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China: Looking back on the 1989 democracy movement and the Tiananmen Square massacre

To mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reproduces an excerpt from the analysis by an eyewitness to the 1989 democratic upsurge that preceded the brutal attack. The writer was an Australian socialist who was studying in China at the time. It first appeared in Green Left Weekly on June 26, 1996.

* * *

By Liang Guosheng

On June 4, 1989, troops, armoured personnel carriers and tanks of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) forced their way through human and constructed barricades into central Beijing, taking control of Tiananmen Square. In the process, according to an estimate by Amnesty International soon afterwards, approximately 1000 unarmed protesters were gunned down or otherwise killed.

Numerous eyewitness accounts confirmed the extent of the massacre. The dead were students and other Beijing workers and residents who had gathered the previous evening to protest against the PLA's forced entry into central Beijing and the square, which on May 20, 1989, China's Premier Li Peng had declared a martial law district.

Since the massacre more eyewitness interviews, analytical articles and quite a range of books have been published concerned with what has come to be termed the 1989 Democracy Movement and Beijing massacre. More recent works have also covered the ensuing government crackdown and the fate of those protesters captured by the government, executed or imprisoned.

In the main, parties historically influenced by Stalinism quickly lined up either to defend the "crackdown" against the "counter-revolutionaries" in the square (declaring: "the protesters were CIA dupes"). Others grappled with the problem of how, in the light of quickly mounting evidence, to present a wait-and-see attitude ("how can we trust the Western media's reporting?").

Alternatively, papers produced by far-left organisations in the West correctly identified the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as bearing direct responsibility for the massacre. However, they by and large failed to distinguish between the lower to middle echelons of the party and the factionalised leadership at its apex. In Beijing, at least, vast numbers of party members overtly and covertly supported or helped lead the movement.

Just one example: at several protest marches in late May 1989, even after Premier Li Peng's declaration of martial law, journalists from a large number of newspapers marched along the Boulevard of Heavenly Peace to the square. Prominent was a contingent from the party's main official organ, the People's Daily -- with many of the staff being CCP cadre. On the whole, party members were easily identified -- many wore their party badges at the demonstrations.

During those spring months in Beijing, the movement drew support and leadership from groups and activists who, at least prior to the massacre, were far more concerned with what they saw as an opportunity to "reform" the CCP than with its overthrow.

The students, and those whom their actions inspired, including impressive contingents of workers, were united by a range of key demands. Generally these called for the official political rehabilitation of then recently deceased CCP former Secretary-General Hu Yaobang; measures to rid the CCP of corruption, especially the flagrant abuses at its higher levels; the introduction of government transparency and official accountability; measures to increase the democratic rights of students and citizens; the freeing up of academic life and improved study conditions for students together with increases in pay for academics. A call for increased freedom of the press was high on the list following the banning of several prominent newly founded popular newspapers and magazines.

In particular, the students demanded the official reversal of a People's Daily editorial in April which had denounced the student movement as "a small handful of people" misled by counter-revolutionary elements. The day after the editorial was published, students from across Beijing spilled out of their campuses in unprecedented numbers to hold a well-organised peaceful protest march. That day many observers had spotted a sign in the middle of the sea of protesters on which was written, "A Small Handful".

A call for anti-inflation measures was also high on the list. Inflation had raged in the urban centres during the late 1980s, but the party/state leadership had shown little capacity to deal with it. By late May 1989 the post-Cultural Revolution "honeymoon" of Deng Xiaoping was well and truly over. Deng's toppling of two all-but-anointed party successors in a row, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, ensured his own increasing vilification by many as the country's "new emperor".

The Democracy Movement was, up until June 4, more a move for "democratisation". The push for "democratisation" leaned significantly, for political and ideological sustenance, on what was viewed, especially by Chinese students, as a contemporary trend to democratise the state and party in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.

The mistake, intentional or otherwise, of many foreign journalists who had flown in for the Gorbachev visit during April and had stayed on to cover the events in the square, was to assume that "democratisation" implied a general desire of the students to embrace Western bourgeois-democratic models within the context of a capitalist system. In reality, few students at the time had more than a very hazy theoretical notion of "bourgeois democracy". Many felt that, given China's poverty and other problems, transplanted "bourgeois-democratic models" were not appropriate.

The construction of the Goddess of Democracy statue in the square by students from a Beijing Arts College days before June 4 was sufficient to drive most remaining journalistic sobriety out the window. The resemblance to the US Statue of Liberty was striking. Any possibility of multiple interpretations of this act was sidelined as the journalists and editors, collective tears in eyes, packaged those students' action as equivalent to having erected a giant apple pie or even a McDonald's burger with the lot.

With hindsight, the movement and subsequent massacre and crackdown in Beijing possessed far more in common with earlier democracy movements in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), and their outcomes under Stalinism, than with a general urge to adopt a US bourgeois "democratic" system. Few at that time were willing to swap the dictatorship of the Stalinist CCP for an outright "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie".

However, it would be utopian to suggest that after June 4, 1989, many people in Beijing would have felt that "socialism" in China could still be reformed towards an anti-Stalinist model.

Immediately after Premier Li Peng's declaration of martial law on May 20, there was a definite "get stuffed" attitude by the people towards the party leadership. The population of the capital, with a voluntary unity unprecedented in recent times, declared by their words and actions that they had had quite enough of decades of dictatorial high-handedness and factional stupidities. This was expressed in the spontaneous massive mobilisation, lasting several weeks, of human barricades to stop the PLA entering central Beijing.

A key difference from Hungary '56 and Czechoslovakia '68 was that in 1989 the Chinese democracy movement was not crushed by Soviet tanks, but by PLA ones.

Many Western leaders were politically "king hit" by the scenes of tanks rolling through the square.

