Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Michael Lee

Commentary: A great tragedy for the Chinese people and socialism

First Published: Unity, Vol. 12, No. 9, June 20, 1989.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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On June 4, troops of the 27th Army of China entered Beijing on orders of the Chinese government to clear Tiananmen Square of demonstrators. In the course of this action, at least hundreds of innocent students and other civilians, as well as People’s Liberation Army soldiers, were killed. This is a great tragedy for China, and has provoked widespread revulsion throughout China and among overseas Chinese.

In the two weeks following the massacre, over a thousand students, workers and unemployed have been arrested on government charges of “counterrevolutionary activities, murder, arson and sabotage.” As of this writing, 11 young workers and unemployed in Beijing and Shanghai have been tried and sentenced to death. On June 21, three were executed in Shanghai.

The exact facts of what happened at Tiananmen Square on June 4 are not clear. Western media have published horrifying stories of the massacre, including reports of over tens of thousands killed, and accounts of the army sealing off Tiananmen Square and systematically murdering students who had already surrendered to them.

These accounts are denied by the Chinese government, which says it was putting down a counterrevolutionary rebellion and that very limited civilian casualties were suffered. Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times also disputes the tales of systematic murder in Tiananman Square, and he places the death toll at around 4-800.

BUT WHILE IT IS Apparent that right-wing forces in Taiwan and the West have deliberately spread wild stories of cold-blooded mass murder to fan up anti-communist hysteria, there is near unanimity that at least hundreds of people were illed on the avenues leading to Tiananmen Square, including unarmed civilians.

And while it is not clear exactly who are being arrested, tried and executed, the current repression reaches beyond those accused of specific acts of arson, sabotage and killing, and includes student leaders (and workers) who have raised legitimate concerns and criticisms about the government and party. This will have the effect of suppressing student participation in politics and society, intimidating the masses and further widening the gulf between the government and party leadership and the people.

The questions therefore remain: why did a socialist government resort to armed force and violence against students and other civilians? If it was a “counterrevolutionary rebellion,” why couldn’t the government and the party rally the masses to defend the government from being overthrown? And if, as the government had earlier stated, the student movement was patriotic and raised legitimate criticisms, why couldn’t the government come to an accommodation with them? And lastly, what is the impact of the Tiananmen tragedy for socialism in China?

Background events

While many details are not known, the events leading up to the June 4 killings suggest the following:

Student protests begin in mid-April, mainly calling for an official reevaluation of the late party leader Hu Yaobang, an increase in the education budget, and government recognition of and dialogue with the students.

The government’s response is I mixed: an April 28 People’s Daily editorial castigates the students as part of a “planned conspiracy”; yet government leaders meet with students and acknowledge their patriotism and the legitimacy of their concerns. Only mild efforts are made to clear a protest which in most other countries would not have been tolerated. That the protests continued suggests that the top leaders were not united on what to do; it also shows the strength of the protests.

In mid-May, a hunger strike by 2,000 students begins, expanding demands calling for democratic reforms, sparking broader support from workers, intellectuals, party members and other Beijing residents. The demonstrations grow; several hundred thousand occupy the square, and at one point over one million people march. Central Beijing begins to become immobilized.

The continuing demonstrations seriously embarrass the government during Mikhail Gorbachev’s state visit. Several top party leaders, including Zhao Ziyang, express sympathy with the students, but urge them to leave the square and to realize that reforms cannot be made overnight; the students refuse to leave unless the government recognizes their legitimacy. On May 19, martial law is declared. Troops entering the city are turned back by students and sympathetic residents.

Sensing a confrontation, some student leaders call for an end to the protest. Thousands of students leave the square and return to their campuses. By May 28, the number of students remaining in Tiananmen drops to about 5,000, and it seems the protest would simply peter out. However, the remaining students raise increasingly extreme demands, including calls for the overthrow of the government. They also seem to make dramatic appeals for Western support, including the erection of the “goddess of democracy,” modeled after the Statue of Liberty.

