Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael Lee

Students and socialism in China

First Published: Unity, Vol. 10, No. 1, January 19, 1987.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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In late December, college student demonstrations occurred in several Chinese cities. The largest was in Shanghai where 50,000 marched. Students raised a variety of demands including for improved campus food and living conditions, reform of college curriculums, and more “democracy and freedom.”

The U.S. press avidly followed these events. By prominently displaying students carrying replicas of the Statue of Liberty and other such symbols of Western liberalism, the U.S. press portrayed the protests as for U.S.-style democracy. Unable to explain the Chinese government’s overall tolerance of the demonstrations (upholding their legality, not prosecuting any of the students, and police restraint during the protests) and the expressed determination of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to increase educational work to combat “Western bourgeois influence,” the U.S. press has vacillated in its attitude toward the demonstrations. The media has jumped from praising the demonstrations for their supposed sympathy for U.S. democracy to speculative fear that continued demonstrations could “force” the Chinese government to clamp down on the protesters and nip this pro-US. movement in the bud.

The U.S. press coverage has provoked questions in the minds of many progressive people. What is the significance of these demonstrations? Are they positive expressions of the Chinese peoples’ striving for democracy? Are government efforts to “increase mass political education” merely euphemisms for a crackdown on strivings for democracy? Is the Chinese government’s restrained response to the demonstrations an indication of its desire to link its economic experimentation (which some of our leftist friends suspect to be the restoration of capitalism) with the full-scale adoption of Western bourgeois democracy?

In this brief commentary I will try to answer some of these questions.

Significance of the demonstrations

The demonstrations show that the long and historic Chinese tradition of student activism is alive and well. In the midst of massive changes in Chinese society, changes which are taking place more rapidly and profoundly than perhaps in any other country in the world today, problems and protests are inevitable. That Chinese students are displaying admirable political activism again is a positive thing.

These demonstrations, from all indications, reflected a wide range of opinions and concerns. Despite some problems (more on this later), the main thrust of these demonstrations was for improvements in the socialist system and in support of the ongoing reforms in China.

The marches reveal that students have a renewed interest in politics. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the aftermath of the turbulent Cultural Revolution, a number of China’s youths became disillusioned with socialism. The setbacks of the Cultural Revolution and the radical change of policies inspired by Deng Xiaoping were disorienting. Not a few Chinese retreated into their studies, narrow personal concerns, or even infatuation with Western capitalist culture.

The recent protests show, though, that many Chinese students are passionately concerned about improving their own and society’s welfare. The demonstrations were exhibitions of a social concern that will lead to greater involvement in the effort to advance the country.

While the Western press devoted its attention to the anti-socialist aspects of the demonstrations, it quietly overlooked the fact that student applications to the Communist Party have risen dramatically over the past year. A recent survey of campuses in south China showed that 50% of students in their last two years of college seek party membership. If anything, the commitment to socialism among most students in China these days has grown stronger, not weaker, over the past several years.

Socialist democracy

But the present rapid changes in China have also produced some confusion – in this case, the difference between bourgeois and socialist democracy. Encouraged by agencies of the U.S. government, like the Voice of America, which openly encouraged the recent demonstrations, some Chinese students think that what China needs is U.S.-style democracy rather than the strengthening of socialist democracy.

These students do not understand the distinction between socialist and capitalist (bourgeois liberal) conceptions of democracy. Both socialist and capitalist democracy share certain similarities in upholding the basic democratic rights of freedom of speech, assembly, right to political representation, eta, but the differences are major. The main capitalist “democratic right” is the right to exploit others. Under the cover of flowery language about the rights of the individual and the “equality” of all is the denial of the right of the majority of people – the working people – to a job, decent standard of living, and political power and representation. And in so doing, the basic rights of most individuals are also gravely restricted.

Socialist democracy is democracy for the broad masses of people and includes socialist democratic rights such as the right to employment, security, health care, housing and a decent standard of living. The basic freedom under socialism is freedom from the system of exploitation.

In the U.S., the striking meatpacking workers at Hormel have no right to a job, no right to a decent standard of living and no political power to enforce their rights. In the U.S., a Black youth like Michael Griffith can be murdered in cold blood in the streets of New York, with his killers walking free within 48 hours.

Under both capitalism and socialism, democracy is limited and not absolute. But in one case, democracy is restricted to serving a system of international profit-making, exploitation and national oppression, and in the other to a system of public ownership, social welfare and the dignity of the individual to life and security.

Clearly, a minority of the Chinese protesters did not understand such distinctions. Those who carried pictures of the Statue of Liberty do not know about or appreciate the deprivation of basic democratic rights of workers and minority nationalities in the U.S., let alone the wild flaunting of the law by the entire top levels of the Reagan administration as seen in the Iran-Contragate scandal.

But those students are a minority and it would be wrong to focus on them. As socialist democracy expands in China, it is inevitable and even positive that different points of view are heard and aired. Even the U.S. government knows that China will not adopt a capitalist political system. Washington, nonetheless, still hopes that a pro-U.S. government movement in China might increase the U.S. influence there.

Chinese government response

The Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party stated forcefully and carried out in action their belief that public protest and demonstrations have a place in a socialist society and that different views have a right to be aired. But the CPC has also recognized the need to correct weaknesses in its educational work about its policies and Marxism.

Over the last several years, as the country rushed to open to the West in trade and other exchanges, and developed its more market-oriented economy, the CPC did not always keep pace in its ideological work. The CPC will have to improve its efforts to help the Chinese people understand the distinctions between socialism and capitalism and the reasons why China needs the socialist system. The CPC acknowledges that weaknesses in its own work, in part, were responsible for the protests, and that certain individuals within its own ranks obscured the distinction between bourgeois and socialist democracy.

To rely on persuasion and education to win over the protesting students is an indication of the maturity of Chinese socialism. This is apparently being combined with efforts to strengthen the Marxist-Leninist outlook and discipline of the CPC.


Generally speaking, the most positive outcome of the demonstrations is that a new generation of students will learn about politics and the complicated problem of constructing socialism in China. In the months ahead, there will be lively discussions about the demonstrations and the government’s policies, which will all be to the good. Most students will likely come away with an improved understanding and appreciation of the socialist effort.

Socialism is not in trouble in China, despite what the Western press tries to suggest. In fact, China should emerge from this recent round of student demonstrations strengthened. How can a socialist society be hurt by greater political activism of well-intentioned youths? But it is also clear that the construction of socialism is a difficult undertaking. Advancing socialism requires constructively solving the difficult problems such as those the student demonstrations have brought to light. That combined with ideological work should help in strengthening the Chinese effort to build a socialist society with strong democratic practices.