Along with many Chinese, they had admired "Deng the political survivor", and enthusiastically followed his leadership as the Chinese people struggled to free themselves from the horrors and stupidities of the CCP-imposed Cultural Revolution.

Meanwhile, the arrival of each anniversary of the massacre continues to worry the CCP leadership. In the lead-up, dissidents continue to be arrested as a matter of course. The government's crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang serve as a reminder that placards for Tibetan independence were amongst those held high in the pro-democratisation rallies of 1989.

As for Tiananmen Square, since 1989 the government has been keen to maintain it as a centre for rallies only in support of the party leadership. Not long after 1989, the Beijing authorities erected a "Notice for Visiting the Monument to the People's Heroes" on a lower tier at this shrine at the centre of the square.

Learning the lesson that even individual expressions of grief for "revolutionary martyrs" can be the catalyst for mass anti-government protests, the authorities have stipulated: "Any commemorative activities at the Monument must be authorised by the Beijing Municipal Government or the Tiananmen Square Administrative Committee", and "Presenting wreaths, baskets of flowers, garlands and small flowers to the Monument must be approved by the Tiananmen Square Administrative Committee. Registrations of formalities should be made 5 days ahead." It would be hard to invent a more "perfect" bureaucratic solution to public spontaneity.

The Chinese economy is booming, but only for some. Hardly rating a mention has been the trend to rapidly increasing social disparity, dislocation of the rural and urban poor, the massive and continuous rise in official corruption, the arrests of struggling workers and repression of "illegal" worker organisations, the jailing of political dissidents, the special repressive measures within "ethnic minority areas" such as Tibet and Xinjiang -- policies that are also encouraged by the investment interests of both Western imperialism and south-east Asian capitalism.

It's a sign the government still fears the next of the mass movements, which, as far as China's bureaucratic leaders are concerned, have a habit of resurfacing with disturbing regularity.



Socialist Worker (US): 20 years since Tiananmen

From Socialist Worker (USA):

Dennis Kosuth tells the story of the revolt that shook China's rulers.

THE CHINESE national anthem, like for most countries, is militaristic, jingoistic and--unless one is a fan of marching--difficult to listen to.

Unlike most others, however, it begins with the line "Arise, all who refuse to be slaves" and calls on the people to "stand up." The lyrics were a product of the nationalist revolution of 1949, in which, following the defeat of the Japanese colonialists four years earlier, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was victorious in a civil war over the Nationalist Party.

In October 1949, Mao Zedong, leader of the CCP, addressed tens of thousands in Tiananmen Square, announcing the creation of a "People's Republic" free from imperialist occupation. Meaning "Gate of Heavenly Peace," Tiananmen is the entrance to the Forbidden City, the part of Beijing from which many emperors--figuratively and physically sealed off from the population--ruled China.

Four decades later, over the course of several weeks, hundreds of thousands would again "stand up" and occupy Tiananmen, supported by millions of people around the city and the country.

This was the Tiananmen Square rebellion, and its participants were "standing up" not to colonialism and occupation, but to economic crisis, corruption and autocracy--against a government that claimed to stand for socialism, but in reality ruled with an iron fist over an exploitative and oppressive system.

This regime eventually struck back against the Tiananmen uprising, crushing a revolt that threatened to shake its rule.

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WHAT HAPPENED over the course of those spring weeks in 1989? How did the conflict come to the point where so much blood was shed?

From the beginning, the system established by Mao's CCP was a state capitalist command economy, not socialism. The party and state bureaucracy made all the important decisions about society, with the aim of accomplishing national economic development along the lines of the Russian model established under Joseph Stalin's totalitarian rule.

By the 1970s, the ruling faction of the Chinese government, led by Deng Xiaoping, steered the country toward "socialism with Chinese characteristics." This meant unleashing free-market forces in the countryside, where 80 percent of the Chinese population lived, and developing industry in multiple coastal cities through foreign investment, and the use of Western technology and management techniques.

In order to further this economic strategy, the government had to educate a homegrown army of technicians, engineers and managers by expanding access to education. As part of this move, it was important to relax the political control of the CCP to some extent. Greater latitude to think and debate freely, especially within educational institutions, was a necessary precondition to economic reform.

Economic reforms did lead to 10 percent growth for almost every year during the 1980s, but there were still sharp ups and downs as the economy lurched forward. By 1988, the country was deep in an economic crisis, with inflation spiraling out of control.

While China's first efforts were modeled on Stalin's multiple five-year-plans, and Deng later incorporated free-market forces into his restructuring policies, both strategies had the common denominator of setting priorities based on the need to compete in an international capitalist economy.

This economic competition with the outside world was the whip that drove China to advance its economy at any cost necessary. Like Stalin's Russia, the rhetoric of socialism was merely a tool to motivate workers to produce more.

By the end of the 1980s, increased political freedom resulted in people feeling they could finally air their discontent. The ruling class, already divided as a result of internal battles over how to carry out its program, was unable to alleviate the economic crisis. On the contrary, while workers suffered from price inflation and mass layoffs, officials and businessmen were seen to be living better than ever. This was the tinder for the revolt.

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HU YAOBANG, the former general secretary of the CCP, died on April 15, 1989. Two years prior, he had been driven from his position in the party in disgrace because he was seen as challenging corruption.

In an obvious reference to then-84-year-old Deng, posters appeared around Beijing declaring: "The wrong man has died...Those who should die still live...Those who should live have died."

The first protest march on April 17 to Tiananmen Square only numbered in the hundreds, but the chants were indicative of the mood: "Long live Hu Yaobang. Long live democracy. Long live freedom. Down with corruption. Down with bureaucracy." As protests continued, Hu Yaobang became less a focus, and dissatisfaction with the status quo sharpened.