On June 3, several thousand unarmed troops attempt to clear the square, but are met with a violent response, and a number of soldiers are injured and possibly killed by rocks and other assaults. This incident appears to have inflamed the soldiers and further hardened the government’s position.

On June 4, 20,000 heavily armed troops with tanks enter the city to clear the square, apparently with orders to use whatever force necessary. They are met with an unexpectedly large number of people who try to stop their advance, and troops open fire on the crowds. China has no riot-control trained police, and the use of combat-troops resulted in especially tragic consequences. Hundreds of people were killed.

Economic & political reform

The events which unfolded in Beijing from April to early June reflect complex problems in Chinese society which the army attack has only worsened, and which still must be confronted by the Chinese leadership and the people in order to move socialism in China forward.

While some students may have been anti-socialist, and thugs, criminals and foreign agents may have become involved, the vast majority of the students are patriotic, and wanted socialist democracy and what is best for their country. Because of this, the student movement won broad mass support, for it tapped the frustrations and criticisms widespread among the people, which stem from some of the problems arising from the economic reforms of the recent period. While the economic reforms raised the standard of living, they also brought with them serious problems of inflation, growing inequities in income, and official corruption.

The intention of the economic reforms was to help China become a modern, prosperous socialist society. This has been the aim of the Chinese people since the 1949 revolution, but it has not been an easy goal to achieve. Old China was an economically backward semi-feudal society, oppressed by foreign powers, and beset with monumental economic problems, punctuated by mass famines every few years during which millions of Chinese people died. Socialism overcame many of the old abuses, eliminated poverty and famine, and brought many advances to the Chinese people. But there have been twists and turns in trying to solve China’s economic problems and modernize and industrialize China.

The problems brought about by the recent rapid economic changes were compounded by the inability of the Chinese Communist Party to deal correctly and adequately with I these problems. There is a serious alienation between the top government and party leaders and the people, including many of the middle level and younger people within the party. The top leaders did not understand the depth of anger with the corruption and other problems, and they were out of touch with the desire of many people in Chinese society for more openness, leadership accountability, and mass democratic participation in all spheres of society. These democratic sentiments are not in contradiction to socialism, but should be a part of socialism.

The top elderly leadership of the government and party were so out of touch with and afraid of the people that they resorted to force of arms – something unprecedented in the history of new China. Even if there were counterrevolutionaries out to take advantage of the people’s dissatisfaction and to fan it up for their own ends, the leadership’s current course of repression is clearly not restricted to them. To the extent that the government portrays student leaders and workers as counterrevolutionaries and criminals is the extent to which the people will become even further alienated from the government. And the government will cut itself off from the forces for reform and positive change.

The Communist Party of China and the Chinese government are a people’s party and government. They came into power in China because they represented and were supported by the vast majority of the Chinese people. It is in this light that we have to judge even more harshly their actions and policies. Even in times of social turmoil, the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army had never used armed force against the people. But now the events of June 3-4 have seriously tarnished the hard-earned reputation and tradition of the PLA and the party.

And more importantly, the current course of the Chinese leadership fails to make central the correction of the many errors in government and party policy which produced such a catastrophic dissatisfaction with the government in the first place. A new authoritarianism is not what is needed.

What is needed is socialist democracy rooted in the widespread and open participation of the people in all the processes of government.

These new authoritarian policies will be unable to win support among the Chinese people. There is widespread sentiment for socialist democracy even among the leadership and certainly within the broad ranks of the party.

While temporarily a policy of a new authoritarianism may have won out, it cannot be for long. The Chinese people will not stand for it. And it is to them that China belongs. China’s friends around the world should be confident that the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party, with their long revolutionary and socialist tradition, will be able to summarize and correct whatever mistakes have been made, further develop socialism, continue to strengthen and modernize China’s economy and widen the people’s participation in all areas of society.