to pay this respect immediately raised the movement to a higher level, so much so that at this point Deng apparently ominously concluded that to defeat the movement, “we must foresee that it might be impossible to completely avoid [bloodshed]”.


As if to ensure the movement was even more enraged, The People’s Daily, the main government mouthpiece, published an editorial on 26 April severely criticising the movement as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and heavily implying that if it were not called off, it would face violent repression. But the movement was by now so big and confident, and the masses, both workers and students, so determined to challenge the regime, that this only hardened their resolve – a classic sign of a revolutionary situation developing.

The following day, a monster demonstration of around 300,000 took place in response to the editorial, with some estimates stating that 90 percent of students in Beijing participated! This was the first mass defiance of the state since the revolution in 1949.

Its scale now began to force cracks in the state’s monolithic facade. In a rapid and obvious retreat, The People’s Daily wrote another editorial on 28 April which this time was friendly and vaguely supportive of the protests. The official line became that these were legitimate and patriotic protests addressing genuine problems of corruption, etc. Once the line shifted in this way, the government began to lose control of the media as a whole. It was interpreted that a green light had been given to positive coverage of the protests, and the overwhelming majority of journalists and even editors were genuinely supportive. The CCP had sacked Qin Benli, editor of the Herald, for reporting on the protests positively, but his sacking was met by mass protests of journalists. Later, on 15 May, the government formally approved greater press freedom to report the protests, so strong was the backlash to the censorship. Therefore, temporarily, the students’ demand no. 7, for objective coverage of the protests, was won. It should be noted that another factor in this loss of government control of the media was Deng’s experiment of withdrawing the CCP from direct control of workplaces.

Tian an men flag Image Jiří Tondl Wikimedia CommonsBy early to mid-May 1989, there were frequently as many as 300,000 people in the square during daytime, and on May 17-18 there was a demonstration of over one million / Image: Jiří Tondl, Wikimedia Commons

Around this time, the movement began to win a lot of support from within the state itself. The protests were now a full-scale occupation of the square, which was filled with tents. The students started a hunger strike, which further intensified the movement and won it more public support. Huge amounts of money were donated to the occupation of the square, including from the Communist Youth League, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (the only official trade union organisation, controlled by the state), and All-China Social Welfare Lottery Fundraising Committee. Work units were officially allowed to organise visits to the square and to raise money for the protestors. This was partly because the government feared the students on hunger strike would die or fall severely ill, and that if this happened a revolutionary movement might break out and sweep them from power. But it was also thanks to genuine mass support in society, including from the lower rungs of the CCP.

Once the hunger strike was called, it quickly grew from about 300 participants to 3,000. By early to mid-May, there was frequently as many as 300,000 people in the square during daytime, and on May 17-18 there was a demonstration of over one million! Sister demonstrations sprung up all over China, and according to official records in mid-May, 172,000 students from outside Beijing made their way to the capital to participate in the giant demonstrations.

It was at this point, when the movement was stronger than ever and the state was wavering, that Deng, Li Peng and other leaders concluded that the policy of making concessions could not work. The aim of the concessions had never been to genuinely grant lasting changes, but to provide an illusion of such changes so that the students would go home satisfied – and then their leaders would be repressed. But this clearly had not worked, and so it was decided that an open struggle would have to be waged.

The clampdown

Martial law was officially declared seven days after the hunger strike had started, on May 20th. Initially it was an embarrassing disaster for the government, underlining the genuine mass support for the protests. The 10-15,000 troops sent into Beijing were rebuffed by spontaneous blockades from Beijing residents. The soldiers were vastly outnumbered and seemed bewildered, saying that they had been kept in the dark about the protests. Fraternisation rapidly broke out between residents and soldiers. Alongside building barricades, residents brought soldiers food and water and even organised street parties for them. Two army commanders, Xu Qinxian and Xu Feng (no relation), refused their orders. According to Yang Baibing, Chief Political Commissar of the People’s Liberation Army, as many as 110 officers and 1,400 soldiers in this initial push refused to fight (South China Morning Post, December 28, 1989). Indeed, this effort from residents was very well organised. A ‘Dialogue Delegation’ was formed, got hold of a military map, and “received phone calls every three minutes reporting army movements. They then called each university asking them to send students to particular locations. On May 20, Wang Chaohua also sent small contingents to several places where a large number of soldiers were stopped. The Beijing Students’ Autonomous Union later even produced a map of Beijing showing troop positions and major barricades, and the union assigned each university an area to take charge of.” (Dingxin Zhao, op cit pp. 185-6)

In the main, however, these efforts were spontaneous and local, which clearly demonstrates the mass, active support that the movement enjoyed.

