Chinese Democracy in 1989: Continuity and Change

Andrew J. Nathan

In the late 1960's millions of Red Guards, who had earlier taken to the streets full of faith in Mao, found themselves discarded in the countryside where they discovered that the peasants were still living in primitive conditions after two decades of socialist development. In 1971, Mao Zedong's "closest comrade-in-arms" and trusted successor Lin Biao perished in the course of his alleged military coup attempt against the Great Helmsman. These events provoked a sense of moral outrage among significant numbers of Chinese, as they began to ask themselves how such things could have happened.

All over the country, thousands formed small groups to discuss what had gone wrong with the political system. Some wrote letters of protest or advice to Chairman Mao; a few may have plotted violent action against the regime. These groups were rooted out by the police in campaigns called "cleansing of class ranks" (1968-69) and "one-strike, three-anti" (1970-71 ). Hundreds of their members were executed. (1) Although the regime surmounted this particular crisis of political control, its ideological control continued to weaken.

Only one group of dissidents of the early 1970's became known in the West, after its members hung a wall poster in Canton in 1974 under the pseudonym Li Yizhe. The poster attacked Maoist autocracy in the thin disguise of what it called the "Lin Biao system. " As a solution to the flaws of dictatorship, the Li Yizhe group called on the National People's Congress (NPC) to exercise its powers. (2) The Li Yizhe group thus introduced what was to become a consistent strategy of Chinese democrats, namely, attempting to ameliorate or circumvent one-party dictatorship by taking seriously the provision, found in every constitution of the People's Republic of China (PRC), that the National People's Congress is the supreme organ of government. This strategy was prominently reflected in many articles written during the debate over political reform in 1986-87. It surfaced again during the May 1989 crisis when Cao Siyuan, a self-styled lobbyist affiliated with the Stone Group Corporation (a privately-owned computer company in Beijing), and Hu Jiwei, a reformist member of the NPC Standing Committee, attempted to convene a meeting of the Standing Committee to overturn Premier Li Peng's May 20 declaration of martial law. After the crackdown on June 4, Cao was arrested and Hu subjected to political denunciation.

By 1989, what had started as congeries of small, isolated, clandestine groups which did not know of each other's existence, had grown step by step - through the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1976, the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79, and the student demonstrations of 1985 and 1986-87 - into a national force that apparently had the participation or sympathy of almost all urban residents in China. In the process, the movement for Chinese democracy became more complicated in its social composition and in its mix of political goals and tactics.

Although the movement crossed a major watershed in 1989, when many intellectuals gave up hope that the regime of Deng Xiaoping was capable of reforming itself politically from within, both before and after June 4, the democratic movement of 1989 retained strong continuities in personnel, goals, and tactics with its predecessors. The mainstream democratic movement has always maintained hope that the authorities would initiate the changes for which it was calling. Indeed, the movement's moderation is striking. Chinese democrats have consistently positioned themselves as remonstrators rather than opponents, pressing the party to reform in its own interests and in keeping with its own ideals. (3) This position did not change in 1989. The movement's main organizations - comprised before June 4 of the Capital Federation of Autonomous College Student Organizations ( Gaozilian ), the Capital Federation of Intellectual Circles ( Beizhilian ), and the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation ( Gongzilian ), and, after June 4, of the Chinese Democratic Alliance ( Minzhu Zhongguo zhenxian ), the Association of Chinese Students and Scholars in the United States and the Chinese Alliance for Democracy (also known as China Spring) - have all said that they do not seek the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even after the regime's use of force on June 4, the main elements of the democracy movement have not changed their commitment to nonviolent methods in bringing about political change.

Several factors account for the moderation of the democracy movement. The Chinese democrats have long believed that the regime was capable of reform from within, and the democrats themselves continued to believe in socialism, albeit of a democratic variety. But a moderate approach was also prudent, for the regime retained command over the police and the military, and it previously showed itself willing to use these instruments of coercion to suppress the opposition. Finally, the democracy movement was made up almost entirely of students and intellectuals, a small minority within Chinese society. These people lacked the numbers and the willingness to confront the regime head-on. These factors combined to incline Chinese democrats to press for a "self-limiting revolution" in the People's Republic of China.

