From the March 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard
The student demonstrations which began in various parts of China in December have culminated in the resignation (which means dismissal) of Hu Yaobang, General Secretary of the "Communist" Party. It is clear, though, that top political bosses are not sacked because of a few thousand demonstrators, and that there has been a power struggle behind the scenes in Beijing.
The students demonstrated under the banner of "freedom and democracy". For some this meant a proper system of elections to local political bodies, for others a multi-party political system, while for yet others it was just a slogan with no specific content. Wall posters went up at university campuses, attacking Party leaders. The government warned that sticking up such posters was illegal and banned all demonstrations that did not have official permission. On New Year's Day, several thousand students flouted this ban and demonstrated in the main square in the centre of Beijing; two dozen students were arrested. Later the same day, students returned to the square and obtained the release of those arrested earlier.
Despite this climb-down, the government tried to discredit the student movement by pointing out that only one per cent of the country's students had been involved and claiming that these had been misled by agitators who were not even students. A factory-worker from Shanghai was arrested for founding a new political party. Academics who had supposedly encouraged the protests were attacked in the press, especially Fang Lizhi, deputy head of a college in Hefei. Despite the evidence of some more general support — Beijing bus passengers cheered the marching student demonstrators — it clearly was very much a minority movement. confined to a few big cities and with vague and sometimes contradictory aims.
It is hardly likely, then, that Party leaders really had anything concrete to fear from the student movement. It was on a much smaller scale than previous activities along such lines, like the Democracy Wall events of 1978-9. One Shanghai poster harked back to the late seventies and showed that the memory of past dissent and struggle lingers on: "If you want to know what freedom is, just go and ask Wei Jingsheng." (Wei was jailed in 1979 for writing a long wall-poster attacking the Communist Party). What seems to have happened is that the demonstrations were seized on by some members of the top leadership as a pretext for attacking their opponents.
Since 1978, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese economy has undergone major changes. Main reforms have included setting up a large number of joint ventures with other capitalist countries, greater powers for factory managers to fix their own prices and products, and opening the way for individuals to make large private fortunes. Generally, there has been a rejection of the old Maoist emphasis on centralisation, national self-sufficiency and narrow political dogma. The fundamental nature of Chinese capitalism has not altered at all — society remains divided into haves and have-nots — but some members of the ruling class have long objected to the new policies, on the grounds that they opened doors to such dangerous notions as freedom of speech, democracy and decentralisation.
It was these "conservative'' leaders who used the student demonstrations to attack the economic reforms as being responsible for the unacceptable demands for democracy to be extended. The government's giving way to the students on New Year's Day was seen as an unmistakeable sign of weakness. Although Deng had apparently at first encouraged — or at least supported — Fang Lizhi's remarks, he was able to deflect the attacks onto Hu Yaobang. Though very much Deng's man, Hu has never really presented himself as an outspoken advocate of reform. He turned out, however, to be primarily a Deng loyalist with no independent power-base of his own. So he was forced to resign, making abject confession of, and apology for, his own past mistakes.
All the things the conservatives dislike about the last decade's policies have been lumped together under the label "bourgeois liberalisation". It is only people like Fang (now sacked from his job and expelled from the Party) who have been accused of supporting this deviation. Hu has simply been charged with being soft on repressing it. It is also being revealed now that he has for years been in disagreement with Deng — part of a time-honoured ritual when Chinese leaders are kicked out.
The Chinese press is now full of attacks on bourgeois liberalisation and how and why to combat it. It is defined as "an idea negating the socialist system in favour of capitalism'. Its advocates do not just want economic reform, they want to "take the capitalist road". Rather than political reform, they want to copy capitalist practices. A particular manifestation of bourgeois liberalism is the theory of "complete Westernisation", taking over the features of Western capitalism lock, stock and barrel; this is what Fang is accused of. This is all to be combatted by strengthening the Party's control.
In the writings of the newly-ascendant clique, the policy of opening the country to the outside world is endorsed, but with limits. Certainly China is undergoing economic difficulties, with rising inflation and a decrease in overseas investment. The reforms have not delivered all that was promised and have produced problems of their own. Trying to administer capitalism — whether state or private or a mixture of the two — without encountering ups and downs is just impossible. But it should not be forgotten that the real victims of the vicissitudes of Chinese capitalism are not Hu and Fang but the working people.