Counterrevolution and Crisis

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Nigel Harris

THE EVENT5 SINCE the Sunday morning when the first troops entered Tiananmen Square give all of us on the left that chilled feeling. Jakarta, 1965. Sao Paulo, 1964. Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Dakka in Bangladesh in 1970, Chile in 1973.—an appalling series of savageries when a ruling class struggles once and for all to repress a whole mass of rebellions; to settle its power, its rule and its privileges.

We are tempted, of course, to slide into the feeling that it’s an endless series of defeats. Because there have been a lot of defeats. And we must look and say, where is Brazil now, where is Indonesia now, and see that in fact the struggle recovers, does survive what in China can be described as a military coup and the prelude to a very considerable purge.

On October 1, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate its fortieth anniversary. Nonetheless, after forty years, four decades of rule, Tiananmen Square is said to be packed with counterrevolutionaries out to overthrow the regime. Within its mythological world, how on earth can the Chinese ruling class possibly explain the fact that counterrevolution is raising its hydra head? It’s an astonishing confession.

What is astonishing in the events in China is not that the movement was suppressed, but that it lasted so long, and that there were fourteen days between the declaration of martial law and the troops moving into Tiananmen Square. That showed a degree of paralysis in the party and the army that is probably unprecedented in modern Chinese history. That delay made a mockery of party authority, a mockery of the military authority, which in turn means the military are more savage in the repression precisely in order to try and restore their authority.

The other interesting feature is the use of terror—cold, deliberate, politically calculated terror. I don’t think anybody lost their temper in the army. None of this was an accident The most important thing is to see this as a political tactic Why, with an unarmed student movement, do you need to put 200 tanks in Tiananmen Square, do you need armor-piercing shells, do you set up machine guns on tripods—that is, all the instruments of close-field warfare against a disarmed opponent?

This is a political tactic to purge China, using the students merely as the pretext for the re-establishment of party control through the use of terror. It’s also designed to pre-empt the opposition in the party. By that massive force, all the discontents inside the party, all the faction fights, will be forced into unity around the party because those who don’t are guilty of treason in such circumstances.

The morning after the massacre, all the reports throughout yesterday from Beijing were that it’s quiet, the soldiers are now sweeping up Tiananmen Square, they’re towing the burned out trucks away, the bicycles are returning. The shops are open again. Nonetheless, this morning a military convoy entered the city firing indiscriminately down the street in order to add the touch of terror. Because the terror must go on and on and on until the population is entirely cowed.

You’ll notice that the first arrests were three independent trade-union leaders. The new trade union existed six days before they were arrested. Nonetheless, you can see that the struggle was spreading out into the creation of class organizations. This crisis is the worst in China since 1949.

SINCE LAST SEPTEMBER, some 81,000 enterprises have shut down. Thirty thousand are heavily in debt All have sacked large numbers of workers, and these have poured into the cities in search of work It is estimated, for example, that 2.5 million workers this year have moved into Guangdong province in the south, which is still booming. Indeed, in March the governor of that province issued a public panic statement to the provincial party authorities saying please stop them from coming, tie them down on the land, we can’t cope with them.

The central control mechanisms have broken down. In the heyday of Mao’s rule, it was virtually impossible to enter a Chinese city. Now, of course, there are large numbers of people moving about. (I’m not saying that the old order was better. It wasn’t.)

Now, of the 135 million or so who live in urban areas, about 20 or 30 million were estimated a year ago to be seriously under-employed. Because of the liberalization, the freeing of investment, a large number of those people have started petty enterprises—a kind of bazaar economy. Along the sides of the streets are people selling vegetables, mending bicycle tires, tinkers repairing saucepans—all sorts of petty jobs that hitherto haven’t existed. They don’t require people to enter into the official economy and are very useful in an economy that is relatively corrupt.

But the slump hit those people very hard, as it also hit other enterprises. At one stage, there were two-day work weeks in some of the major industrial centers. It is estimated that in the past six months there have been 17,000 bankruptcies in the urban areas, and 20,000investment projects have stopped. Last year, there were hundreds of strikes and protest demonstrations over this deflation. The sackings, food shortages, inflation, panic buying, and so on, betoken the makings of a major economic crisis, of a slump within the economy, compounded by the collapse of the control mechanisms and the panic of the party leadership.