Tian Sq 30 years Image Michael Mandiberg500-1000 were massacred on the night of June 4 and morning of June 5, 1989, as the Chinese state finally crushed China’s largest and most popular mass movement since 1949 / Image: Michael Mandiberg, Flickr

So strong was the power of the Beijing working class, that the army had to be withdrawn from the city after four days. It was not able to break through, and there was a serious danger of a full-scale mutiny. At this point, the potential existed for Beijing to be brought under the control of the protestors and the workers who had organised the barricades and the BAWF. However there was no party that could organise the masses to take this vital step.

By June 2-3 (just over a week after their initial retreat), far greater numbers of soldiers – at least ten times the initial 15,000 – had amassed on the outskirts of Beijing. Most of these soldiers were from peasant families in far-away provinces, a deliberate tactic that minimised the chances of mutiny. In organising a counter-revolution, the danger for the ruling class is always that the rank and file of the forces of repression will feel solidarity with the revolutionary masses, and may even have friends and relatives in the movement. By using peasant soldiers from far away, many of whom spoke different dialects from Beijingers, they made fraternisation much more unlikely.

Having drawn the lesson that the whole of Beijing was united against them, many of these soldiers were moved into the city in plainclothes and without weapons. But this presented a problem – they still needed their weapons to clear the square, and so these were bussed in separately. At least three of these buses were discovered and seized by workers, who sounded the alarm of the coming catastrophe. Once again, here we see proof of the need for a revolutionary party. In the absence of one, the weapons were simply handed in by residents to the police, as if these were not also employed by the same Chinese state. A well organised revolutionary party, embedded in the protest movement, could have distributed these weapons as part of a plan to repel the army and/or force a mutiny.

As the soldiers advanced, workers resumed their heroic efforts to block their path with barricades. Skirmishes broke out, leading to the deaths of a few soldiers and many more residents. In many cases the soldiers dealt with barricades by simply opening fire on unarmed protestors.

By the evening of June 4, the soldiers had formed a ring around the square, where about 80,000 protestors were still encamped. As they closed in, more skirmishes broke out, and unarmed protestors were shot, in many cases in the back. Some students wanted to fight, but most of the leaders implored them to maintain a policy of nonviolence. By now, whatever they decided to do, the situation was hopeless.

At some point some of the leaders took it upon themselves to persuade the army to allow the students to vacate the square peacefully. At 4am the army announced over a loudspeaker that this had been agreed, and everyone must now leave. Although some students wanted to stay and accused their leaders of selling out, most realised they had no choice, and they marched out of the square, singing The Internationale as they went. Although this retreat was largely peaceful, there were a few more instances of military brutality, leading to the deaths of tens more unarmed protestors.

Overall, it is thought that around 500-1000 were massacred on the night of June 4 and morning of June 5, 1989, as the Chinese state finally crushed China’s largest and most popular mass movement since 1949.

The weakness of the student leadership

Students can play an important role – as shown in France in 1968 – in a revolutionary movement. However, given their social position, this is also limited. The only way this can be overcome is by uniting with the working class. Unfortunately, the leaders of the students in Tiananmen Square were opposed to this unity.

The ability to occupy Tiananmen Square and have thousands participate in a hunger strike revealed the strengths students possessed. Their free time and lack of family commitments made this possible, and there is no doubt that tactically speaking, occupying a famous square, right next to the seat of power, grabbed the attention of millions almost overnight.

However, the problems of student activism isolated from the working class are very clear from the behaviour of the students’ leaders. Given that China was (and is) a totalitarian regime, it is understandable that their leadership was disorganised and lacked experience. But because of the inherently loose character of students as a social layer, these problems were intractable.

