What the Chinese Students Fought For

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Sungur Savran interviews Jin Xiaochang

Jin Xiaothang is a Marxist historian from the People’s Republic of China, who is currently working towards a doctoral degree at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was born in 1949, the year of the Chinese Revolution. At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, both his parents were condemned for propagating bourgeois ideas and he himself was not accepted among the ranks of the Red Guards for this reason.

In 1969 he was sent to a remote rural area to do farm work, where he lived and worked with peasants until 1975.Having returned to Shanghai, he took part in the student movement and ran into further trouble for his political activities. Up until 1978, the year of the Democracy Wall movement, he was a supporter of Deng Xiaoping as against the “Gang of Four,” something he regards as ironical today.

After 1978, he started reading international Marxist literature (Gramsci, Lukacs, Bettelheim, Trotsky, etc.) and in his own words became “a determined defender of classical Marxist principles of working-class control in all spheres of social and economic life.”

Between 1981 and 1986 he taught at the East China Normal University in Shanghai. He is currently living in the New York area.

This interview was held at the beginning of July 1989. It is being published in the forthcoming issue of the Turkish revolutionary Marxist journal Sinif Bilinci. We have abridged it for ATC.

Sungur Savran: Chinese history, both before and after the 1949 revolution, witnessed successive waves of student protests and revolts. One of the several massive demonstrations of this year’s movement was in fact organized on the seventieth anniversary of the May 4, 1919, student demonstration. How would you compare this last wave of student revolt to the earlier experiences? What are its distinguishing characteristics?

Jin Xiaochang First, I think we have to make a distinction between the student movements before 1949, before what we call the “liberation” and those after “liberation.” If we compare 1989 with the earlier post-liberation student movement there are several distinguishing characteristics.

First, this movement is more independent, not like the earlier ones that attached themselves to big names in the party. This time the movement broke away from all factions.

Second, this movement was well-organized. It’s the first time we can see certain autonomous organizations emerging on a large scale. For example, the autonomous student organization in Beijing, which included all of the universities in that city. The earlier movements did not create such autonomous organizations.

Third, this movement was much more mature in tactics. These students knew how to move forward. From time to time they changed their strategy. For example, the hunger strike. They chose the right time. They know the Chinese government very well. They started three days before Gorbachev’s visit to China. During this period the government couldn’t crush the movement and damage its image in the world. After martial law was proclaimed, they chose the right time to end the hunger strike, but still stayed in Tiananmen Square as a challenge to the government.

Another characteristic of this movement was that the students put forth concrete demands. The earlier movements just raised a few abstract slogans such as “democracy.” This time demands were concrete: recognition of their autonomous organization and disclosing the wealth of government officials, including their children. All of these demands are concrete and, in fact, far beyond Westerners’ understanding of democracy.

SS: You talked about the capacity of organization of the movement. Could you provide us with more detail as to the concrete structures of student self-organization?

JX: I have to admit to a certain lack of information. But we did keep in close contact with the students of Tiananmen Square, so I know some things about it. At a general level, they had this autonomous student organization of all the Beijing universities. Its leaders were elected by the students involved in the democratic movement. Some students did not want to participate in elections, but everyone interested in the democratic movement had a right to vote and be voted in.

Another committee commanded the activities in Tiananmen Square. The leaders of the autonomous organization were elected by the students on Tiananmen Square and those in the schools. But this committee was elected only by those students on the square.

SS: Isn’t that also because in Tiananmen Square there were lots of students from the provinces while the association itself was only composed of students from Beijing?

JX: It’s sort of like that, but not that clearly divided. The students in Tiananmen Square had two votes. They had the right to vote for the leaders of the association, but they still had the right to vote for the committee.

As far as I understand, the students in Tiananmen Square had an agreement. If the majority takes an action—for example, if they decide to stay in the square—the minority have to obey the decision taken by the majority. They can’t leave the square. It’s like democratic centralism. There was full debate. Everyone had the right to state their opinion before the vote.

SS: Was the vote taken on a massive scale?

JX: Yes, on a massive scale. But the students on hunger strike had special power because they had devoted themselves to the movement the most. You know, the students on the hunger strike had even written their wills. They were very determined. Because of this determination they were viewed by the students as a symbol. So they had the real power. Their number changed at different stages. At the peak, around May 18, just before the proclamation of martial law, they were around 600, although some have also given the figure of 1,500.

