China in turmoil

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 87 June 1989

China and the world have been shaken by the massive demonstrations in China. The death on 15 April of veteran Communist leader Hu Yaobang came close on the heels of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Incident of April 1976, a rally against the hated ‘Gang of Four’ which was suppressed with much bloodshed. It was closely followed by the 70th anniversary of the great anti-imperialist May 4 Movement of 1919, as well as 1 May, Labour Day, and the historic visit to China of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The coming together of these important events allowed the memorial rallies for Hu Yaobang to develop quickly into massive demonstrations, as hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Beijing and other cities calling for democracy, a proper legal system and press freedom, denouncing corruption and demanding the resignation of China’s top leaders. As we prepare for publication, columns of troops have been turned back by the millions of demonstrators occupying Beijing, leaving the streets out of government control. With the loyalty of the police, army and much of the Party and state apparatus in doubt, China’s leaders face a severe crisis. Deep splits in the Party, Government and armed forces seem to be on the cards. The developing events in China are of enormous importance for the communist movement internationally. FRFI opens a discussion and debate with this article by JONATHAN COHEN

China is a socialist country  ̶  but it is one which remains very backward in its development of democracy and legality.

It is a feature of our imperialist era that socialist revolutions are occurring not in the advanced capitalist countries where the proletariat  ̶  the working class   ̶  is most numerous, but in oppressed countries where capitalism is relatively undeveloped and the working class, the guarantor of socialist democracy, is relatively small in number.

This is particularly true of China. At the time of the revolution, capitalism was confined largely to a few cities in the coastal region. China had no experience of bourgeois democracy at all. The Communist Party came to power with the traditions and experience of years of revolutionary struggle. However, the political methods of the People’s Government were inevitably limited and affected by the background of feudal oppression and the reactionary white terror of imperialism’s lackeys, the Nationalist Party (Guomindang). These factors made the development of socialist democracy and socialist legality in China an extremely difficult task.

The Communist Party in power was a benevolent ruler, but power also opens the door to privilege. Unchecked by democratic principles of election and recall, corrupt tendencies were bound to develop in the Party.

Considering that China was dominated by peasant agriculture and other small-scale modes of production, Chairman Mao Zedong observed: ‘Lenin said that small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously and on a mass scale. They are also engendered among a part of the working class and of the Party membership. Both within the ranks of the proletariat and among the personnel of state and other organs are people who take to the bourgeois style of life.’

Mao repeatedly used the method of mass struggle and campaigns to combat these tendencies, instead of developing socialist democracy and legality. The ‘Cultural Revolution’, launched in May 1966, used the prestige of Mao and violent mass struggle. The targets of this campaign were overextended to include many good communists and innocent people, many of whom lost their lives, while corrupt elements seized the opportunity to climb up the ladder of power. Although the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was overturned in 1976, the people as a whole had been depoliticised by their bitter experiences and had become cynical about communism and about politics in general. This opened the doors for the capitalist restorationist tendency which has advanced rapidly over the last 13 years.

The de-collectivisation and other economic reforms instituted under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership did indeed lead to a great expansion of production at first, but they led on to a rich/poor polarisation and a capitalist sector which threatens to expand beyond the state’s control.

These economic reforms have not been accompanied by democratisation. The 1979 unofficial Democracy Movement insisted that the ‘Four Modernisations’ would fail without a fifth  ̶ democratisation.

However, Deng’s and his supporters’ idea of democratisation has much in common with Margaret Thatcher’s  ̶  their ‘people’s power’ means decentralisation of economic power, putting it into the hands of a minority of privateers while the majority of the people find themselves increasingly dispossessed and exploited. This represents a capitalist tendency.

Now some elements of the privileged bureaucracy are rewarded with a stake in private enterprise as the state apparatus is cut down, while elements of the newly emerging private sector bourgeoisie are joining the Party. After all, they have got rich by following the Party line! Corruption and profiteering are rife. This has led to a polarisation in the Communist Party, with socialist and capitalist-leaning factions in bitter conflict.

Instead of coping with the root cause of social problems, the authorities have resorted to campaigns of mass arrests, rushed trials with no leave to appeal and widespread executions. These measures have broken the provisions even of China’s rather inadequate criminal law code. The whole mechanism of law is extremely weak, with a great shortage of trained lawyers.

One of the main demands of the present movement is for press freedom. Honesty  ̶  glasnost  ̶  is essential for monitoring the true situation to make democratic decision-making possible. While the Chinese news media have advanced greatly in this respect, they still have a long way to go.

In the past, instead of analysing the real reasons for the existing wealth, advanced bourgeois democracy and class peace in the developed capitalist countries, which are maintained by the brutal exploitation of the rest of the world, Chinese media presented a false image of modern capitalism as a Dickensian hell-hole. With a window now on the outside world, the Chinese people have been shown a deodorised version of capitalism. And by continuing to prettify the situation in ‘third world’ countries in general, especially those with whom China has friendly ties, like Egypt, Pakistan and Thailand, the media have obscured the filthy underside of the imperialist coin. Given this false image, it should come as no surprise that some Chinese intellectuals will have delusions about bourgeois democracy.

The mass movement of students will inevitably contain different trends, some of which will have bourgeois aspirations. This will become clearer when the students are forced to concretise their demands away from abstract and general demands for democracy to address the economic and political problems facing socialist China.

While the students’ demands for democracy have been fairly abstract, the workers, on the other hand, have combined support for the students with protests about the economic situation. Parading pictures of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, they have shown that they are no friends of the capitalist tendency in China today. So bourgeois democracy is out of the question  ̶  socialist democracy is the one they want. There is no material basis for bourgeois democracy in a poor country like China  ̶  it is either bourgeois dictatorship or socialist democracy.

China is at a watershed. Inevitably the imperialist powers will seek to exploit its difficulties, nurture the pro-capitalist tendencies and foster counter-revolution. The political and economic crisis is tearing society and the Party asunder. The strength, organisation and unity of purpose of the working class, poorer peasants and communist intellectuals will decide which way things will go.  


The visit to China of Mikhail Gorbachev and the normalisation of relations between the Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties are of enormous significance and will be welcomed by communists throughout the world. FRFI will be looking more closely at this development and what it means for our movement in a future issue.


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