Rivalries between different self-appointed leaders were not only intense, but impossible to resolve, as the students lacked any democratic structures. How do you decide which leader is best, if there is no organisation and no membership that can take a vote? The petty rivalries of the students’ leaders were routinely publicly displayed in endless vitriolic attacks from one side or other. At one point student leaders were even granted a televised dialogue with leading members of the CCP, but the meeting broke down due to public rows between students, who resorted to denunciations of one another. Reportedly, many of the journalists invited to cover the meeting, who were initially sympathetic, left very unimpressed with the students’ disorganisation, rudeness and lack of a clear programme. One prominent hunger striker, for instance, summed up the problems:

“We are under martial law. The CCP Central Committee has established Martial Law Headquarters to command several hundred thousand soldiers to go against us. Yet, the situation in the Square is very disappointing. There are over ten student organizations in the Square, all claiming the highest command and all being irresponsible. The Beijing Students’ Autonomous Union has only one leader, Wang Chaohua, in the Square; leaders of the Federation of Students from Outside Beijing are indulging in power struggles. They changed their general commander four times in a day and even wanted to take over the broadcasting centre. If this goes on, even if the martial law troops do not attack us, we will defeat ourselves… Therefore, I propose to establish a provisional headquarters to lead the Square for forty-eight hours. Meanwhile, the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Union will pull back to Beijing University to rectify itself. After forty-eight hours, the provisional headquarters will end its mission and hand power back to the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Union.” (Dingxin Zhao, op cit pp. 189-90)

There was an endless churn of different self-appointed leaders and temporary organisations. Mostly, the decisions of these organisations were never implemented and were completely ignored by the mass of students.

Towards the end of the occupation, the question of whether or not to continue the occupation became a source of massive division, but there were no legitimate means to resolve this. Time and again the students voted to continue the occupation, but this was self-fulfilling because those who were against this had already left. It is hardly a surprise that those who wanted to continue to the end, were the only ones still there towards the end, and so won the vote. Indeed, as we have already seen, 172,000 fresh students flooded into the square as late as mid-May, whilst most of the original Beijing students had left by then. This flux made forming a coherent and legitimate organisation and leadership that could change tactics and demands as the situation demanded it, impossible.

Whilst there are merits to the tactic of occupation, especially mass occupations such as Tiananmen Square, there are significant drawbacks that become crippling if the occupation becomes the sole or main method. The political goal gets pushed into the background. This is because maintaining an occupation against the constant hostility of the state is exhausting. Those involved need to ensure enough people are there at all times so that the police can’t evict them. Also, basic hygiene and sustenance become enormous questions of concern.

Dealing with these problems would be difficult at the best of times. With a leadership that was farcically split and inexperienced to begin with, it became all-absorbing. The occupation became an end in itself that the occupiers became emotionally attached to regardless of its efficacy. This meant that instead of discussing the best tactics and political programme to take the movement forwards, or deeper questions such as the objective class character of the Chinese revolution, the movement was largely absorbed in organisational matters. According to one of the leaders, Li Lu, “the debate over whether or not to end the Tiananmen Square occupation was the primary topic of every ‘Tiananmen Square Parliament Meeting’, consuming most of their time.” (Ibid, p195)

The neglect of the role of the workers

The weaknesses of the movement were ultimately a class question. It is obvious that a square cannot be occupied forever. The Chinese state is a formidable state and was never going to allow itself to be overthrown, or elected out of office, on the basis of one square’s occupation. Something far more powerful was needed.

The tragedy of 1989 is that just such an organisation was emerging, but was largely sidelined by the petit-bourgeois students. The group of workers who began meeting and issuing leaflets against the government in mid-April, had by mid-May grown to 150 core activists, boosted by large spontaneous protests of workers that had started taking place in support of the students. On 18 May, they brought a megaphone to Tiananmen Square and proclaimed: “Let the workers of the entire nation know that we workers of Beijing are now organized”.

One day earlier they published a document “that denounced in detail the special privileges, tours abroad for children, spouses and baby-sitters, and the keeping of mistresses by high-level officials, and declared that ‘we have calculated carefully, based on Marx’s Capital, the rate of exploitation of workers. We discovered that the ‘servants of the people’ swallow all the surplus value produced by the people’s blood and sweat’. Following this analysis to its logical conclusion, the document then declared, ‘There are only two classes: the rulers and the ruled... The political campaigns of the past 40 years amount to a political method for suppressing the people. History has shown them [i.e., the communists] to be fond of ‘settling accounts after the autumn harvest.’ But history’s final accounting has yet to be completed’.” (Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia, op cit)

From this point on the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation grew rapidly. To join BAWF, you simply had to show up to Tiananmen Square and prove you were a Beijing worker by presenting them your identification from your work unit. With this method, BAWF claimed to have signed up an impressive 20,000 members by the end of the movement (we should bear in mind the tenuous nature of these memberships of what was only an embryonic organisation). Nevertheless, by the end of May BAWF had acquired its own office and printing press, and had drafted a constitution with democratic rights and plans for a general assembly.