At its heart, the Tiananmen struggle was for bourgeois democratic rights--like those in a country like the U.S., where people have the freedom to vote and protest, even though a small minority holds political power in the interest of the rich. But compared to the CCP dictatorship, such democratic rights would have been a step forward.

The Tiananmen movement was being led by students and intellectuals, and had sympathizers among a small minority of the ruling class. Its demands found resonance within society at large, especially among the quickly growing urban working class.

As with any struggle, there were a variety of political ideas within the pro-democracy movement. A significant number of students identified with Western culture and economic systems. With Deng declaring, "to get rich is glorious," it isn't surprising that some people would take those words seriously, and want some idealized version of capitalist society.

Because of the temporary classless position of students--with the potential to become workers, bureaucrats or businessmen--many saw sense in appealing to a section of China's rulers to give them some political power, in exchange for their support.

Some sections of the students wanted to keep their struggle pure, separate from the rest of society. Others were aware that the movement had struck a chord with a significant section of society, giving it a power it never would have had otherwise.

Regardless of whether students were conscious of it, however, the mass character of the struggle--and the potential it represented--stirred fear among China's rulers, who prepared a bloody response.

Hu's official state funeral was to take place on April 22, across the street from Tiananmen Square. The night before, tens of thousands of students from universities and colleges across the city began pouring into the streets. The march grew to 100,000 and stretched more than two miles.

Nothing like it has been seen in China since the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Every Beijing institution was represented, including students from other cities.

Unperturbed by the presence of police and soldiers, the students refused to clear the square. As the octogenarians who ran the country were walked, wheeled and carried into Hu's service, chants of "Long live democracy, down with autocracy" could be heard echoing across the square.

From the party's perspective, this insolence could not go unanswered. The People's Daily editorial carried Deng's line characterizing the demonstrations as "planned conspiracy and turmoil, its essence is once and for all to negate the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system."

Instead of being intimidated, however, students were enraged. Meeting on the night of April 26, the Provisional Beijing Students' Union called for a mass march the next day. Thousands gathered on campuses across Beijing, broke through police lines and came together in a procession of 150,000. The government's ultimatum had been met with open defiance.

While hardliners in the CCP wanted to squash the movement through fear, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang sought a different approach, trying to placate the students. In his speech, he implicitly undercut Deng's editorial assertion and stated that there was "no great turmoil."

The old guard, of course, saw such conciliation as weakness. While the divisions had existed in China's ruling class previously, they were now clear for all to see.

The debate over how to deal with the protesters fell along similar lines to the argument about how to move forward with China's economic development. This was reflected, too, among the students, who held a variety of opinions as to the direction and speed that reforms should take.

The Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev--who was presiding over his own policies, called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), to reform state capitalism in the USSR--was due to arrive in Beijing on May 15. This would be the first visit from a Russian head of state since the split between the USSR and China in the early 1960s. The world lens would be focused on Beijing.

Meanwhile, students had embarked on a hunger strike to revitalize the movement, which had been waning in strength after Zhao's intervention.

The hunger strike was a success at raising the level of sympathy for the students' cause. On its fourth day, when 600 people were taken to the hospital, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the square to show their solidarity. British journalist Michael Fathers described the scene:

The following day, the students staged their biggest demonstration yet. At their encouragement, more than a million people took to the streets...Sympathy demonstrations broke out in at least 24 cities across the country...

Schoolchildren thrust tiny fists into the air, led by their teachers in chants of "long live democracy, down with corruption." Workers arrived from Beijing Brewery, the Capital Iron and Steel Works and the Beijing Jeep Corporation. "Get up and stand up for your rights," chanted a group of teenagers, carrying a black-and-white banner bearing the image of Bob Marley...

Of all the slogans, placards and flags on view in and around Tiananmen Square, the most worrying for the leadership was surely the long red banner carried by short-haired men in uniforms. "The People's Liberation Army," it announced in gold letters.

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THIS WAS the apex of the struggle, with demonstrations held in cities across the country. It was clear to the ruling bureaucracy that it had to act soon if the status quo was going to be maintained.

The army began its invasion of Beijing early on May 20, but the citizens of Beijing rose up to protect the students. As Fathers wrote:

The people's army had been outmaneuvered by the people. Without orders to open fire, troops sat disconsolately on the back of canvas-covered trucks, cradling their AK-47 rifles. Around them swarmed not only students in headbands, but workers, old women, middle-aged cadres, all of them chanting "Go home" and "The people's army should love the people."

This outpouring of support materialized because ordinary people supported the students against the government. While the workers didn't necessarily share all the political positions of the students, they were fed up with the system for their own reasons, and when the government ordered the invasion, they knew whose side they were on.

The Beijing Autonomous Union had been founded only weeks before by workers who wanted to do something around inflation and corruption, and saw their official state-run union as passive at best, and obstructionist at worst. As one of their posters summarized:

We have calculated carefully, based on Marx's Capital, the rate of exploitation of workers. We discovered that the "servants of the people" swallow all the surplus value produced by the people's blood and sweat...There are only two classes: the rulers and the ruled...The political campaigns of the past 40 years amount to a political method for suppressing the people...History's final accounting has yet to be completed.

Many students felt they had a friend in Zhao Ziyang, and that Deng's overall project of modernizing China was a step in the right direction. Most workers, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic about Deng's reforms, because they were the gears upon which China's economic development turned. The workers who took part in the struggle wanted independent organizations to defend their class interests.

But on the whole, the working class was unorganized. Its leadership in the struggle wasn't an option, so that role fell to students and intellectuals.

On May 30, the "Goddess of Democracy," a 30-foot plaster version of the Statue of Liberty, was erected in Tiananmen. But the number of students in the square was diminishing rapidly, and the arrival of the statue did little to bring in more support.

