What Tiananmen 1989 Was Really About

This 1989 article was in some ways seriously mistaken.  Deng’s government was doing a far better job than I realised.  And the West in the 1990s cheated both Russia and Ukraine, when they emerged as separate states.  Russia under Putin learned better, and partnered with Byelorussia, which had wisely kept much of the old system.  Ukraine went on listening to Western advice, and is much poorer than Russia and torn by divisive politics.

Still, I saw quite a lot.  Including the likelihood of the Chinese Party-State remaining stable for many years to come after crushing the Tiananmen Protests.

For how I later saw it, see Communist China’s 1989 Fight for Survival and Communist China’s survival after the Tiananmen Crackdown.

For Mao and Liberty?

by Gwydion M. Williams

The Western media insist on seeing politics in Leninist and ex-Leninist states as a struggle between nice moderates and nasty hard-liners. This view of the matter requires some sudden shifts – Deng Xiaoping changed overnight from “nice” to “nasty” when the present round of demonstrations began. But it is the best model they have. They see the juxtaposition of a portrait of Mao and a copy of the American Statue of Liberty as absurd. But the student protestors did not see it so.

The current repression is being compared to the Cultural Revolution. This ignores one very basic fact – the Cultural Revolution was a popular mass movement. When Mao carried through purges and waves of repression, he had the unquestioning support of the majority of the population.

What is happening now is repression by a state apparatus that has no popular support at all.

The student protestor’s attitude to Mao is an awkward point for the standard western model of events. A few of the protestors are anti-Mao; most notably those who threw paint on his portrait in Tiananmen Square on May 23. But most of them were outraged by this action, and a large number of them carried pictures of Mao. These never seemed to be visible in filmed reports from China. But plenty of Western correspondents mentioned them, and for a couple of days the Evening Standard and The Independent included them in a few of their photos. But they don’t fit the standard model of events. And journalists nowadays have a depressing habit of leaving out anything that does not fit their preconceptions.

When the demonstrators were allowed to speak for themselves, one sometimes got a different and more complex view of the matter. For instance, during an interview with two student protestors in Shanghai, one said “I have a very strong resentment against Mao for what he did in the Cultural Revolution,” but the other said “Personally I feel Mao was a very successful politician and poet. The breadth of his imagination was remarkable” (The Independent, June 12). I suspect that a high proportion of the other protestors would have insisted on giving the ‘wrong’ answer when questioned about Mao, and that such opinions were mostly filtered out.

Economic reform

Under Deng, China dumped the notion of a centrally planned economy independent of the world market. This system had visibly failed – neighbouring states that had started out at much the same level had done much better by allowing themselves to be exploited by foreign capital.

Agriculture did very well out of the relaxation of central control. Crops and farm animals need individual attention, if they are to do well. Successful farming needs an intimate knowledge of the local conditions. Techniques that do very well in one place may fail completely if applied only a few miles away. Reform succeeded – and the countryside seems to have stayed quiet while the cities had their mass protests. A report in The Independent (June 21) confirms this.

Industry is another matter. Some success has been achieved by letting Hong Kong industries use China as a source of cheap labour. But in general, industries and the cities had not been doing well over the past few years. Inflation – more or less absent under Mao – had returned. Workers who had no right to strike found the value of their wages shrinking. And corruption was spreading on a massive scale. The student protestors knew that things had gone badly wrong.

“Economic reforms, they said, had benefited only a few entrepreneurs, corruption was entrenched and people such as teachers, intellectuals and civil servants… had suffered. Communist Party control meant that independent management remained a sham. ‘There’s been no structural change in the economy …” (The Independent, June 12).

The Chinese had sold their birthright, and not received the promised mess of pottage.

Foresight and hindsight

I was saddened but not especially surprised when the remarkable student demonstrations in China ended in tragedy and repression. I was not in the least surprised that they should have had such a drastic effect. At first they seemed nothing new; they became a major news story just after L&TUR No.11 went to the printers. But lest I should seem to be trying to be wise after the event, let me quote what I said just over two years ago. This was after the fall from power of Hu Yaobang, whose death was the pretext for the latest round of protests:

“Twenty years ago, China tried to break the mould of world politics, and failed. Mao made a serious attempt to build a society without the profit motive and without major inequalities… The result was chaos. Red guards fought each other in a mad factionalism that defies any simple explanation… After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping rose to supreme power, and duly took the “capitalist road” that Mao had always been warning against.

“One constant in all this struggle was the power of the Communist Party. Mao attacked the actually-existing party in the name of an idealised party. His opponents defended what actually existed. All factions agreed that those who had “correct ideas” had a perfect right to suppress those whose ideas were wrong. They just disputed which set of ideas were correct.