Throughout May and into the first days of June, BAWF demonstrated its burgeoning strength by sending out a picket team in a truck to rescue students who’d been beaten and arrested, which they managed to force through. Thanks to its method of signing up workers, it had the beginnings of a network of supporters in factories and workplaces throughout the city that it could hopefully call upon to help the occupation. Whereas the student movement became bedraggled through the burden of occupation and the egoism of the student leaders, as time passed BAWF became stronger, better organised and more confident.

The only way to break out of the occupation’s impasse, and to seriously challenge the state, was to build for a general strike. BAWF actually launched a slogan for a general strike, and tried to use its newly established links to workplaces to get this going. But these links had only just been established, they seriously lacked resources, and time was short. Nevertheless, this was absolutely the correct way forwards. BAWF also called for soldiers to mutiny and for workers’ control of industry.

The leadership of the students should have identified the formation of BAWF as the way forward. Its existence represented an endorsement of the boldness of the students. Its offer to organise a general strike to take the movement forwards provided an amazing opportunity.

Whilst some students gravitated to the BAWF and tried to help it, many of them astonishingly spurned it and attempted to kick it out of the square. Walder and Gong quote one of the worker activists on this question:

“‘Some people wanted to go over and talk things over with the students, but before we could say a couple words, the student picket corps came over and chased us away. At that point we didn’t want to stir up trouble, and were unwilling to set ourselves against the students’. The [BAWF] activists saw the same treatment being given to the Construction Workers’ Union, which for a period was located at the eastern reviewing stand: ‘The students were especially unwilling to meet with them. The student pickets were always driving them away... In reality, a lot of people have this attitude toward construction workers from the villages, saying they’re convict labourers’.

“A final manifestation of the student’s insistence on purity was their refusal to allow [BAWF] to locate within Tiananmen Square proper. The leaders of the workers, harassed by the management office of Tiananmen, and feeling vulnerable to police surveillance and arrests in their isolated location across Chang’an Avenue from the main part of the square, were rebuffed on at least two occasions in their efforts to relocate. It was only on 30 and 31 May, with student numbers dwindling and military action seemingly imminent, that the students felt threatened enough to allow [BAWF] into the square to help protect them.

“As the movement progressed, [BAWF] activists began to feel that the student leaders were insensitive to their demands, and moreover obstructed their efforts to win rights for workers.

“‘On the 28th, [BAWF] advocated a closing of all factories and shops. If it was impossible to go out on strike, the workers could still stage slowdowns. To strike is our right, to uphold justice and protect our own interests. Workers from a lot of work units supported our strike call. Workers said, we simply aren’t willing to work for them any more. But the students wouldn’t allow us to strike. They tried every possible way to convince us not to… The students said, this is our movement, and you have to obey us. They didn’t let us do it. The workers couldn’t take it, that’s why we had to have our own organization. By the end, after 28 May, we didn’t advocate sympathy for the students anymore.’

“Behind this perceived insensitivity, [BAWF] activists also began to feel the sting of class snobbery.

“‘The students were always rejecting us workers... They thought we were uncultured. We demanded to participate in the dialogue with the government, but the students wouldn’t let us. They considered us workers to be crude, stupid, reckless, and unable to negotiate’ (...)

“‘You know, with students, it’s nothing – they arrest you for a couple of days and let you go. But when we workers get arrested they shoot us... The government is ruthless toward us workers. And they say the workers are the ruling class. What a load of horseshit!’”

This last statement is borne out by the subsequent repression, in which the government executed many working class BAWF members but gave the students much more lenient sentences, as they tended to be from influential families.

The tragedy of Tiananmen Square is that a powerful alliance of students and workers was within reaching distance, but the petit-bourgeois short-sightedness and egoism of the students’ leaders prevented this from coming into being, dooming the movement to its bloody defeat.

On the other hand, the liberal intellectuals who helped inspire the movement did nothing to advance it. Perpetually terrified of the beast they had helped conjure, they signed an open letter urging the students to call off the occupation and go home, despite having won absolutely no concessions at that point. Unlike the workers, they offered no alternative strategy such as a general strike, instead wishing everyone would just calm down and go home.

