The Chinese Student Demonstrations

By Levy, Richard | Monthly Review, September 1987 | Go to article overview

The Chinese Student Demonstrations


Levy, Richard, Monthly Review


THE CHINESE STUDENT DEMONSTRATIONS

The recent student demonstrations in China must make observers question both the theoretical and class bases and the goals of these demonstrations.

Many in the West have been excited by these demonstrations. From our newspapers and TV we have learned about calls for "democracy' and "freedom,' criticism of bureaucratism and special privilege, students enthralled with a reporter from the Voice of America, and a relatively heavy-handed official reaction. The slogans that we know about are so vague that virtually everyone can support them. Consequently progressives are excited by the challenge to bureaucratism and the demand for popular input, while conservatives are excited by what they see as the challenge to Communism and the movement toward capitalism. Even with the information available to a few here who can read Chinese-language magazines like Zheng Ming, it is still unclear what "the students' are struggling for, although experience tells me that different students and groups of students must be struggling for many different and contradictory goals.

As one who has studied China's political and economic system extensively, visited China numerous times to see the results of China's differing policies firsthand, and been an activist in progressive movements in the United States for nearly twenty years, I have some questions about the movement and its supporters.

Who Is Demonstrating and For What?

From the information available, the main body of demonstrators are university students across China. Only marginal links to workers, peasants, or other sectors of society have been claimed. The recent demonstrations, I believe, must be seen as part of a wider, ongoing movement, the content and boundaries of which are not clearly defined. Recent student demands have ranged from better food and living conditions in universities through student participation in running the universities, to "democracy' and "freedom,' e.g., open, competitive elections, freedom of the press, etc. Some criticism of Deng Xiaoping and of certain aspects of the economic reforms--inflation, increased taxes--have been mentioned, but as a whole, the demonstrations seem supportive of the "reform' group in the CCP leadership. Other aspects of the more general movement are reflected in articles, such as those in Zheng Ming, e.g., should the ownership system be transformed in the direction of joint-stock and small collective forms of ownership; how should the varying interests of different, newly emerging social groups be politically represented; is there a special role for technical intellectuals as implied in Deng Xiaoping's position that science is a productive force, and so on.

The main theme of the demonstrations and the larger movement seems to be in line with the demands of Wei Jingsheng and the Democracy Wall Movement. Specifically the argument is that democracy, the "Fifth Modernization,' must be implemented rapidly if the "Four Modernizations' and the economic reforms associated with them are not to stagnate and die on the vine.

In the context of the limited information available here, my own experiences force me to raise several concerns and challenges about the direction of these demonstrations. I have seen the dichotomies in U.S. democracy, perhaps best summed up by Anatole France's caustic analysis, "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.' I have seen racists and, in fact, entire administrations, argue that laws to insure racial and sexual equality impinge on the "freedom' to discriminate against nonwhites, women, gays, and anyone else they look down on. Since one person's freedom can be another's restriction; since collective freedoms necessitate limitations on absolute individual freedoms, a more thorough analysis of the demands for freedom and democracy is necessary if one is to know how or whether to support the demonstrations. …

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