Reform From Within

Perhaps the most important factor of those mentioned above is that the regime's ideology claims to be democratic and leaders of the opposition have thus had reason to hope for reform from within. All four constitutions of the PRC affirmed popular sovereignty, contained provisions for citizens to vote and run for office, and guaranteed the rights of free speech, assembly, petition and demonstration. Even if largely rhetorical, such provisions pay tribute to the strength of democratic yearnings in China and set standards that the regime has to pretend to meet in some fashion.

Mao resolved the contradiction between rhetoric and reality with the concept of "democratic dictatorship," which held that the system was democratic because the totalitarian vanguard party was serving the highest interests of the people - whether they liked it or not. Those subjected to repression were not the people but their enemies. However cynical the argument, many Chinese believed in it and in Mao's benevolence and wisdom. Many blamed the problems that they encountered in their own lives on individual cadres rather than on the system and the assumption was widespread that Mao did not intend the abuses that were carried out in his name. Paradoxically, the practice of writing letters of remonstrance and appeal to Mao was common in the darkest days of his regime, perhaps more common than in his relatively lenient periods.

Such beliefs had faded by the time of the Tiananmen Square Incident of April 5, 1976, especially among the sophisticated factory and office workers and Communist Youth League members in the capital who formed the main force of the demonstrators. (4) But the demonstrators still directed the brunt of their criticism at those around Mao and not at Mao himself. This made it possible for Deng's regime, which never contemplated full de-Maoization, to reverse the verdict on the incident only two years after Mao's death.

Hopes for democratization from the top down revived after Mao's passing. Under Hu Yaobang's leadership of the CCP Organization Department, millions of individuals were exonerated from unjust criminal and political verdicts and rehabilitated, some posthumously. Property was returned, jobs restored, reputations cleared. Hu sponsored the "debate over practice as the sole criterion of truth," which opened the way for the expression of fresh ideas that party theorists had been nurturing in "cowpens" and May 7 cadre schools during the years when they were condemned to internal exile.

Most participants in the Democracy Wall movement in 1978-79 were convinced that Deng wanted democratization and welcomed their suggestions. Only a few like Wei Jingsheng argued that Deng was a "new dictator," that temporary tolerance for unsolicited advice was not equivalent to a restructuring of power, and that a democratic climate without democratic institutions could easily dissipate wherever a change of course was initiated at the top. In the eyes of most intellectuals, the arguments of Wei and those who thought like him were premature. The intellectuals believed that reform is invariably a lengthy process; moreover, although Deng could not afford to move too fast because of conservative resistance in the party, he nevertheless was proceeding with deliberate speed in a democratic direction and had to be given plenty of time. Most democratic activists saw Deng's arrest of Wei and his fellow-thinkers as regrettable but inevitable. At the time it was felt by many that what Wei had said was true enough, but it was not the time to say it.

In 1980, Deng himself called for political reform, reviving the hope that he would pilot China toward democracy. In a major speech delivered in August, he set modest goals and stressed that political reform was meant to strengthen, not weaken, party leadership. (5) Some people around Deng, such as Liao Gailong, took the speech as license to argue for more far-reaching reforms, including the vitalization of the people's congress system. (6) For some of the democrats, reform of the people's congress election system opened the vista of a parliamentary road to influence. They competed vigorously in the county-level elections held in 1979-81. (7) Until 1989, Deng continued to entertain the notion of political reform and allowed it to be discussed sporadically. An especially vigorous public discussion took place during 1987, after Deng had stated that political restructuring must be part of the reform agenda.

It is clear in retrospect that Deng meant what he said when he warned that reform must not infringe on the four cardinal principles, namely, keeping to the socialist road, upholding the people's democratic dictatorship, leadership by the CCP, and Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought, but this warning was not so clearly understood at the time he issued it. His words and actions were ambiguous. His speeches contained little abstract political discussion, making it hard to determine the intellectual logic of his position. Some thought the ambiguity was tactical, as he maneuvered to maintain a fragile coalition of reformers and conservatives. Others viewed Deng as intellectually confused, unaware that he could not reform the economy without reforming politics. My guess is that Deng shared the assumption of many Chinese political thinkers, including Mao, that democracy is an instrument of mobilization whose function is to strengthen the links of citizens to the state, rather than a set of procedures for limiting state power to protect individual rights. (8) Thus, Deng did not see a contradiction between his vision of democracy and a benevolent dictatorship exercised by him and his party.