“A few months back, some Chinese students tried to change the terms of the debate. They called for greater freedom of opinion – even, in a few cases, for a multi-party system. Since the official line on “correct ideas” had changed so many times, it might seem logical to allow open debate and free discussion. Logical – but not expedient …

“Power is in the hands of the Communist Party, and likely to remain there. At any given stage, those in charge reckon their own ideas to be “correct”, and see no need to give freedom to their opponents. This is the sad legacy of Leninism and one-party rule. Ideas of equality have been toned down… But the power of the Party apparatus remains … How such a system will evolve – if indeed it can evolve – remains to be seen” (L&TUR No. 2, April-June 1987).

Incorrect ideas

Western commentators assumed that the main point of the demonstrations was to oust Li Peng and replace him with the “moderate” Zhao Ziyang. This was not the point at all – although a victory for Zhao over Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping would have been a good beginning. The main point was to snap Chinese society out of old political patterns that had survived the downfall of Imperial China. The Independent (June 10) published a translation of the declaration by four hunger strikers on June 2, shortly before the troops went in. And this puts the matter much more clearly than any of The Independent’s own reporters have managed to do.

“Li Peng… should resign according to democratic procedures. But Li Peng is not our enemy. Even if he steps down he should still enjoy the rights of every citizen, even the right to maintain his mistaken ideas …

“For thousands of years Chinese society has continued in the vicious circle of doing away with the old emperor and then crowning a new emperor. History proves that the exit of one leader who is no longer popular and the entry of another cannot solve the substantial questions of Chinese politics. What we need is not a perfect saviour but a perfect democratic system. So we appeal first, that society should use methods to establish legitimate, autonomous and unofficial organisations gradually to form a non-official political force as a check to government decision-making: that is the essence of democracy.

“Rather ten devils to check each other than one mandarin with absolute power.”

Red Mandarins

Under Deng Xiaoping, the party apparatus seems ready to sit on the rest of society for an indefinite future. The mandarins of ancient China had maintained a sophisticated but basically static society over more than two thousand years, before European imperialism disrupted it. Large parts of the Communist Party seemed ready to set themselves up as a new mandarinate, once they had come to power in 1949. And it was against such people – most notably Deng’s former boss Liu Shao Chi – that Mao launched the Cultural Revolution.

The fact that Mao’s solution proved unworkable did not remove the problem. The failure of the Cultural Revolution to create a new society enabled the “red mandarins” to stage a partial come-back during Mao’s last years. It enabled them to have everything their own way after Mao’s death. But it did not enable them to create a stable society with themselves permanently on top.

The old-style mandarins had a more-or-less unquestioned position of cultural superiority. They were corrupt and nepotistic, but also civilized, moderate and competent. No one had any clear idea about how society might be run without them. Such opposition as existed tended to be anarchic and irresponsible, before the West disrupted things.

Protesters against the modem mandarins of the Chinese “Communist” Party have much more solid grounds for rejecting them. The party’s dictatorship was originally supposed to exist to promote the building of socialism. If China is now to be part of the world market, what moral authority can they possess?

Two years ago, I foresaw that this situation was unstable. Something had to happen. I did not foresee what; nor am I sure even now. I know what I’d like to see happen – more democracy, less inequality – but that is another matter. China has reached a dangerous political situation; those with political power have no moral authority with the rest of the society. I would like to say that it cannot last – but Czechoslovakia is still ruled by the people that Brezhnev imposed in 1968, even though the USSR no longer supports them.

[They lasted till the end of 1989.  But few expected them to fall so quickly.]

The logic of the crack-down

If one understands that the “hardliners” are trying to preserve the political pattern that has dominated Chinese society for the last two thousand years, the severity of their actions becomes easier to understand. The basic patterns were set during the Han dynasty, which existed in the same era as the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire declined and fell. The Chinese Empire declined and then recovered.

The first attempts to suppress the student protests were subtle. For the first week after martial law was declared, everyone was fooled into thinking that Zhao Ziyang would be taking over shortly and be granting the students’ demands. In fact, it seems that he had already been defeated within the party hierarchy. The hardliners pretended to be losing while they were in fact consolidating their position. Despite having no apparent support among the mass of the population, they won the power struggle and demoralised their opponents.

I must confess that I was fooled myself: I did think for several days that something unprecedented in Chinese history was about to happen. There really hasn’t ever been a case of the Chinese people choosing or replacing their rulers. The May 4 movement of 1919 changed government policies. But it needed the armies of first the Kuomintang in 1926, and then the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, to put some of its ideals into practice.

