Monday, February 5, 2007

China 1989 - First installment

I'm still reformating this, but I thought that if I serialized it in my blog people could start reading it. I wrote this piece as my Master's Essay at UC Santa Cruz in 1991. I believe I then added some newer material around the mid-1990s.

One of the things that my readers might find surprising in the piece that follows is the discussion of the protests that preceded the 1989 events. For those people outside of China the 1989 events seemed to have erupted from out of the blue. In fact, however, there were some very significant presaging events that were, in a sense, "dress rehearsals."

I post this paper now in part because I think it can tell us some very useful things about the situation today in the world and the prospects for popular upheavals and social movements.

In the process of converting this from WordPerfect to Word format, some of the quotes lost their footnotes. I will add the sources for these quotes later, so please forgive me for the temporary presence of some of these quotes without proper attribution.



Much has been written about the extraordinary events of 1989 in China, both in the popular mass media and in scholarly journals. The vast majority of these articles have concerned themselves exclusively, or nearly exclusively, with the role and demands of the participant students and intellectuals. While students certainly overall provided the main political leadership to the protests, it was the workers, not students, who comprised the majority of protestors in the days leading to the crackdown.

How do we explain this overall neglect by most accounts of the workers’ role in the protests? Ignoring the workers, their demands, and particular class perspective, and focusing on the demands and particular class perspective of the students, lends the protests an air of liberal democracy which, while certainly a part of the various strains in the protests, does not by any means characterize the full thrust of the actions. The focus on liberal democracy does, however, dovetail with the perspectives that tend to more characterize the views of western commentators/observers.

Deng Xiaoping and the CCP’s top leadership did not similarly overlook the significance of worker involvement. I would argue, in fact, that it was precisely this coalescing of workers (and to some extent peasants) with students and intellectuals, which the regime found most threatening. It precipitated, indeed, the bloody crackdown. Deng and others knew the dangers inherent in such an alliance.

This paper is not an attempt to analyze the students' and intellectuals' role, or their respective varying perspectives, nor is it an effort to make a comprehensive assessment of the 1980 protests that culminated in the 1989 protests. This paper does focus on workers' roles in the Spring Uprising. In so doing, it seeks to explain what many other commentaries on the protests have not satisfactorily accounted for: why did these protests happen at all? If, as the prevailing consensus would have it, living standards and social conditions had been so much better for all classes in China under the so-called reforms, then why in 1989 would workers revolt? We will find upon closer examination that living standards were changing in differential ways and in certain crucial respects getting worse for certain sections of especially the working class.

Beyond this, this paper challenges the widespread and generally unexamined assumption that workers are incapable of responding in a consciously political way to their social/political/economic environment. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to apprehend the 1980s protests with their attendant risks and sacrifices for the protestors - most especially worker protestors - without appreciating the workers' ability to respond to their environment in a consciously political fashion. In this light, this paper hopes to shed light on the onset of widespread worker protest/revolt in mid-1990s China (e.g., in 1994 a reported 10,000 wildcat strikes broke out throughout China), and the ongoing, albeit, subterranean political fault-lines in contemporary China.

When Deng Xiaoping assumed full power in China in 1978, he declared that there would never be another mass political campaign like the Cultural Revolution. He thus sought to end the decades-long tradition of some twelve CCP-initiated mass campaigns conducted between 1949 and 1976. Stability and unity were the new watchwords in Deng's China, and raising production the goal. Since mass political campaigns obviously interfere with stability and unity, they ergo were undesirable for production and had to be eliminated.

As part of his economic reforms, however, Deng did promote a political campaign of sorts. His object was to foster political changes that would curtail the CCP's bureaucratic leadership over society, especially the economy, as a part of incorporating "free market" measures as the driving force in the economy. Thus, he and others in the government began to speak of the need for "political reform." (Contrary to most accounts, this view of democracy was shared by the party "reformers" such as Zhao Ziyang as well.) On December 7, 1986, in the midst of student demonstrations already in progress, Deng declared on page 1 of the People's Daily that in fostering political reform "daring and determination should come first; prudence second." Then, on December 15, 1986, in a stunning reformulation which reversed decades of Party views, People's Daily stated: "For a long time, we have considered freedom and democracy as slogans belonging solely to the bourgeois class. It should be recognized that the call for freedom and democracy has been greatly liberating for the human race."