Although one may argue that Chinese democrats misread Deng, they were probably not entirely wrong in thinking that Deng's closest aides and designated successors, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were willing to consider relatively far-reaching measures of political reform. Hu, head of the CCP Organization Department in 1977-78 and CCP General Secretary from 1982 to 1987, sponsored a two-part "Conference for the Discussion of Guidelines for Theoretical Work" ( Lilun gongzuo wuxu hui ) in January-April 1979, at which liberal party thinkers he had rehabilitated or promoted began the overhaul of Chinese Marxism-Leninism needed to provide an ideological basis for reforms. (9) Under a pseudonym, at least one of the works produced at this conference found its way into a publication at Democracy Wall. (10)

According to people who worked with Hu, his driving motive was to guarantee that another Cultural Revolution could never occur. Thus, he advocated subjecting the ruling party to outside challenges and criticism. Although his vision of political pluralism did not envisage a rotation in power between the CCP and other political parties, Hu was willing to consider a number of other suggestions, such as expanding the role of the NPC and dividing it into two or three chambers. Hu also believed that the women's organizations, the Communist Youth League, trade unions, and professional associations should have greater independence from the CCP, saying, "If we control them so tightly, why bother to have separate organizations?" (11)

Hu was popular among intellectuals for his openness to their ideas, and was criticized by the army newspaper in 1982 for laxness in maintaining ideological discipline. He was purged from his party secretaryship in January 1987, after student demonstrations persuaded the party elders that he was allowing "bourgeois liberalization" to get out of hand. It was his death on April 15, 1989, that triggered the student demonstrations.

Zhao Ziyang's record was more ambiguous. His chief commitment was to economic growth, and for him the main question seemed to be what sort of political structures would best meet the needs of economic development. It seemed inevitable that the marketization he favored would lead indirectly to the eventual break-up of dictatorship. But beyond this some advisors found him receptive to the argument that development in the modern age would eventually require lifting constraints on information and tolerating social pluralism and its more open political conflict. Zhao was associated with the theory of the "primary stage of socialism," which legitimated a diversity of social interests. His aide Bao Tong articulated the concept of "the new order of the socialist commodity economy," which rationalized wider use of elections and more political openness. (12) In 1986, Bao Tong authorized the establishment in Beijing of the Fund for the Reform and Opening of China, financed by the American businessman George Soros, and operating, at least officially, independently of Chinese government control. According to one report, Zhao commissioned the preparation of a political reform proposal that included ideas for multi-party competition and an independent press. (13) These actions indicated that Zhao was interested in a substantial opening and pluralization of the political system, at least over the long term.

On the other hand, Zhao presented a notably cautious program in the section on political reform of his report to the 13th Party Congress in October 1987. In the months before his fall from power, people around him promoted a theory called the "new authoritarianism," which argued that in the present, relatively early state of development China needs an enlightened autocrat to direct economic development while keeping order and protecting people's rights. We will probably never know to what extent this argument reflected Zhao's technocratic convictions, and to what extent it was propounded as a means to induce Deng Xiaoping to hand over power to Zhao quickly and without dividing it among several successors.

In any case, during the May-June crisis Zhao's tactics shifted. According to the subsequent official charges against him, he supported Deng Xiaoping's hard line on the demonstrations while he was on a state visit to North Korea in late April. But upon his return he changed his position, calling for the withdrawal of the controversial People's Daily editorial that branded the demonstrations a "turmoil" and advocating other concessions. (14) His conciliatory words and actions in public indicated that calls for the resignation of Li Peng and Deng Xiaoping did not displease him. On the eve of the declaration of martial law, officials and intellectuals associated with Zhao issued a six-point statement blaming the crisis on Deng and calling for special NPC and CCP meetings to examine errors of the past and, by implication, to summon Zhao (who had already been unofficially purged) back to power. In the aftermath of the June 4 crackdown, many members of Zhao's liberal brain trust fled the country. They now appear to maintain links with the exile democratic movement headed by Yan Jiaqi, a political scientist and former advisor to Zhao. Because they represent a faction within the CCP that may some day return to power, their alliance with the democracy movement allows Chinese democrats to continue even now to hope for reform of the communist regime from within.