So the party thought about suspending the urban reforms. It is at that stage, that the students dug their heels in They became the flash point, as they have been throughout much of China’s modem history. Since the May 4 Movement in the 1920s, it has been the students who have seen themselves as the conscience of China, who are the ones who go out and demonstrate.

This time it was a very moderate opposition. There was never any challenge to the party. Unlike Poland, people were not saying we’ve got to get rid of the well] Communist Party, or, we’ never be able to go further with the Communist Party. No, it was moderate. They were, in many ways, the children of the Communist Party. They were committed to socialism. They sang the Internationale.

The students were also tactically shrewd. To time their demonstrations for the first meeting with the Asian Development Bank in Beijing was well done. But to time them to coincide with the visit of Gorbachev was superb. The fact is that the whole party order was trapped. With 300 foreign journalists in Beijing, it’s impossible to spill blood on the carpet. So the party was caught, as it were. Whatever the inner faction fight is—and we don’t know what it is—the party was paralyzed at that time by the presence of the foreign press.

And the great demonstrations—one million or more students, teachers, workers, soldiers, and even police—were now matched by answering protests and demonstrations in fifty-five other cities. But always trustful. That is, the demonstrations trusted the bureaucracy to be decent and honorable and trusted that they were part of the political dialogue and had a place in the political arena.

THE WESTERN NEWSPAPERS had been obsessed with the possibility that the 27th Army would attack the 38th. Despite the military formations—these territorial warlords who protect their power—in the end all the officer corps had a vested interest in protecting the military bureaucracy. The possibility, therefore, of civil war seemed most unlikely. That would occur only if one mil-Italy command had been threatened with complete annihilation by another.

Of the ruling orders of the world, despite all the illusions of the Western left during the Cultural Revolution period, this is one of the meanest, hardest and nastiest. This is one that went through the Long March. It went through civil war for nearly fifty years. It fought the Korean War as soon as it came to power, fighting the biggest military power in the world and its allies, in a bitter, devastatingly destructive war in which the Korean peninsula was almost completely annihilated.

Then they waded through all the incredibly hard tasks of trying to drag China out of backwardness—through the Great Leap Forward, the years of 1959-1963, which were fearful. How many people died in the famine of 196162? The CIA estimate is 21 million. Others say 31 million. At that time Mao Tse-tung, whose writings from that period can now be read, said: It’s very unfortunate, an awful lot of people are dying, it’s not very good politically for us.

That’s what I mean by one of the hardest, toughest and meanest.

The Chinese rulers have enormous courage when it comes to the terror and brutality required for the maintenance of their rule. In the anti-rightist campaign of 1957, when Mao said “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” off popped all the heads of the intelligentsia—barn. A wonderful trick. Wonderfully liberal, and then all the “enemies” will expose themselves.

And finally, the Cultural Revolution, which is one of the cruelest events in terms of the manipulation of spontaneous masses of young people by a hard-headed and ruthless party leadership. Throughout, the key was the faction fight at the center of the party, not what the students were doing. The students thought they were the center of the reform movement; but they weren’t.

What is incredible about the current sequence of events is not that they’ve cracked down. But that the paralysis has been so severe that they were unable to do it for so long. Their own record would have suggested that they would have cracked down much earlier.

The division between liberal reformers and conservatives in my opinion does not exist It has no application to a bureaucracy of this kind. They were all reformers two years ago when it was successful. They are all now becoming conservatives, because they suspect that party control is what is at stake And when party control and the existence of the bureaucracy is at stake, everybody is conservative within the party.

A NEW WORLD order is now emerging. The rhythms of world capitalism are for the first time beginning to effect an enormous number of countries, not just Europe and North America but now the emerging giant working classes of the Third World. And the scale of their concentration is such that they dwarf the size of the working class here in the United States or in Europe.

Sao Paulo, Brazil, with a population of 18 million, is probably now the largest city in the world. A large proportion of it now comprises industrial workers who are enormously concentrated—some 150,000 to 200,000 in the auto industry. So the greatest concentrations of the world working class are now becoming characteristic of developing countries. Calcutta-9 million; Shanghai-12 million.

This integrated world order denotes a number of things: first of all, the emergence of an international class; second, the coordination of the rhythms of class struggle, the beginnings of synchronization of struggle; and third, in a number of developing countries quite high rates of growth And China is one of them. When that high rate of growth is then checked, the scale of class struggle is explosive. And that’s exactly what is happening in China at the moment. The fantastic speed of growth in the 1980s is then slowed and that is devastating. It produces a kind of electric reaction.