[Actually the Northern Expedition lasted from 1926 to 1928, with Chiang losing his nerve and refusing to fight Global Imperialism in 1927 when he was given control of Shanghai.]

The closest precedent was the Cultural Revolution. But this was basically a case of Mao as supreme leader using mass protests to bring to heel disobedient deputies like Liu Shao Chi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao was the official boss; he used his position to oust opponents who had more power than him in the ruling party circles. But the fact that the mass of the population had acted independently against the senior officials was a fact that was not forgotten.

No one in the West has a good word to say nowadays about the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, everyone approves of the democracy movement. But would the one have been possible without the other?

Once the bulk of the population has decided that it will do something, only massive state terror can stop it happening. Deng and Co must have realised that a long-drawn-out battle against the protestors would mean that more and more people would start thinking and acting for themselves, regardless of what the “red mandarins” might tell them. Subtlety failed. The clear defeat of the “moderate” faction reduced the numbers of student protestors, but also made the protest more dangerous.

By the time the crackdown occurred, the protest had gone far beyond the Peking students who had begun it. (I could believe that Zhao Ziyang was plotting – but only for some restrained public protests to help him ease out his rivals.)  Workers had begun to establish independent trade unions on the Polish model. And by putting up a copy of the Statue of Liberty – originally a gift from the French republic to commemorate the American Revolution – the students showed that they were quite willing to look to foreign models of democracy. They had hoped that the party leadership would side with them; when it was clear this would not happen, they decided to press on regardless.

“Serve the people” or “shoot the people”?

Up until June 4, China was a populist state with populist ideology. Everything was done in the name of the people, and very often by the people themselves. There had been crack-downs in places like Tibet – but one thousand million Han Chinese are quite convinced that Tibet belongs to China, whatever the Tibetans themselves may think. People still felt that it was their government and their army. The Cultural Revolution was seen as an error that most people had been involved in. Huge numbers may have died – but this was something that people had done to each other.

Sending in the army to shoot down crowds of demonstrators involved junking the regime’s populist credentials. Things can never be the same again. The government of the “Peoples’ Republic of China” now has very little credibility indeed. It does not rule by the will of the people. It is not seriously trying to carry out the revolution’s original ideals. The corrupt clique in power still use bits of Leninist language. But they seem to have no purpose beyond staying in power, with all the privileges that go along with it.

The leadership and the army were certainly divided. But talk of civil war proved to be foolish. The division was between those who had a clear idea of what they were doing, and those who did not. There is no evidence that any section of the leadership was willing to give up power and accept a functioning democracy. But many of them must have shrunk from doing what was necessary to preserve party power.

Now that the repression has been carried through, the party and state have re-united behind those who took responsibility for it. A few of those most clearly associated with the repression may be dropped over the next few months. But no faction can hope to win back the trust and respect that the party and state and army once had.

The result could get something very like continental Europe during the 19th century – an autocratic government, a politically inert peasantry and cities that revolt from time to time, only to be brutally crushed.

There is plenty of money to be made out of cheap Chinese labour and raw materials. The switch from a populist dictatorship to an unpopular and repressive dictatorship is not going to put off the businessmen. People will discover that the “moderates” are recovering, and conclude that to carry on trading is the best thing they can do. This is bound to happen, because the party has already damaged the Leninist system beyond any hope of repair. A regime with no popular support can only rely on the profit motive.

The best hope would be the development of independent trade unions. But there is no knowing how long this might take. The limited trade union tradition in China was absorbed by the party; new trade unions would be starting from scratch.

I wish I could say that the present regime can’t last long. But I’ve a nasty feeling that it could. Especially since the western powers look likely to resume trade and economic aid as soon as public opinion will allow.

On the other hand, while the “Red Mandarinate” may take some time to fall, it has no hope of survival in the long run. If it had been able to stay in power without shooting its own people, it might have held on until the current world trend towards rule by the people for the people ran out of steam. But that possibility is now gone for ever. People will think and talk, and next time they will know what to expect. Static societies may be run by small cliques of rulers – but China has been opened up to the world market, and the Maoist pattern of isolationism cannot be restored in a country where the people do not trust the rulers.

Mao may not have realised his vision of a new society. But we may hope that his political legacy will in the long run finish off the repressive social patterns he first rebelled against as a young man, and still rebelled against as an old man who was head of state.

[As I said above, the Party was actually much truer to Mao’s vision than I realised.  Genuine advances were happening and capitalists were kept under control.  China remains the world’s most successful large economy.]

This article appeared in July 1989, in Issue 12 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more, see https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.

You can find a scan of the original article on my website, beginning page 9.