The Army moved in with a final assault on June 4, using tanks and live ammunition. The resistance, while heroic in its attempts to stop the advancing army, was ultimately futile.

It's difficult to say how many died, since the victor wanted to downplay the bloodshed in its version of history. Needless to say, the brunt of the violence was borne by the common citizens of the city, who had only buses, barricades and their bodies with which to confront the armed soldiers.

Much ink condemning the Chinese government was spilled in the Western media after the fact, and the image of one lone individual stopping the advance of a line of tanks was played and replayed.

But once the blood and broken bodies had been swept from the streets, the Western powers from which the condemnations came were all too eager to get back to business as usual with China.

Sadly, some organizations on the left today--like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, for example--continue to this day to make excuses for the CCP's slaughter at Tiananmen, on the bizarre reasoning that the Chinese government remained a defender of the working class.

This kind of twisted thinking has to be rejected outright if politics for true working class liberation, in China or anywhere else, are going to be put forward. Socialism is the polar opposite of the barbaric regime that crushed the Tiananmen Square revolt.

Anyone who believes in justice will look forward to the day when the Chinese working class, one of the largest in the world, will lead the struggle not only for its own emancipation, but the freedom of every oppressed group in China. When they do, they will be following in the tradition of the students and workers who gathered in Tiananmen in the spring of 1989.

ISO vs PSL: Tiananmen Square: Which side are you on?

Comment: Todd Chretien

Tiananmen Square: Which side are you on?

Todd Chretien asks how the Party of Socialism and Liberation could support China's Stalinist ruling class in its crushing of the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989.

June 17, 2009

TWENTY YEARS ago this month, the Chinese government cracked down on student and worker protests in Tiananmen Square. While socialists and revolutionaries of all stripes around the world defended the protesters, the forerunners of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) sided with the tanks--and not for the first time.

The PSL still defends the Chinese government's Tiananman Square massacre today--in the name of socialism.

PSL was formed recently after splitting with its co-thinkers in the Workers World Party (WWP). The WWP was founded a half century before, with the key issue being support for the 1956 Russian invasion of Hungary, when tanks and troops of the former USSR invaded to smash a workers' uprising against Stalinism.

Again in 1968, when workers and students in then-Czechoslovakia joined the international revolt, alongside their brothers and sisters from Mexico City to Paris to Chicago, Sam Marcy (a founder and long-time leader of WWP who died in 1998, and whose ideas PSL today claims as its ideological basis) argued, "We support the Warsaw Pact [Russian] intervention under present circumstances."

The WWP supported the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and it backed the 1981 Polish military coup against the Solidarnosc labor movement, which Marcy characterized as "counterrevolutionary." Thus, the PSL's enthusiasm for the repression carried out by the Chinese ruling bureaucracy in 1989 is not an aberration, but a consistent application of its theory of socialism.

Today, interest in socialist ideas is growing in the U.S., owing to the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. But it remains true that most people aren't familiar with the history of the socialist movement. The word can be given almost any content, depending on who you ask--Stalinism, Barack Obama's policies, Swedish social democracy, etc.

So while all radicals should celebrate the rebirth of socialism's popularity, we must also take the time to discuss exactly what it is and how to get it.

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IT IS in this context that two recent PSL restatements of support for the Tiananman massacre must be examined.

The PSL is a small, but dedicated and active force on the American left, and the organization stands on the right side of many issues: from opposing U.S. intervention abroad, to supporting immigrant rights, to defending same-sex marriage. The International Socialist Organization has worked with the PSL in many coalitions and movements, and will continue to do so, just as we work alongside liberals, anarchists, feminists and activists who hold many different ideas.

However, we also believe that raising and clarifying debates on the left is in the interest of strengthening the fight for social justice and a better world. The PSL and the ISO have a fundamental disagreement over the nature of socialism and how to achieve it--and so we have radically different reactions to the bloody repression in Tiananmen Square.

The first PSL statement examined here, published June 4, 2009, is a blow-by-blow defense of the Chinese government's repression [1] written by the PSL's Yenica Cortes:

During this time, the Tiananmen demonstration was becoming a focal point for general discontent. Workers joined the protests in limited numbers, raising demands against corruption, inflation and unemployment generated by the capitalist-oriented reforms. These demands, however, were demagogically tolerated by the counter-revolutionary thrust of the student leaders and their supporters within the [Chinese Communist Party, or CPC].

After weeks of unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with the protest leaders, including visits by senior leaders to the square itself, the CPC leadership declared martial law on May 20. By this time, the number of students in the square was diminishing, with many of those who had traveled to Beijing from other parts of the country returning to their homes.

The student leaders who remained in the square were pushing for a harder line with the government. On May 28, Chai Ling, who many of the students acknowledged as the "commander-in-chief" of the Tiananmen demonstrations, stated that the student leadership's goal was to provoke the Communist Party into attacking the demonstrators.

"I feel so sad," Chai sobbed to U.S. reporter Philip Cunningham. "How can I tell [the students in the Square] that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly? Only when the Square is awash in blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they be really united."

The bloodshed Chai and her fellow leaders hoped for did in fact take place. But it did not have the intended impact.

On June 2, unarmed People's Liberation Army troops were called in to regain control of the square. Students left the square to confront the troops in the streets leading to the square. Some of the unarmed troops were taken hostage.

On June 3, the soldiers were issued arms--"though under orders to avoid violence," as reported in a June 5 article in the Wall Street Journal. On June 4, however, demonstrators resorted to violent attacks on soldiers as protesters grabbed hold of army equipment and seized weapons.

