May 26, 1989

A massive movement

Print edition : February 06, 2015

FANG LIZHI, a famous astrophysicist who was dismissed from the post of the vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had created a minor storm some time ago when he publicly argued that the Marxist formulation that the proletariat was the revolutionary class was quite misconceived. The class that really brought about any change, revolutionary or otherwise, was indeed the intellectuals, he said. Obviously, the way in which Fang sought to use the term ‘class’ was radically different from the Marxist usage of that term. But then, Fang would perhaps argue that Karl Marx in his voluminous oeuvre has nowhere defined the term ‘class’ and that entitles him to use it in his own way.

Whether Fang was using Marxist categories rightly or wrongly does not matter much today. Going by what has happened in China in the last two weeks, the future intellectuals of China, that is, the students, are in fact heralding a change. It is going to be very difficult for any leadership in China to crush the students’ movement or to brush aside its demands. It has been a massive uprising, in fact, many times greater and more massive than the May 1968 students’ uprising in Paris.

It all started with the death of Hu Yaobang. When Hu was dismissed in 1987 because “he encouraged bourgeois liberal tendencies”, students held demonstrations in China’s 13 cities. The Chinese press had reported the disturbances in reasonably adequate detail. At that time, there was a textile workers’ strike in China which remained unreported. Presumably, the communist leadership thought that it was far more dangerous to publicise proletarian protest than reporting students’ protest. Hu was guilty of encouraging tendencies of which the students’ demonstrations were just one more example. The demonstrations, not as massive as the recent ones, had occurred in more cities than now.

Hu died on April 15. Within the week between his death and the funeral, he became the symbol of democracy and, one can say, a symbol of the Chinese-style glasnost. On April 17, the police charged into the students’ demonstration outside the Communist Party headquarters (not far from the Tiananmen Square). They kicked and beat the demonstrators. This was the second time that the students had attempted to storm the party offices. But the April 17 demonstration turned violent. In a way, the handling of that demonstration by the police changed the students’ mood. The result was the massive demonstration on April 22 by an estimated 150,000 students at the Tiananmen Square. The old leaders of communist China watched it from behind a wall of soldiers.

The students raised slogans which were new in the four-decade history of the People’s Republic of China. “Down with dictatorship, Down with corruption”, “The press must report the truth”, “Open Government”, and “Respect Human Rights” are samples of some of the slogans and the demands inscribed on the placards.

The demonstration was on the morning of April 22, a Saturday. But the students started gathering, at the Tiananmen Square from Friday evening. A lakh and a half camped there for the night. However, it is probably not correct to say (as many reports have done) that it was the largest student demonstration in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The ones held in support of the Cultural Revolution 23 years ago were more massive. The difference, however, is that the demonstrations then were in favour of the official line, but against the party. This time, the demonstrations are against both the official line and the party. Mao Zedong and Lin Biao were against the party leadership then. Close to a quarter of a century later, students have raised the slogan “No one believes in the [Communist] Party”. Naturally, this attack on the Communist Party had to be accompanied by an attack on communism itself.

A 30-year-old teacher in Beijing told a group meeting, “No one believes [in] communism anymore.” The meeting was attended by no more than 50 students. But the word, rather the slogan, spread. Before long, the students’ demands were given a concrete shape. They were: 1) a free press, 2) a multiparty democracy and 3) an end to corruption. The leadership had no problem in saying that it shared with the students the desire to end corruption. But it refused to concede anything on free press and multiparty democracy.

It was 70 years ago (on May 4, 1919) that the first major students’ demonstration took place in China. I was in China in November 1988 with a television team. We were given an audience by the Minister of Culture. He received us in his Ministry housed in a spacious, traditional Chinese house. He said proudly that this was the house of the Vice-Chancellor of Beijing University in 1919 and was one of the major centres of the May 4th Movement. It was a spontaneous nationwide movement to protest against the Versailles Settlement following the First World War. The settlement was grossly unfair to China. In a way, what started on May 4, 1919, culminated in Mao Zedong declaring from the Tiananmen Square the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is to be seen if the current student unrest leads to an equally revolutionary, or counterrevolutionary, and traumatic conclusion.