Their cravenness was rooted in their class position. They had gained a lot from the relative liberalisations, both political and economic, of the 1980s. And they were broadly satisfied with the direction of travel. After the movement’s defeat, they did not conclude that it needed to be more militant and pro-worker to win. Instead, they lamented that it had even happened. This alone proves that the status quo was acceptable to them.

“In the 1980s there were various strata of intellectuals: at the upper levels, they played a very important role in the reform process, as they directly participated not only in devising a reform ideology, but also in designing state reform plans at every level. They thus overlapped closely with intrastate political and other interested groups. Through this long-term working relationship, these intellectuals had come to believe that, if only the reform factions within the state could gain power, all problems would be solved. For this reason, they staked their reputations upon the hope that intrastate conflicts would be resolved in favour of ‘reform’, while they worried that the increasing radicalism of the student movement would destroy the precarious power balances underpinning the state reform process, thus ushering in the return of conservative forces onto the political stage… the critique of radicalism quickly developed into a broad reconsideration of the whole problem of revolution and reform in modern Chinese history, in which radicalism was linked to socialism, with political and cultural revolution as its major characteristics.” (Wang Hui, op cit, p45)

The conclusion that the liberals drew was the same as the ruling classes of the West – that capitalism automatically brings with it liberal democracy and personal freedom. Therefore, there was no need to resort to dangerous and frightening protests, they just needed to participate in the development of the ‘free market’ in China, and at some point democracy would flourish. They’re still waiting.


The shock of the 1989 protests and the bouts of inflation immediately prior to it, and the brutal manner in which the movement was repressed, led to a strengthening of the state apparatus. ‘Conservatives’ in the Chinese bureaucracy, that is those opposed to opening up to capitalism, blamed all the economic problems on the introduction of capitalist policies, and they were able to use the shock of 1989 to push their agenda. This explains the temporary halt in the movement towards a greater market-oriented economic policy.

However, these conservatives cannot be said to have been “Maoists” of the Cultural Revolution era. They weren’t necessarily against opening up to capitalism in itself. They only objected to the more liberal, laissez faire methods of allowing local industries to build up by themselves through easy credit. They wanted to use the state’s resources to build up heavy industry and infrastructure instead. Their ascendency was short lived however, because the financial austerity they imposed not only snuffed out inflation but economic growth as a whole – the opposite of their intention.

tianan04 Image public domainThe brutality with which the movement was repressed and the inflation beforehand led the state apparatus to be strengthened / Image: public domain

As a result, a compromise was born that is summed up in Deng’s famous 1992 ‘Southern Tour’ and the policies of the 1990s. Key levers of the economy, such as heavy industry and infrastructure, would be the focus of reform, rather than the small Township and Village Enterprises. These commanding heights were to remain in the hands of the state, which allowed the latter to corral them into making big investments in strategic areas. This was intended to bring the maximum possible growth to the economy. However, the typical State Owned Enterprise (SOE) was “‘liberated’ to pursue a growth agenda that was its own, but that corresponded to what top leaders wanted as well. State-sector reorganisation, completed by 1998, organised the remaining centrally-run firms into powerful oligopolies. Although no central firms enjoyed uncontested monopolies, competition was restricted to two or three firms in an industry. These firms became very profitable. Moreover, the central government in 1994 ceased requiring government firms to turn over their after-tax profits to the state (in apparent contradiction to the desire to enhance government control over revenues). These firms, increasingly flush with cash, competed with their rivals to expand, and funded their own investments. For example, telecom investment had never been more than 0.2 percent of GDP through 1988, but in the late 1990s the telecom companies, relying on their own internal funds and bank loans, pushed investment up to 2 percent of GDP.” (Barry Naughton, op cit.)

In other words, ‘state capitalism’ was to be the compromise. The state used its assets to direct and speed up economic growth in a very general way (mainly through state-controlled bank loans and protecting the SOEs from foreign competition), but loosened its control of individual SOEs by allowing them to compete and retain their profits. They abandoned real planning so that the whip of capitalist competition would further energise growth. This is essentially the same model China has today.

It is very telling that despite the shock of the 1989 protests, which were clearly produced by the introduction of capitalist measures and the political liberalisation of the 1980s, no real push to revert to Stalinism and planning took place. At the first sign of trouble, the ‘conservative’s’ regime of financial austerity collapsed, and Deng launched his successful push for further capitalist reforms in the port cities of South and Eastern China.