The Chinese government denounced the attacks as counterrevolutionary and ordered the People's Liberation Army to retake the square. Although there were clashes with troops in the streets leading up to the square, most students left the square peacefully before the PLA troops arrived to establish order. The Chinese government reported that some 300 people, both students and PLA soldiers, had been killed in the clashes outside the square.

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HERE IS the ISO's analysis of the Tiananmen crackdown [2], written by Ahmed Shawki in 1997 in an article for the International Socialist Review:

The student protest began--in many ways despite some of the efforts of student leaders--to give confidence to others to fight. Maurice Meisner recounts: "Workers not only marched by the hundreds of thousands in the massive demonstrations in the capital on May 17-18; they also established their own organizations. The Beijing Workers' Union was organized in April, and the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Union was founded in mid-May."

But it was the massive participation of factory workers in protests on May 17 and subsequently that alarmed party leaders. The fear of a "Polish revolt" had haunted them for a decade--and is what finally prompted them to crack down.

The regime declared martial law, and on May 19 began moving thousands of as-yet-unarmed troops into Beijing. Alerted by protesting students, massive numbers of Beijing residents came out into the streets to block the army's entrance into the city, immobilizing many army units in a sea of people. On May 21, a million Beijing residents demonstrated against martial law. Many ordinary soldiers were shaken, but the army did not disintegrate. In a matter of days, the regime was able to arm and position tens of thousands of loyal troops for a planned crackdown.

Spring 1989 in Beijing was reminiscent of Poland in 1981 on the eve of martial law when "almost no one believed that Polish soldiers could be used against Polish workers." But this belief among Beijing residents, like that held by many Solidarity activists in Poland in 1981, proved equally misplaced.

As the participation of non-student groups increased, Deng was able to convince those party leaders who hesitated to use force that a crackdown was necessary. The regime--led by Deng Xiaoping and other party veterans--moved the troops into action on June 4. Hundreds were killed in the military crackdown as Beijing citizens fought pitched battles at makeshift barricades set up to stop the army's advance on Tiananmen Square.

The Tiananmen Square demonstrations showed how deep was the hatred for the regime. This was a tremendous mass movement, but it had serious weaknesses, not the least the elitism of the student activists. According to one historian, workers "were not, for example, permitted to use student facilities to publicize their call for a general strike; and they were repeatedly reminded that the protest movement was under the control of students, not workers." The movement was also unable to draw in Chinese peasants, an enormous part of the population.

In the end, the regime was able to crack down before workers were able to gather their forces and organize effectively in the factories and workplaces, though they participated in large numbers in street demonstrations. Tiananmen was not the end, but the beginning, of future, even more explosive, social unrest in China.

The contrast is clear. Cortes' analysis for the PSL is characterized by: (1) a downplaying of the participation of millions of workers in the Tiananmen movement; (2) sympathy for the ruling party's attempt to co-opt the movement and outright support for the military during its suppression of it; and (3) characterization of student leaders as "counter-revolutionary" as an excuse for why the government was correct to ignore the workers' legitimate demands and suppress their protests.

In contrast, Shawki's views for the ISO are characterized by: (1) a recognition of the genuine mass activity of the oppressed and exploited masses of workers and students; (2) sympathy for the Chinese students and workers, and hostility to the ruling party; and (3) a critique of some of the students' elitist ideas and an argument that the workers needed to better organize themselves in order to extend and continue the fight.

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THESE SHARPLY contrasting points of view are based on a disagreement about the class nature of China. The PSL believes that the 1949 revolution in China created a "workers' state"--and that China remains one today.

"It is indisputable that the basic trend toward more entrenched capitalist class relations has only deepened since 1978," PSL leader Brian Becker has written [3]. "This process is, however, unfinished. As long as the Communist Party of China retains its hold on political power, there is a possibility, however great or small, that this trend can still be reversed.

Following this line of thought, PSL leader Richard Becker wrote an article published June 15 [4] that criticizes a article by Dennis Kosuth ("Twenty years after Tiananmen Square" [5])--which Becker calls "the single worst article on the Chinese Revolution from an ostensibly 'left' perspective."

I'm very happy that Becker responded in print because it means that PSL's ideas can be examined in detail.

First, however, it is necessary to dispense with Becker's method of debate, which is unfortunately limited to the old rhetorical trick of assigning positions to your opponent that they do not hold, and then tearing them down.

For instance, Becker attributes to Kosuth "extraordinary hostility to the Chinese Revolution in its entirety." He bases this sweeping claim on Kosuth's statement that the Chinese national anthem is "difficult to listen to" (from a musical point of view).

However, Kosuth goes on to point out that, unlike most national anthems, the Chinese one begins with the words, "Arise, all who refuse to be slaves." He explains that those lyrics were the "product of the nationalist revolution of 1949," and he goes on to describe the scene in 1949 as "Mao Zedong, leader of the CCP, addressed tens of thousands in Tiananmen Square, announcing the creation of a 'People's Republic' free from imperialist occupation."

Nevertheless, Becker continues his attack on Kosuth's supposed "hostility" to the revolution, ascribing to him "cultural arrogance, jingoism and apparent ignorance" because Kosuth does not describe in detail the "heroic revolutionary process that spanned decades" leading up to 1949.

There's just one problem with Becker's overheated reaction. Kosuth's article was not about the history of China leading up to 1949. Instead, Kosuth concentrates on explaining the decades leading up to 1989. Now, Becker is free to argue that Kosuth ought to have written a different article, but he is not free to make up false claims about the ISO based on what he wishes had written about.

In fact, Becker knows perfectly well that the ISO recognizes the victory of Mao's Red Army over Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist forces as a triumph over imperialism, like the victory of Castro's rebel army against Batista in Cuba.

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ASIDE FROM Becker's distortions, there are some real disagreements at stake in what he writes criticizing Kosuth. They deserve to be taken up point by point.

