China: Democracy Yes!

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

The Editors

THE CATACLYSMIC EVENTS in China continue to unfold as Against the Current goes to press. There will be time later for careful analysis and reflection on their meaning. But in the immediate wake of the June 3 massacre in Beijing, the first response must be outrage and solidarity.

The deliberate gunning down of thousands of unarmed student and worker democratic activists proves that there is no “peoples’ liberation army” in China. Instead, the army (whatever its internal divisions at the height of the upsurge) acted as “a special body of armed men” (Engels’ phrase) similar to that of any state based on economic privilege and monopoly of political power.

The elite exercising that power rules a system that is “socialist” or “communist” in name, but without the first pre-requisite for a socialist transformation, working-class democracy. Shifting from phases of Maoist factionalism to market economics, but with no opening for democracy, they brought the nation to an impasse.

Their economic reforms expanded consumption, the one positive achievement of the Den Xiaopeng era, but created even greater inequality and inflation. Their long-term strategy centers on bringing the multi-national corporations in to exploit non-union, low­wage Chinese labor and consequently rescue a failed bureaucratic economy.

The prodigious democratic movement in Tiananmen Square was a response to traumatic economic changes combined with blocked political channels. The elite had no answers to the movement’s demands; no capacity to disperse it by trickery or intimidation – let alone to meet with it in dialogue; and, ultimately, no way to prevent workers from joining the students and following their example of independent self-organization. It thus responded with the last resort of any regime backed to the wall by its own people.

The depth of the challenge to the bureaucratic elite can only be measured by the savagery of its response. Beginning with demonstrations by students at several campuses, probably related to struggles within the elite over the pace of the economic change, the movement within a couple of months attracted mass social support, bringing together working-class grievances and universal revulsion over massive bureaucratic corruption and privilege. It became a huge, semi-spontaneous, unarmed popular mobilization that felt itself on the verge of creating a genuinely new China. Almost before it knew its own strength, the movement posed a challenge to bureaucratic rule on the historic scale of the 1953 East German workers’ revolt, the 1956 Hungarian revolution or the long string of struggles in Poland that produced Solidamosc in 1980.

For its part, Chinese Communism was a political movement and a force for transforming the country – a real transforming force, quite apart from western Maoists’ mistaken conceptions about its proletarian or socialist character. Today, the Chinese bureaucracy is walled-in from the living forces of society, without principle, program or policy apart from maintaining its own power. The struggle to replace it has begun.

It is clear now that this struggle will be hard, bloody and long. What will replace bureaucratic rule is for now unpredictable. Socialists outside China must, in the first instance, join with Chinese students abroad and human rights organization to defend the democratic movement from the brutal reprisals that have begun. These reprisals will fall both on student leaders and – probably even more violently – on worker militants who joined with them.

On a larger and more brutal scale, the Chinese bureaucracy’s assault recalls the Polish bureaucratic regime’s proclamation of martial law on December 13, 1981. The heroic social resistance to the Jaruzelski coup – a resistance with absolutely no hope of military victory – nonetheless heralded the decomposition of Polish Stalinism.

The horrors of June 3 and its aftermath will reverberate throughout China for some time. With arrests, disappearances and purges well under way, it will be extremely difficult for the student movement to survive, let alone to build the crucially necessary links to the working class. The bureaucracy, ruling the country now through its army and its secret police, has no intention of allowing this to occur. To arrest, possibly kill, thousands of activists is well within their capacity. To stamp out the vision that activated millions is a different matter, although the regime’s monopoly of media enables it to broadcast the purest lies to the rural populace. Indeed, the sheer difficulty of communicating the events of Beijing, Shanghai and other cities to the masses outside these urban centers may be the movement’s biggest political problem.

The new China that the democratic movement envisioned, a China with genuine socialist potential, is a dream deferred. But the forces struggling there have every bit as much revolutionary potential as any movement in the twentieth century. Proponents of socialist democracy will look with eager anticipation for the Chinese workers to build their own independent unions, to defend their interests and give class content and social muscle to the democratic movement.

Whether the crumbling bureaucratic rule in China is replaced with a system that prioritizes social justice and democratic control of production along with economic modernization – or whether, on the other hand, a new authoritarian politics emerges that elevates multinational capital and the market over human needs and workers’ rights – depends crucially on the organizations that Chinese workers are able to construct. As revolutionary socialists, we are not afraid to say that such organizations could even make Polish Solidarity look like a footnote.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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