Anyway, the students seemed to be more than aware of the importance of May 4. They connected their movement to the legacy of May 4, 1919. On May 4 this year, there were massive demonstrations in many cities of China, including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Changsha and Xian, against the present political setup and asking for radical changes in it. They lasted more than two weeks and a degree of violence was inevitable. In Changsha and Xian, local toughs infiltrated the demonstrations and there was widespread looting and arson. The students’ claim that “the people who did that were not students” is probably right. One of them angrily asked, “Just who are these people?” and said, “They may have been hooligans or even official provocateurs.”

The official response to the demonstrations was predictable, and clumsy. People’s Daily came out with an attack on the students, calling them traitors acting at the behest of outside agencies. The students dismissed the allegation with the contempt it deserved. The newspaper’s reaction demonstrated that Deng Xiaoping’s modernisation drive had not led to any change in the party’s ways of thinking. The rising anger of students was to bring that out clearly. The official coverage of the demonstrations, especially the People’s Daily’s treatment of them, made matters worse. Finally the Chinese Council of Ministers tendered an apology to the students for the newspaper’s article. Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng were under serious attack for the first time. Students asked Deng to step down as he was too old. They asked Li Peng also to resign.

Making matters worse, the party leadership selected a few student leaders to talk to. It was to them that the Cabinet’s decision to apologise was conveyed. The demonstrating students promptly denounced these “chosen” students. “They are not our leaders,” they said and argued that the leadership must talk to them. In any case, the apology and the talks with the chosen leaders seem to have led nowhere. The students are unhappy, angry and sullen.

After the demonstrations on May 4, the students seem to have returned to classes. There is an uneasy silence now. The Central leadership, after the initial bungling, handled the demonstrations well. There were no police or military excesses anywhere on May 4. The demonstrations were peaceful and the possibility of violence was averted by keeping the police at a safe distance. The first round was over and the students seem to have won it.

What do these demonstrations mean? Where will they take China, if anywhere at all? To begin with, one must say that the celebration of the anniversary of the May 4 Movement, essentially a nationalist uprising, demonstrates that nationalism is a potent force in China and that such uprisings are unlikely to pose a major threat to the Chinese state. Nationalism is a declining value except in the Confucian world of China, Japan, Korea and Indochina. So, there is no question of instability in or break-up of China.

Secondly, right from the late 19th century science and democracy have been constant demands of the Chinese intelligentsia. When the students said that there could be no modernisation without democracy, they were merely reiterating a century-old Chinese belief in different terms. There was a degree of romanticism in the belief then and there is no less romanticism in the demand for democracy now.

Thirdly (and this is the most important aspect of the situation in China), the patterns of “liberalisation” in China have been different from those in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union. In China, there has been a lot of perestroika but very little of glasnost. It was inevitable that Deng should come face to face with the consequences of Gorbachev’s initiatives. It is one thing to dismiss Hu as the herald of bourgeois liberalism but quite another to dismiss the Soviet experience as meaningless or irrelevant.

Deng has played the game of privatisation of the economy without letting in the bourgeois democratic freedoms. Fang Lizhi had warned the party leadership that it could not deny democracy for too long. In fact, the students’ slogan that there can be no modernisation without democracy can be directly traced to his speech delivered less than a year ago to a small gathering of students on the campus of Beijing University. Gorbachev accommodated his Sakharov. Deng Xiaoping has been at best tolerant and at worst contemptuous of his Fang Lizhi. The students’ demonstrations have indicated that Fang Lizhi is neither an exceptional nor an unusual phenomenon in today’s China. Of course, he is quite iconoclastic in his language. But then Deng and his comrades have destroyed any number of Maoist icons. The students have merely reminded them that there is no such thing as “thus far and no further” when it comes to iconoclasm.

It is too early to say what answers the Chinese Communist Party would ultimately find to the students’ demands. But there is little doubt that it will have to; otherwise the great disorder seen at the “Gate of Heavenly Peace” (that is the meaning of Tiananmen) may bring disaster in its wake.

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