The Outcome of the 1949 Revolution

There isn't enough space here to explain all the details of the debate over what replaced the vestiges of Chinese feudalism and colonial domination after 1949. However, the debate is not, as Becker claims the ISO maintains, whether "the revolution had no discernible achievements at all." Of course, there were many important changes as a result of 1949, as Becker details, and as Ahmed Shawki points out as well in his ISR article.

The real debate is whether or not the Chinese working class came to power and developed a socialist political system ("The 1949 Chinese revolution was socialist in character," as Becker writes)--or whether the Chinese Communist Party took power on behalf of and ruling over the working class and peasantry, and embarked on a nationalist economic path to break free from colonial domination, while replacing free market exploitation with state exploitation of the masses (as the ISO maintains).

To briefly state this case, the ISO argues that the 1949 revolution, which primarily took the form of a long military campaign led by Mao and the Red Army, succeeded in expelling the old U.S., British and Japanese colonial interests, while dividing up the land of the powerful rural gentry and nationalizing the property of the weak urban capitalists.

This was a blow against imperialism. But land reform and nationalization in China was accomplished via military and party decree. The Chinese working class never had power as the new rulers of China. Judged from Karl Marx's point of view that socialism is the "self-emancipation of the working class," Chinese workers never achieved political power.

Moreover, China's new rulers weren't implementing socialism, but a form of state-led economic development, where power and privilege remained in the hands of an elite bureaucracy. In direct opposition to the PSL's belief that the Chinese Communist Party stands as a barrier against capitalism, the ISO argues that the CCP (and the state it rules) functions as the agent of exploitation.

In recent decades, the Chinese party-state apparatus has opened the Chinese economy to the world, and has become a favorite place for Corporate America to do business. But the class relations of Chinese society have remained the same. The ISO argues that China, like Russia after Stalin came to power, is an example of state capitalism, and that it uses the mask of socialism to obscure its real nature.

Becker doesn't offer any proof of his assertion that China is socialist, other than to reference the Shangai Commune created by workers in 1967 in opposition to the ruling bureaucracy.

Now, this is a strange sort of proof. Leaving aside an assessment of this political event itself, Becker cannot argue that state created in 1949 was "socialist in character" with one breath, and then hail the efforts of workers to organize against that same state with a program "modeled on the Paris Commune" with the next. After all, the workers in Paris were striving to overthrow capitalist rule!

In his ISR article, Shawki exhaustively explains the history of the Chinese economy and class struggle, so there is no reason to go any further here. But one other point should be made.

Becker is at pains to point to China's anti-imperialism, but he remains silent on actions taken by the same ruling class that were demonstrably imperialist--for instance, China's oppressive rule in Tibet, or, perhaps even more starkly, China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam, the country that suffered the most from American imperialism in the second half of the 20th century.

Why would "socialist China" invade Vietnam only four years after that country finally defeated the United States? I would suggest that members of PSL ask themselves a simple question: in the name of exactly what socialist principle did the "socialist" regime they are defending with such vigor invade Vietnam?

The Enemy of My Enemy Is...

Becker's next evidence that China must be socialist, and that Kosuth "and the editors of Socialist Worker" are "ignorant of Chinese history," is based on the United States' hostility to China during the Cold War. This is the faulty "enemy of my enemy must be... socialist" line of reasoning that is easily dispelled. For example, the United States today is threatening Iran in much the same way it used to threaten China. Does that make Iran socialist? Of course not.

There is a long history of different capitalist countries being at each other's throats, as well as struggles of former colonies to break free from their imperial masters. These confrontations are important to understand, but they don't automatically make all the enemies of the United States socialist or even progressive.

The Collapse of Stalinism

The remainder of Becker's piece is mostly a restatement of PSL's support for the official Chinese government's version of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

However, there is one other argument that deserves discussion. In asserting that the ISO's opposition to Stalinism is based on "opportunism"--another loaded charge that is at odds with the ISO's history, as Becker knows well, even if he disagrees with us politically--he lays bare a crucial argument for those who want to understand PSL's theory of socialism. Becker writes:

The fall of 1989 saw the overturning of most of the socialist-oriented governments in Eastern Europe, which subsequently led to the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991. These developments resulted in a new world relationship of forces with the United States emerging as the undisputed "lone superpower." The demise of the Soviet Union gave a green light to Washington for war and sanctions against Iraq and Yugoslavia, tightening the blockade of Cuba, intensified attacks on unions and social programs--the list goes on.

Have Kosuth and the ISO forgotten all of this? Do they not recognize that the victory of the Tiananmen protesters and their supporters inside the CCP would have made U.S. imperialism's victory in 1989-91 even more complete?

The first thing to say about this telling statement is that it turns out the CCP's victory over the students and working class in 1989 led it to create an ever-closer capitalist bond with the United States that has greatly aided American imperialism--for example, with the Chinese government currently serving as the chief purchaser of U.S. government debt.

So the question is: How exactly has the "victory" over the Tiananmen Square protesters hurt American imperialism?

But it is important to consider the other "victories for U.S. imperialism" that Becker identifies in this statement--the fall of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and in Russia itself by 1991. In this view, the regimes that came to power under Stalin in the USSR and under the Stalinist satellites in Eastern Europe represent a legitimate version of socialism. That model was later extended to China and many other countries.

There are a large variety of different circumstances and different national characteristics that mark each of these events (Stalin came to power by smashing the Russian Revolution; Ho Chi Minh and Castro had to defeat U.S. imperialism). But the unifying characteristic of these nations was that the working class did not hold power.

