Chinese Democracy Movements In 1978, stimulated by the opening of China to the West and also by the “reversal of verdicts” against the 1976 Tiananmen protesters (These demonstrations against the gang of four had been condemned as counter-revolutionary at the time but were now declared a revolutionary act), thousands of Chinese began to put their thoughts into words, their words onto paper and their paper onto walls to be read by passers by. The most famous focus of these displays became a stretch of blank wall just to the west of the former forbidden city in Beijing, part of which was now a museum and park and part the cluster of residences for China’s most senior National leaders. Because of the frankness of some of these posters and the message that some measure of democratic freedom should be introduced in China, this Beijing area became known as Democracy Wall. The background to the Democracy Wall movement was the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four Period and the April Fifth movement, which opposed the Gang. Many of the views expressed during the Democracy Wall movement regarding the corruption of the party and its lack of legitimacy as a representative of the people are directly related to the main concerns of the Cultural Revolution Rebels and indeed many of the same people, both workers and former students were involved.
The Democracy Wall Movement was a movement for what its participants regarded as real democracy. This was not generally the Western Parliamentary variety but was Described by Wei Jingsheng as the holding of power by the labouring masses themselves. True Democracy for him was the right of the people to choose their own representatives who will work according to their will and in their interests. Furthermore the people must always have the power to replace their representatives so that these representatives cannot go on deceiving others in the name of the people. Primarily the movement demanded that the Chinese people be allowed to exercise the rights which had long existed on paper, including the right s of free speech and freedom of assembly, freedom of organisation and freedom of publication.
Again the concern with legal guarantees for these rights echoes the post-Cultural Revolution, early 1970s demand for “socialist Legality” expressed by Li Yizhe, “the legal protection of the people from arbitrary arrest or political persecution. The views of the Democracy wall Movement led them to oppose the remaining followers of the Gang of Four. In this the movement was useful to Deng Xiaoping and he actually seems to have encouraged it while it suited him. When questioned about democracy wall by overseas visitors he reaffirmed more than once that the Chinese people had every right to express their views and that the CCP was not in the least concerned with the criticism in the posters. However he changed his view later on. During 1979, the movement progressed from using wall-posters to publishing unofficial journals.
Again this was a national development and was not merely confined to Beijing. Most Chinese cities had at least one journal and the bigger cities had as many as half a dozen, including campus publications by students. Some journals were purely literary others were mainly political, concentrating on politics, current affairs and social issues such as poor living standards and youth unemployment. The problem of democratic management in industry was widely discussed, not surprisingly since many of the editors of these journals were themselves workers. Proposals for self-management by workers without party interference found considerable support amongst journal writers. Many journals focused on human rights, but this soon proved to be a touchy subject.
Human rights activists were criticised for slavishly following the Americans, and were told that western-style human rights were inferior to China’s existing socialist system and had nothing to offer the country. Posters and journals began to explicitly criticise Mao, with many arguing that the Gang of Four could never have gained power and held on to it for so long without Mao’s backing. Although attacks on the Gang of Four were welcomed by Deng Xiaoping any wholesale discrediting of Mao was not, since it called into question the legitimacy of the whole Chinese revolution and was likely to alienate the army among whom respect for Mao was still very high. The official crackdown against Democracy Wall began as early as the spring of 1979 although the movement survived another two years after that, if in increasingly difficult circumstances. As mentioned earlier Deng had at first found the movement useful because it attacked his enemies and because it could be shown to the outside world as evidence of the existence of freedom of speech liberalisation an important point as diplomatic relations with Carter’s America were being normalised. But once Deng had consolidated power he had no further use for the movement and indeed it threatened his own rule as criticism of the corrupt and elitist party mounted along with complaints over living standards and industrial unrest.
These complaints also applied to him and his supporters. So Deng began suppressing the movement with the arrest of many prominent activists. Wei Jingsheng was arrested at the end of March 1979 and sentenced to fifteen years for a variety of offences ranging from being late to work at Beijing zoo to selling military secrets to Vietnam. Given his outspoken criticism of Deng Xiaoping (for using “the time-honoured methods of fascist dictators”) the length of his sentence was hardly surprising. Various Democracy Wall publications and organisations tried to register with the authorities (because under the constitution they had every right to exist provided they were legally registered.) But they were refused registration on a variety of pretexts and were banned in the early 1980s.
Mainly for self protection, to ensure the continued existence of the movement, moves began in 1980 to form a national organisation of publishers of independent journals and a national federation was eventually formed by those still at liberty in September 1980 This move to national organisation was perceived by the party leadership as a great threat, and this development helped to precipitate the final suppression of the movement. Another development had a similar effect. From late 1980 onwards, the Democracy Wall Movement was accompanied by outbreaks of industrial unrest as well, including strikes in some areas. Some striking workers demanded free trade unions and in some cases independent unions were actually formed (although they didn’t last long) Some of the Chinese unofficial Chinese journals had reported on solidarity in Poland including the organisation’s 21 demands the first of which was for free trade unions. So Democracy Wall was blamed for inspiring and organising the strikes and seen as a bigger threat.
