Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael Lee

Students rally in China marking an era of change

First Published: Unity, Vol. 12, No. 8, May 31, 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The ongoing, massive and peaceful demonstrations by Chinese students over the last six weeks show the depth of the social ferment and debate going on in China over the pace and direction of its economic and political changes. Ten years ago, China began experimenting with major economic reforms to modernize and expand its economy. The ensuing decentralization, increase in local initiative, and expansion have on the whole been a success. However, the rapid changes China underwent in these years have also brought some unforeseen negative results – including uncontrolled economic growth and inflation, as well as crass materialism and official corruption. The present demonstrations reflect in large part the complex attitudes of different sectors toward these developments, and different opinions as to the future direction of Chinese politics and society.

U.S. news media have tried to make it seem that political reform and democracy are in contradiction to socialism. But looking at the current struggle in the context of the last 40 years, it is a positive sign for Chinese socialism that so many people are motivated to take part in the debate over the future of their country, and to have their voices heard with so much impact.

The demonstrations began after former Communist Party Chariman Hu Yaobang’s death on April 15. Many students mourned his passing, as they believed Hu had been a champion of political reform. By April 21, the protests grew to 150,000 students from 31 universities in Beijing. They rallied in Tiananmen Square, in the heart of the capital, to demand an end to government corruption, greater democracy and openness.

Government leaders allowed the daily protests to continue, though they did not meet with the students. By May 13, 2-3,000 students began a hunger strike. When the government still refused to meet with them, many students from outside Beijing and more workers joined in. On May 17-18, during Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit to China, a million people demonstrated in Beijing.

The demonstrations began to wind down at the end of May. Both the students’ and the Chinese government’s response remained peaceful.

Many problems have been aired, and the process to resolve them is just beginning. But so far, some observations can be made about the protests:

The protests drew from some different concerns. Students and intellectuals are unhappy with their low pay and the difficulties in developing their careers. Workers criticize high inflation. People from many walks of life want a cleanup of corruption and abuse of position by some top leaders and their families.

The sentiments of the students have been varied, and most see their efforts aimed at reforming and improving socialism, not in overthrowing it. For instance, during his visit to China, Gorbachev was warmly received by the students. Gorbachev, in turn, expressed that the Chinese demonstrations were a “painful” but “necessary” part of reforming socialism, and that political change would show socialism’s “ability for progressive development and self-improvement.” Students regularly sang the communist “Internationale,” called for support for positive Communist Party leadership, and urged a revival of the ideals of serving the people which inspired the Chinese revolution. However, many of the young people also held naive notions about “democracy” in Western capitalist countries, and knew little about the gross inequalities, racism and political restrictions in the U.S. Some illusions have spread over the last decade as China opened to the West. For instance, as many more Chinese students have traveled to the U.S. for higher education, some students mistake the conditions in these universities for life in America as a whole.

Within the Chinese government, there seem to be different views toward the students’ demands for recognition of a new student association, dialogue with the government, and measures to curb government corruption, as well as what political reforms to implement and at what pace.

Politically, the Chinese government is also faced with the challenge of maintaining order and stability in a country of over a billion people. There has been considerable opening up of academic and press freedom, and some limited electoral procedures have been put in place on a local level. But many students and intellectuals want greater and quicker reforms. The political challenge remains how to further develop socialist democracy and to carry out the necessary reforms.

What will happen in China now? The immediate outcome is not clear. To the extent that the government refuses dialogue with the students, or rules them “anti-government” or “counter-revolutionary,” the situation will become more polarized.

Many students now say they are looking forward to the upcoming National People’s Congress and the next Communist Party Central Committee meeting, where the debate will continue. The Chinese people face new challenges and complex issues raised in the spring demonstrations.