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IT IS worth pointing out that there are many other anti-Stalinist socialists who, like the PSL, characterize (now or in the past) China as some sort "workers' state"--while at the same time agreeing with the ISO that the students and workers in Tiananmen were 100 percent right to protest, and the Chinese Communist Party was 100 percent wrong to suppress them. These Trotskyist currents, such as the Fourth International, also opposed the Stalinist repression in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1981.

This doesn't mean that the difference of opinion between the ISO and the Fourth International about the nature of Stalinism is irrelevant. However, it does mean that we've stood on the same side of the barricades against Stalinism.

On the other hand, the PSL, despite its formal origins in the anti-Stalinist socialist movement, has stood on the side of the bureaucrats' tanks in too many instances, precisely because they see the Stalinist regimes as the embodiment of socialism.

The regimes are the active agents, while the Russian, Chinese, Cuba working class are passive. Thus, positive change in these countries can only be initiated by the rulers. As Becker writes, "The overthrow of the CCP, under the current circumstances, or those in 1989, would not have been a step forward." In effect, the PSL's regime theory of socialism extends Becker's "current circumstances" backward to Stalin's coming to power, and forward into the distant future.

The ISO, by contrast, upholds Karl Marx's idea that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. Socialism is the direct, democratic rule of workers, who produce for society's needs, rather than the wealth and power of bankers or Stalinist bureaucrats. Socialism can be only achieved through revolutionary struggle from below, not through invasions of tanks and troops.

This debate that gets to the very heart of what socialism is--and how we organize to fight for it.

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What else to read

Ahmed Shawki’s “China: From Mao to Deng” [6] from the International Socialist Review looks at the rise of Mao and the development of China up to the death of Deng Ziaoping--and shows that "socialism with Chinese characteristics" had nothing to do with the socialism of Karl Marx.

Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism [7], a collection of essays by Anthony Arnove, Peter Binns, Chris Harman, Ahmed Shawki and others shows that Stalin’s dictatorship was not the inevitable outcome of the Russian Revolution, but a reversal of everything it stood for.

For an introduction to the ideas of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the leading opponent of Stalinism, read Duncan Hallas' Trotsky's Marxism and Other Essays [8].

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Material on this Web site is licensed by, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd 3.0) [9] license, except for articles that are republished with permission. Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and

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Both the ISO and the PSL are mistaken

Both the ISO and the PSL are mistaken in my view. The ISO does not recognise
that China had a social revolution. The PSL does not understand the process of
bureaucratic degeneration and capitalist restoration.

For a third view, see:

Chris Slee

June 1990: `` The Beijing massacre one year later''

Here is Kristian Whittaker's article written one year after the massacre. Excuse the funny formatting and odd characters. It appeared in Direct Action, June 1990. Direct Action was the forerunner of Green Left Weekly.

The Beijing massacre one year later

One year ago, troops crushed the democracy movement in Beijing.
Since then, the regime has claimed -- and some Western journalists have
backed it at least in part -- that accounts at the time were greatly
exaggerated and that little or no bloodshed was involved. KRISTIAN WHITTAKER,
who was in Beijing covering the events for Direct Action, presents the

* * *

Wending Yadao Yiqie, ``Stability must crush all else'', has been one
of the most common slogans promoted by the official Chinese press since late
last year. Since 1979, when Deng Xiaoping ordered the crushing of the Democracy
Wall movement, slogans of unity and stability have been a constant feature of
the Deng regime.

With the official press openly reverting to Maoist sloganeering, with hack
writers from the Cultural Revolution resurrected and unleashed on the Beijing
population, with the People's Liberation Army subjected to another campaign to
<169>Learn from Lei Feng<170> (Mao's model soldier of the Cultural Revolution),
the Li Peng government is clearly nervous that the population of Beijing was
less than appreciative of the government's June 4 response to the students'
peaceful occupation of Tienanmen Square.

In the early hours of June 4, after listening in the square to students and
teachers denounce Li Peng's imposition of martial law and call for a continued
occupation of the square, I began to make my way eastwards along Jianguomen
Road. At that time, I believe, no-one in the square had any idea that the army
had already begun to shoot unarmed protesters at Muxidi, 10 kilometres

As I wended my way through the huge crowds of protesters, a speeding armored
personnel carrier, breaking through to the eastern side of the square, was the
first indication I had of the <S>PLA<D>'s intention to smash through the
protesting crowds. At Jianguomen Bridge, a crushed body < 197> that of a person
who'd been sitting atop an army truck fraternising with soldiers <197> bore
witness to the carrier driver's willingness to try to crash through a barricade
at the cost of crushing people.

The machine-gunning by tank personnel of fleeing, unarmed protesters on
Jianguomen Bridge, which occurred when a tank column broke through from the east
on its way to the square, settled any doubts as to the government's intentions.
By about 5.30 a.m., the sound of machine-gunning from the square itself echoed
around central Beijing. Later that afternoon ( June 4) I listened to the tales
of fleeing students. Though often confused on details of exact times and places,
the students spoke consistently of the army killing unarmed people.

The Beijing media's own open and courageous reporting of the mass movement ended
abruptly, but not before the June 4 evening edition of the <I> People's Daily<D>
carried these words: <169>In the early hours of June 4, the army forced its way
into Tienanmen Square. Continuous reports have been received from major Beijing
hospitals of deaths and casualties.<170>

@fsubh = Cover-up

From this point on, the Chinese government began desperately to push its own
version of the eight weeks of protests up to June 4 and the events through to
June 9. Its version of reality soon came unstuck. There had been no shooting by
the army in the square at all, was the initial line. However, this denial was
almost immediately contradicted by the army officer in charge.

Next the official body count varied amazingly.