Things Get Out of Hand

Political movements, of course, can take on a life of their own. Deng's efforts to redirect the student demonstrations towards his own agenda of political reform were ultimately unsuccessful. This paper will examine why things spiraled out of the government's control so quickly in the latter part of the 1980s. In particular, we will look at the contradictory and differential impacts of the Deng economic reforms, with especial attention to the urban workers, and with a secondary look at the situation in the countryside. I will argue that the massive revolt against Deng that first emerged in 1985-86 and then again in 1988-89 represents--in its main thrust--two overlapping and interwoven streams of opposition: first, the protests are reactions against the government's failure to deliver on its promises of prosperity soon and its actual delivery of inflation, corruption and class polarization; second, the protests reflect a reaction against the reforms' social consequences and the way in which the 1949 revolution's mandate has been turned inside out. This interpretation of the 1980's protests is, of course, at odds with most accounts that describe the protests as anti-communist and pro-"democratic" in nature.

The Prelude

The reforms, begun so seemingly promisingly, ran into trouble in 1985, with key sectors of the economy foundering. This bad economic news triggered the first large student demonstrations. When student demonstrations, begun in 1985 and continuing into 1986, began by December to draw unexpectedly dramatic numbers in Shanghai, and specifically when thousands of young workers who had been Cultural Revolution Red Guards joined the crowd and "Maoist Gang-of-Four slogans surfaced here and there in the crowd," the authorities quickly moved to quash the demonstrations and rein in the movement.

Deng had repeatedly stated that he would not tolerate another Cultural Revolution. When the protests began in 1985 the first and most important thing party officials cautioned students against was adopting the tactics and slogans of the Cultural Revolution. In particular, they warned people not to take up the Cultural Revolution's "Four Freedoms" ("speaking out freely, airing views fully, holding great debates and writing big-character posters"). These had been written into the Chinese Constitution in 1975, but abolished in 1980 under Deng's direction. Despite these measures, however, two salient features of the Cultural Revolution were being re-enacted in Shanghai's streets in 1986: the joining of workers with students, and the reappearance of Maoist, Cultural Revolution slogans.

The 1986 protests were forcibly put down, but reappeared in 1988-89. This time, however, workers' involvement and that of other non-student strata in the demonstrations which began in 1985-86 became massive, with workers eventually outnumbering the students (Walder, 1989, Yu/Harrison, 1990, Wang, 1990). The Chinese government feared both worker involvement and the prospects of a worker-student alliance. While political reform as envisioned by Deng and the reformers was something they saw mobilizing students and intellectuals around, workers were supposed to stay out of this debate inasmuch as workers' goals differ in some fundamental ways and are far more threatening to Deng and the current Chinese government's rule. Democracy, for example, is understood in quite different terms by workers than by many intellectuals.

As one writer points out,

"When most Chinese intellectuals discussed democracy, they seemed to have envisioned that it would be people like them, not less well-educated party people, who would be elected to office. Little thought was given to the possibility that workers and peasants might have their own candidates in mind. [Or perhaps, not even think that elections themselves per se were the panacea.] Fang Lizhi, for instance, discussed intellectuals as 'a driving force for society.' The technocrats who supported increased democratization also favored raising food prices, higher rents, and dismantling of the job security system, proposals that in no way would have been supported by most workers."

Whereas the Brooks Brothers and western leaning "reformist" Zhao Ziyang was a hero to many students at the time, workers shouted slogans like "Down with Zhao Ziyang!" Further, portraits of Mao ("no sympathizer of Western style democracy and freedom") carried in the marches were generally held by workers.

"A day earlier some city workers, in a move that might have helped spur government hard-liners to action, had formed a Beijing Workers' Autonomous Trade Union. Members of this group later hung big pictures of Mao Zedong in the tents they pitched on the square. They talked openly and boldly about the good old days of the Cultural Revolution. Mao, they felt, had the right ideas, although he sometimes used the wrong tactics. Now they determined to use what they considered the right ones."

This outlook obviously placed workers in direct opposition to Deng's regime. While many students, especially before the massacre, saw themselves as remonstrating the government, not calling for its overthrow, the same cannot be said of the workers involved.

One result of the Deng reforms has been a growing army of mostly young, migrant workers coming from the rural areas to the urban sector (Cf. Stavis, 1990, p. 44). The government estimated that at the end of 1986 there were over 10 million rural people working in China's cities. They account for sometimes over 30% of the city work force. Their rights and welfare protection are marginal, and their housing conditions poor, many living as squatters (one-third of the Beijing migrant workers sleep at construction sites).

It is noteworthy that some of the key activists who brought the Cultural Revolution to the factories and mines were temporary contract workers who felt they were being denied their working class rights. During the 1989 protests the government publicly referred to such contract workers as "hooligans."

Workers have received the harshest punishments meted out to participants in the 1989 Spring Uprising. According to Asia Watch, at least 45 workers have been executed, whereas no known intellectuals or students have been. Workers have also consistently received the longest sentences. Workers' sentiments and reactions to the Deng reforms fundamentally underscore the 1989 protests. This is highly problematic for the Deng strategy since the reforms' success requires the workers' tolerance, if not cooperation.

End of Part I in a four part series.

Part II is here.

Part III is here.

Part IV is here.

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