After a couple of years, once the dust from Tiananmen Square had settled and the CCP was sure of its control, it went much further than it had done in the 1980s in terms of capitalism. Strategic SOEs were allowed to make and keep their profits, and non-strategic SOEs were privatised, leading to roughly 30 million workers being laid off. If the mantra of the 1980s was ‘reform without losers’, the defeat of the Tiananmen Square protests gave the CCP the confidence to make ‘reforms with tens of millions of losers’. Deng Xiaoping was around this time believed to have said, “To get rich is glorious”. There is no evidence he actually said it, but this is perhaps even more significant – the quotation took hold because it was so plausible.

The mood of the 1990s was overwhelmingly that the market is the best and only judge of economic performance. It is summed up in this 1997 article from the Workers Daily, the official newspaper of the state-controlled trade union, “the enterprise is the source of workers employment, but the enterprise itself also must rise or fall by the market… so workers should stay or go, be hired or be laid off according to that… the core is that the workers fit the market, not that the market fits the workers.” By the end of the 1990s only 33 percent of urban workers were in the state sector (which itself now operated according to profitability), down from 78 percent in 1978. 60 percent of GDP is now private (if we don’t count the profit-making SOEs as private).

Whilst the defeat of the Tiananmen Square movement strengthened the transition to a capitalist economy, it also cemented the bonapartist domination of the state apparatus. This fact is utterly perplexing to liberals today. We have seen how in the movement, the liberal intellectuals played no serious role, and only the working class offered a way forward. This reflects the fact that in the imperialist epoch, in which the world economy is dominated by very well established and highly developed capitalist powers, there is neither the room nor the time for an independent and new capitalist class to build itself up from below and struggle for power. China’s capitalists are, as we have seen, a product of a state policy that in turn is a product of, and inspired by, western capitalist dominance.

Jaisic students Image fair useToday, Chinese students are forming Marxist Societies and risking their lives to help workers organise. Once the workers and students begin to move again, no force on earth will stop them / Image: fair use

Having tepidly struggled for power (and lost decisively), China’s liberals never managed to become a voice of the nascent capitalist class in China. Conceived by the bureaucracy, China’s capitalists have never really had any independence from it. To a certain extent they are simply part of it, having acquired their companies and contracts through corruption, either being former bureaucrats themselves, remaining bureaucrats at the same time while promoting family members to become direct owners, or marrying into the bureaucracy. According to Christopher McNally and Teresa Wright in China Left Review, “China’s capitalists appear to have little interest in pushing for systemic political reforms, but instead seem to seek to embed themselves in the party-state, thereby perpetuating Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule… across the board, scholars have found that one feature stands out: a general unwillingness to ‘rock the boat’ politically and press for systemic political change. Indeed, most private capital holders display a notable interest in working with the party-state’s agents and institutions”.

This nascent capitalist class was powerless to resist the purging of its liberal ‘representatives’ that took place after Tiananmen. Those considered ‘liberals’ in the CCP were removed from their positions. The relative separation of the CCP from positions of economic management seen in the 1980s was reversed. The CCP “hierarchy was now deeply intertwined with the management of firms. The Communist Party is now more deeply involved in business management than ever… The Party secretary of a large firm is frequently appointed to be the chair of the board of directors of that firm.” (Barry Naughton, op cit.)

This remains the case today, to the puzzlement and exasperation of western liberals who arrogantly and naively assumed that the development of capitalism in China would bring liberal democracy and a separation of the state from business. The Chinese bourgeoisie still does not dominate the state, as we can see with the absence of the so-called ‘rule of law’ and of guarantees to private property. Chinese capitalists that become too independent of the state are still liable to be arrested for ‘corruption’ and have their property seized. To this day western liberals cannot comprehend how China can be capitalist and yet the Chinese Communist Party retain such deep control over business.

The answer to this puzzle can be found by understanding what the experience of 1989 revealed – that the Chinese bourgeoisie was and remains weak and dependent on the state, and has no interest in a revolutionary overthrow of the CCP. A new Chinese revolution can only be carried through successfully by the working class. This working class is now far bigger than in 1989. In the decades since then it has learned how to win strikes and it understands that its own blood and sweat are the basis for China’s modern power as the ‘workshop of the world’. Today, Chinese students are forming Marxist Societies and, far from shunning the workers, they are risking their lives to help workers to organise. The next time millions march through the streets of Beijing and erect barricades, the workers will stand confidently at the forefront, and no force on earth will be able to stop them.

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