Over the following months, the government, army and Public Security Bureau
churned out books documenting their version of events, complete with selective

The basic line has been that there was no massacre, merely the army's shooting
of rioters in self-defence <197> even if a few innocent people happened to get
in the way. The rioters, and indeed the student movement as a whole, had been
influenced by a small handful of counter- revolutionaries who wanted to
overthrow the party and socialism, to establish a bourgeois, Western-style

On the heels of this campaign, some Australian journalists have sown some seeds
of confusion themselves. Linda Jaivin, a specialist writer on China, has
recently rebutted the main doubts about the massacre put forward by Philip
Knightley and echoed by Padraic McGuinness.

@fsubh = Outside the `square'

Jaivin points out that these journalists' preoccupation with killings in the
square itself falls into line with the Chinese government's push to direct
attention away from the larger-scale killings on the approaching roads.

The government, she writes, has redefined the square itself to fit the concept
of many foreign journalists: <169>Since the mid-1950s the official definition of
Tienanmen Square has always included not only the paved plaza where the monument
to the people's heroes stands but also the Avenue of Heavenly Peace from Xidan
in the west to Dongdan in the east, including Liubukou (a scene, by all
accounts, of terrible bloodshed) as well as the street in front of Tienanmen
Gate and running a block past the Peking Hotel to the east.<170>

As for the square itself, <169>I have interviewed witnesses who concur that
shortly after the evacuation of students began, soldiers attacked students from
behind with knives, bayonets and gunfire and <193> chased them with armoured
personnel carriers and tanks <193> There have been other independent reports
which claim that after the students left, another group of people, possibly
workers in an unarmed `dare to die' squad, dashed back into the square and onto
the monument, where they were beaten and ultimately annihilated by the advancing
troops <193> It is useful to ponder why the official government video of the
`peaceful evacuation' of students from the centre of the square, <193> intended
to be the final persuasive piece of evidence that no one was killed in the
square, cuts off suddenly before the evacuation was completed.<170> (<169> And
now the facts on Tienanmen Square<170>, <I>Australian Society,<D> May 1990).

For China scholar Geremie Barme, working in the Tienanmen Documentation project
at the Australian National University, the fact of the massacre as such is not
in question. <169>In my opinion, the first account of the massacre published in
the Hong Kong newspaper <I>Wen Hui Bao<D> is the most reliable. It describes
killing in the square and the last minute massacre, after the evacuation of most
of the students, of protesters around the monument to the people's heroes. As
for the arguments over the body count, I tend to agree with the Amnesty
International Report. This report was compiled after eyewitness interviews
covering over 650 people, and points to at least 1000 deaths. The Documentation
Project holds accounts from 30 families who have never been able to get back
bodies of relatives killed between June 3-9.<170>

@fsubh = Armored vehicles at speed

Barme visited Beijing last December and <169>noted visible evidence of extreme
military violence from the June 4 period. It was evident that on three sides of
the monument to the people's heroes the steps had been crushed by the
tread-wheels of armoured vehicles. If the final clearing of the square was
peaceful, why was it necessary to send in tanks, at speed, on three sides?<170>

He continues, <169>As for the crushing of the steps on the three sides of the
monument, there are no accounts of students who survived the clearing of the
square that speak of how this occurred. But we do have eyewitness accounts which
speak of a `do or die' group of protesters going back into the square after the
evacuation, as well as accounts by people who heard, around 5.30 a.m., long
volleys of machinegun fire from the square.<170>

Wu Ming participated in the hunger strike in the square. His personal account,
following Philip Knightley's comments, was published in the Melbourne <I>Sunday
Herald<D> on April 15.

At 10 p.m. on June 3, Wu Ming and others were facing armed police outside the
central government compound Zhongnanhai just west of the square. <169> As we
were standing there, a bicycle suddenly sped down a road from the west. The two
young riders on it were screaming: `The army is killing people!' We were
incredulous. How could the People's Liberation Army have possibly opened fire on
unarmed citizens? I just couldn't believe it. I didn't know at that time that
one of my best friends <193> had already been killed at Muxidi.<170>

Two hours later Wu Ming was in a crowd facing troops at Xidan, west of the
square. <169>We did not resort to any force or violence. We simply joined hands
and sang `The Internationale'. In tears, we pleaded in unison: `Turn back! Turn
back!' For some ten minutes, the soldiers took no action. Then, without warning,
the troops opened fire on us. People cursed, screamed and ran. In no time 70 or
80 people had collapsed around me. Blood spattered, staining my clothes.<170>

Later, Wu Ming was at Liubukou, close to the square. <169>A man with a Chinese
journalist's identity badge on his shirt, waving a journalist's identity card
all covered with blood, rushed towards the troops screaming, `Kill me! Kill me!
You've already killed three of my colleagues!' Then I saw them shoot him and
when he fell several soldiers rushed over to kick him and to slash at him with
their bayonets.<170>

By about 4 a.m., Wu Ming was back in the square. "<193> all the lights in the
square went off. We were thrown into darkness. After some time the lights went
on again, and immediately the troops surrounding the square began firing
indiscriminately. A girl who was about three metres from me went down with a
bullet in her head. I hurried over to wrap her head in a piece of clothing. I
still see her lying there with her blood-drenched headband with the three words
`I love China' written across it.<170>

He ran back to join the sit-in at the centre of the square. <169>By now the
soldiers and armed police had penetrated the crowd, beating, kicking and
whipping people with batons and striking at them with bayonets in an effort to
drive them out <193> Those of us who still had some strength helped the
exhausted and those in a state of shock to leave. It was chaotic. At this point
tanks were following us closely. I looked back, and on top of and immediately
surrounding the monument were 200-300 workers and students who refused to leave.
As I and others approached the edge of the square from the direction of the
monument we suddenly heard an explosion of gunfire, and the screams of people in
pain. I could not see what was happening at the monument, so I do not know how
many people were wounded or killed there.<170><F129M>I<F255D>

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