The party feared a Chinese solidarity with workers linking up with the Democracy wall Movement and so providing a base of mass support. This was behind the party’s promises of democratic management for industry. There was no solidarity in China and the final crushing of Democracy Wall came in early spring 1981. The movement was put down on the grounds that it threatened the unity and stability of China which was vital if the economic reforms were to succeed. The party also claimed that the movement had violated Deng’s four cardinal principles (support for Marxism-Leninism/Mao Zedong thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the leadership of the CCP) On these criteria many people had indeed overstepped the bound and the movement was thoroughly suppressed. Student Demonstrations 1986-1987 Part of the background to these events was the conflict going on within the party over how far and how fast economic reform ought to go. At the party Congress in 1985, Chen Yun had spoken for the more conservative old guard of the party when he called for a return to communist ideals and complained about all the talk about the desirability of markets, and about the over-heating of the economy caused by a period of extremely rapid growth.
This group in the leadership also complained about the inequality of reform with a disproportionate amount going to the coastal regions. There were also worries that the centre was giving up to much control over the provinces and that those provinces doing well were avoiding paying taxes to the centre, reducing government funds. The old guard called for a retreat or at least a slow down in reform. But the reformist faction led by Hu Yaobang (head of the party) and Zhao Ziyang (premier) (Deng’s two proteges) was keen to press on. Not only did they keep the economic reforms going but they restarted the debate on political reform which had been stifled when Democracy Wall was crushed.
Once a high level signal had been given that political reform might be on the agenda, a few prominent people spoke out notably astro-physicist Fang Lizhi who addressed audiences at several universities and called for far-reaching political change in China and for people to be able to exercise their human rights. Fang became something of a student hero and it is no co-incidence that the student demonstrations broke out first in Hefei where Fang was vice-president of the University of Science and Technology. The demonstrations began here in December 1986 and spread to universities in other cities. The demonstrations called for more democracy and more public participation in political life and for an end to corruption amongst party officials. So in terms of their main concerns they can be seen as a direct forerunner of 1989.
But the main event that sparked off the demonstrations shows that political democracy was a very important concern. Towards the end of 1986 elections were held for local people’s congresses (the main organ of local government across china). There was a precedent for using elections to express dissent. Democracy Wall activists had stood for election to the local people’s congresses in 1980 and had made a very good showing despite party harassment and intimidation of them and their supporters. In a number of cases the elections had to be blatantly rigged or the results disregarded to prevent democracy activists actually winning seats. After 1980 control of election was tightened up again. But by 1986 there was talk of political reform and there were hopes mainly amongst students and intellectuals that something might come of it this time.
So when in November the National People’s Congress tightened the rule governing independent candidates for local elections thus making it harder for those not approved by the party to stand there was a great deal of anger and frustration. In the elections a certain amount of passive resistance was noted by the dissident and writer Wang Ruowang of Shanghai. He reported that in one Shanghai district the first round of elections was declared void due to the high number of spoiled ballot papers. People had written in names like Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse or names of characters from popular Chinese fiction. Sometimes the names written in were more obviously political at one mechanical Technical School the invalid ballots contained the names of Fang Lizhi, Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang.
Also instead of dispersing after voting people stayed to hear the results. Election in factories were disrupted and in some cases workers had to be forced to vote with the threat of fines. So demonstrations were held by the students of the Science and Technology University in Hefei to protest against party interference in the election and these soon spread to Shanghai and throughout China. Hu Yaobang tended to take a conciliatory line but the conservatives favoured a crackdown. Deng Xiaoping stepped in and said “Bourgeois Liberalisation” had gone too far and ordered the local party authorities to end the demonstration which they did.
Hu Yaobang resigned as head of the party, taking responsibility for the demonstrations. He became something of a hero to students since he was thought to have been sympathetic to the demonstrators Hu had earlier in his career been an official in the Communist Youth League so he was seen as the student’s friend. This was ironic because Hu had been at the forefront of the crackdown on the democracy wall movement and one of the first to condemn the participants in that movement as counter-revolutionaries. 1989 Democracy Movement 15 April 1989 Hu Yaobang died as I mentioned Hu was respected by students he was believed to have supported student calls for democracy and opposed campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalisation. The demonstrations were ostensibly to show respect for Hu but quickly developed into a large scale movement criticising the party for its corruption, mismanagement and failure to establish democracy. Very large demonstrations took place not only in Beijing but in cities and towns all over China; the biggest were over a million strong the two main groups of protestors were students and workers.
The students were something of a proto-elite supporting the reform movement within the party led by Zhao Ziyang. Not many intended for democracy to include the Chinese masses, they were often scornful of the ability of peasants and workers to play any political role but they wanted an end to political corruption, control of inflation and an increased political role for themselves. Their groups seem to have been troubled by concerns about personal prestige with several different people claiming to have been the “Commander in Chief of Tiananmen Square” The workers were more sceptical of all top leaders for example they criticised Zhao Ziyang for his and his families wealthy and bourgeois lifestyle (golf habit). The Workers were unwilling to accept student dominance over worker’s organisations. Their shop floor organisational efforts were hampered especially after martial law and they were kept out of Tiananmen Square itself by the students until the last days of occupation. But they did form independent unions which also had a political function, being intended to give workers a collective voice in national and local decision-making as well as protecting their interests at work.
The Workers still saw Poland’s solidarity, which was legalised 2 days after Hu Yaobang’s death, as a model to follow. The Workers targeted the system from the beginning whilst many students seemed to want to join the system and reform it from within. Workers called the party elite a bourgeoisie and quoted the Communist Manifesto “workers of the worlds unite..” Unlike its predecessor …