But everyone had the right to vote on whether they should stay in Tiananmen Square or whether they should leave.

SS: Apart from the “commanding committee,” were there other committees? For instance, we heard of tents that were set up on the square for health care. Were there specialized committees?

JX: I don’t know exactly what type of special committees there were or how many. But lot of workers or doctors and nurses set up their own organizations to support the students. That was of course very important. A lot of students were very weak after the hunger strike.

SS: Could you tell us something about the motorcyclists that the press talked about?

JX: Most of them were students. They were the liaison between the committee on Tiananmen Square and the association that was based in the universities, on campuses. They were going back and forth to take news from one to the other. This is why, when the government tried to implement martial law, they arrested them first, to cut the links between the square and campuses.

SS: Is there any way in which one can determine the class background of the students involved in the movement?

JX: This is very difficult to answer since up to now we haven’t received any detailed information. But from photos in Chinese newspapers we can see the class origin of students. For example, we see a mother who came from the countryside sitting on the street, crying for her son. We see some workers frying to take away their children from the square. One of the student leaders was Wang Dan, whose father is professor at the university, and there was another whose father was a party cadre. In my opinion, these students represented a whole cross-section of Chinese society.

SS: How about the gender division? Did women students participate in the movement to the same extent as male students?

JX: Oh, yes. Actually one of the most prominent leaders in Tiananmen was a woman. I don’t know where she is, but she seems to be safe. I realized when I was teaching at the university that women students participate a lot in political activities. But then you have to realize that Chinese society is still very much a rural society, so there are great differences in terms of gender. Students are educated so they represent a small portion of society. They are not representative of society at large.

Meaning of Democracy

SS: For understandable ideological reasons, the media and the political establishment of the imperialist countries portray the student movement as defenders of Western liberalism. Some of the symbols used by the movement, in particular the so-called “Goddess of Democracy” modelled after the U.S. Statue of Liberty, seemed to confirm this impression. On the other hand, the students sang time and again the Internationale. The demand for democracy, as you pointed out, was linked to the demand to end corruption and privilege, testifying to the egalitarian mood dominant among the students. How do you characterize these seemingly contradictory tendencies?

JX: I think this is an important question. Sometimes I feel very upset, particularly since I came to the United States, because the Western media tries to portray the democracy movement in China as a sort of pro-capitalist, pro-liberal movement. There’s a famous dissident from the late 1970s Democracy Wall movement, Wei Jihseng, and a lot of U.S. congressmen appealed to the Chinese government to release him, although he’s still in jail.

Actually this impression is greatly mistaken. Since 1976, the student movement has always been a sort of mixture, with a pro-capitalist tendency, which is understandable in terms of Chinese history, but there is also a tendency that I call “true Marxism.” For example, another famous dissident, who is now in jail, Wang Xizhe, is my hero. He is a typical Marxist. He wants working-class participation in decision-making.

In the article he wrote for the democratic movement in 1978, which we call the “Beijing Democracy Wall,” he used exactly Marx’s terms in talking about democracy. He wants working-class participation not only in the political decision-making process but in the process of production. He wants real working-class control over the means of production. This is exactly what Marx talked about!

We can see the same tendency in this recent movement. You can say there was confusion, understandable when the movement lasted only two months. So tendencies were not fully developed. But you can still see a sort of confrontation of tendencies.

I can say that socialism, “true Marxism’ was directing the activities of the movement. But on the other hand, we see a lot of student leaders trying to have access to Western reporters, trying to give the message to the West that “we are for Western democracy.” But this much is certain: the student movement is not the movement portrayed by Western media. It’s not just this pro-liberal movement. For me there are two tendencies.

SS: The overall record of the uprising is impressive: three months of agitation, occupation of Tiananmen Square for a month and a half, a hunger strike observed by more than a thousand students lasting for two weeks, nine major demonstrations within the space of forty days in Beijing alone—with four of them reportedly gathering one million people each, firm support from the Chinese population outside the borders of the People’s Republic and no less widespread support and sympathy at the international level. Why do you think that a movement of this calibre was defeated?