We’re going to see more of these kinds of things. They will be not just peasant struggles, not just student struggles. At the heart will be the struggles of the traditional industrial working class.

You probably read in the United States as we certainly do in Europe that the working class has disappeared or trickled away. People infer from this that the struggle for socialism is either not about workers or has stopped. Yet one can see that in world terms the integrated and single-world capitalism is emerging, more nakedly I believe than the scale of these collisions is going to get more extreme.

As the troops intervened, we saw the rage of the Beijing crowd. On one avenue in Beijing, there were 100 burned-out military trucks. Either the students or somebody else burned them and attacked the troops. That’s what I meant when I spoke of the ferocity of that battle, which is a change from the general air of fiesta on the demonstrations. It shows the bitterness of the class struggle in China.

I don’t know how many students were involved; no doubt some But there were a lot of other people from the underclass, the illegal migrants in Chinese cities who’ve been kicked around all their lives and have the scars of it; those people felt the rage that was required to do something about it And that rage, of course, is enormously important as China returns to normal and people begin to think about more sustained forms of opposition.

The logic of the system is that China must go back to reform. The regime can huff and puff. They have done enormous damage and inflicted great wounds on the people of China. But the logic forces them back to the reform program. It doesn’t matter whether it’s this month or next month. But they are going to have to return.

I am reminded of Hungary. When the Russians fell upon Hungary and destroyed the workers’ councils in 1956, Kadar came in and that hard hatchet-faced bunch of Stalinists took over Hungary. Now we look at Hungary and see that it was obliged to resume the process of integration sooner or later. That is not to suggest that what is done is not a terrible crime against people. But it is to say the logic of the system will, if its ruling class is to increase its power, force China back into the process of reform. And that reform, sooner or later, will mean the student demands will come back on the agenda as a key part of that process of change.

There is now great gloom and despair among Chinese students, the beginnings of alienation. I suppose a large number of those in the United States will seek to stay here because they feel it’s impossible to do anything in China.

That gloom will be exaggerated once the purge begins. The first phase of the purge is terror and death. The second stage, which is now beginning in Beijing, is that the secret police are lurking in the back streets, examining all the households, asking where has the student lodger gone and beginning to pick them up and make now arrests. A certain proportion of those will be jailed. And those identified as counter-revolutionary will be executed. The Chinese government has probably the most extreme record of executions in the world. Do not underestimate the continuing saga of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dissidents.

But we also need to recognize another point, which the Chinese students did not. That is, that the bureaucracy is asocial formation, a class of people that will defend its privileges and its positions to the bitter end. It is not going to be persuaded to concede anything about which there is any doubt in terms of its own interests and its own purposes.

That’s why I believe that the perspective which was produced during the Cultural Revolution in Hunan province by Shen Wu-lien,* the great mass organization of Red Guards, was right. They were very innocent; the year was 1967. They said: Let’s take Lenin’s State and Revolution; let’s read it; let’s apply it to China.

Ah, what a dangerous thing that was. Because while you’re expected to read it, to learn it, to spout it by rote, the one thing you must never do is apply it to China. Because they deduced from it that it doesn’t matter about this responsible person in a position of authority taking the capitalist mad. It doesn’t matter about this party leader or that party leader. What we are opposed to is the ‘red capitalist class,’ they concluded. That is, China is run by a class that operates in exactly the same way as the ruling class of any country. It protects its privileges and position. It is only open to negotiation when it is under overwhelming political threat. That’s the only time it will concede anything that isn’t in its immediate interests.

When the students of 1989 confronted this “red capitalist class,” without realizing it they were undertaking a struggle far beyond anything to do with free speech, but a struggle having to do with the freedom of the mass of people in China. Not just the freedom of speech, but the freedom to determine the material conditions of their life. That the students did not understand, explains why they were so trusting right up to the end.

Ultimately, I think there can be no freedom and no socialism in China without the mobilization of those masses and the conquest of power through revolution.

* The Manifesto of Shen Wu-Lien arose from the left wing of the Red Guards. It appeared in Shanghai at a time when the student movement was beginning to take the socialist and proletarian rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution more seriously than Mao intended. The document was published in English in the British journal International Socialism 38, old series (1969.

September-October 1989, ATC 22