JX: I think we have to take this question up at different levels. First, we have to admit that there were some structural elements that determined the development of the movement. We have to admit that China is still an agricultural country where 80 percent of the population lives in the countryside.

The peasantry doesn’t have a developed consciousness as the working class does. They didn’t want to get involved with the movement. Their indifference toward the movement meant support for the government, to a certain degree. This is the structural cause for the defeat.

Also the Communist Party was unified in its opposition to the student movement.

A lot of Western reporters talked about the split between the “moderates” and the “hardliners.” For me, this difference is not as significant as Western reporters thought, because it is very clear that the “moderates” did not want to give any fundamental concessions to the students. They just tried to use the student movement to gain advantage over the “hardliners.”

This was their strategy. They did not want to grant recognition to the autonomous student association. And they were against free elections. So in terms of the basic demands of the movement, the party was not split.

We have to examine the movement itself. I think it could have done better. I am not sure they could have succeeded, but they could probably have obtained more bargaining chips and concessions from the party.

First, the students limited the movement to Beijing. Although they did make some effort to extend the movement over the whole country, the effort seems to have been insufficient. Although students from the provinces who came to Beijing took what we call the Beijing spirit back to their provinces, the Beijing students, who formed the core of the movement, did not go to the provinces. They did not form a committee which would have an effect all over the country.

This is why the movement seems to be regional. You can see some support in Shanghai, in Wuhan, in Chengdu, all these big cities, but you did not see widespread support all over the country.

As you know, in some small cities—for example in the Yenan region, famous in the revolutionary period, capital of the Communist Party during that period—there was some student unrest after the repression. About 400 students went out into the street and shouted slogans about the repression. But there was definitely no connection between them and the students in Beijing. So there was potential support in the provinces that was not used by the students of Beijing.

Second, they did not make a bi effort to penetrate the factories, to organize the working class. On the contrary, the government made a big effort to quell the social unrest within the working class. After the students appealed to the working class, Prime Minister Li Peng went immediately to the factories. He held a lot of meetings of workers and managers and attempted to quell unrest.

Students and Workers

SS: The movement was characterized universally as a “student uprising.” We do know, however, that the citizens of Beijing poured out on the streets by the hundreds of thousands on May 20 and 21, in the wake of martial law, in order to stop intervention by the army. Surely a majority of these people must have been workers. We know that at least one independent union was set up by the workers of Beijing. What, in your opinion, was the degree of working-class participation in the uprising?

JX: We don’t have figures and reports on the scale of working-class support. My impression is that the working class did participate to a great extent but was not as well-organized as some people thought. It was mostly young workers.

You mentioned the independent union. The union was very limited. It’s strange; the workers who participated in the movement seemed to give recognition to the leadership of the students. They did not take initiatives. This actually reflected the immaturity of the working-class movement in China. They did not try to independently organize themselves and followed the leadership of the students.

I’m quite sure that a majority of the workers were sympathetic to the movement but did not take initiatives. But it was also the responsibility of the students: they did not sufficiently call for support from the working class.

SS: What was the attitude of the official unions?

JX: The position of the local official unions in Beijing was mixed. At first, during the hunger strike, they gave support to the students on Tiananmen Square. They sent medical teams, they sent money and food, and so forth. But after martial law was proclaimed, they withdrew their support immediately and even denounced the movement. They cut their connections with the students. Overall they were not very supportive.

SS: How do you interpret the startling fact that out of the first eleven people executed after June 4, not a single one was a student, and a majority were workers or unemployed?

JX: I think this is the result of the government’s strategy concerning repression. They chose their target so as to make the repression more effective. For the government, the working class is the most dangerous threat to their rule. They know that what students can control are the campuses, not the means of production. If the campuses are in chaos, that’s really no problem for the government. It just damages its social image. It doesn’t affect the economy.

If the working class takes a position against the government, the economy will be ruined, it’s in total danger. So the government is very wise. Besides, they want to protect the image that they are reasonable toward the students. So they chose workers as their execution target—consciously. They wanted to scare the workers.

SS: We heard a lot about managers warning their workers not to go to Tiananmen Square. There was a lot of pressure on the workers it seems.

JX: Even before the repression, a lot of managers kicked out workers who participated in the demonstrations.

September-October 1989, ATC 22