That Zhao's interest in democracy during the crisis may have been tactical does not render it insignificant. Transitions from authoritarianism to democracy normally come about when authoritarian rulers see tactical advantages in such shifts. If Zhao's effort to play the democracy card had succeeded, he might have reverted soon to a more authoritarian position in order to consolidate his power and address China's economic problems. But meanwhile, Zhao's behavior demonstrated that those who hoped for change of the Chinese communist system from within had some grounds for their hopes.

Whatever the personal views of various party leaders, by the end of 1988, the actual achievements of officially-sponsored political reform were meager. They included regularization and expansion of the role of people's congresses, direct elections of county-level people's congress deputies, limitations on terms of office for some party and state officials, establishment of employee councils in state-owned enterprises, and the enactment of several hundred laws conducive to procedural regularity. The reform program also endorsed collective leadership in the party, orderly succession, the rule of law, and independence of the judiciary, but these desiderata remained weakly institutionalized. (15) There were signs that some in the leadership favored further steps toward political reform in 1989, including passing a law making the press more free and independent but still subject ultimately to party guidance; enacting a law on demonstrations permitting peaceful gatherings while still enabling the government to restrict their scope; (16) reducing the role of party officials in student organizations, trade unions, enterprises, and schools, while preserving the party organs in these units as watchdogs; and further strengthening the role of the National People's Congress as a legislative and oversight organ under overall party guidance. In the crisis of spring 1989, even such half-way steps might have sufficed to satisfy many of the demonstrators. In the long run, they were unlikely to satisfy Chinese democrats, any more than similar solutions seem to have satisfied Polish or Hungarian democrats. The push for real freedom of the press and of association, as well as for truly competitive elections would have resumed, probably sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, the liberal images of Deng, Hu, and Zhao, whether they were justified or not, helped to keep Chinese democrats looking for change from above.

The Democracy Movement's Ideals

The second reason for the Chinese democrats' long-standing posture of loyalty to the regime is the nature of their own ideals. With few exceptions, the opposition's vision of Chinese democracy has been compatible with a socialist order. At Democracy Wall in 1978-79, most of the proposals were made from the perspective of party members or non-party loyalists. They called for very modest measures of political openness and competition, more in the spirit of Mao's idea of a party with an "open door" to society than in the spirit of a Western multi-party system. In 1986-87, the high point of the intra-party and academic debate over political reform that had been initiated by Deng, major proposals included establishing a civil service system; strengthening the National People's Congress by reducing its size and enlarging its system of committees; separating the party from the government; giving a clear legal definition to vertical and horizontal jurisdictions in the bureaucracy; publishing more financial data to assure greater governmental "transparency"; providing firmer guarantees of an independent judiciary; consulting more systematically with experts and technocrats in policy-making; and paying more consistent attention to procedures in governmental decision-making. (17) The emphases were on openness and procedural regularity.

None of the 1986-87 proposals that I have seen was anti-socialist or calculated to lead to the overthrow of the party. To be sure, the idea of socialism had become so diluted that it would have been hard to identify an anti-socialist proposal unless its author labeled it as such. Most of the democrats' proposals dealt with economic structures indirectly if at all and, among the economic reformers, even proposals for privatization and marketization of the economy were cast as versions of socialism. (For example, a proposal for issuing stock in state enterprises was presented as promoting "ownership by the whole people.") After the purge of Zhao Ziyang, a People's Daily editorial charged that in a 1987 intra-party meeting even Zhao advocated abandoning the insistence on upholding socialism on the grounds that nobody knew any more what socialism was. (18) Similarly, proposals for competitive electoral politics would not have been cast as open challenges to the principle of party leadership even if they were intended as such. Indeed, the moderate guise of most proposals may signify little except that Chinese are adept at waving the red flag to oppose the red flag.

My own reading of the political reform debates and personal encounters with some of the participants, however, lead me to believe that in most cases the reformers wanted to keep China socialist as they understood the term. For example, Yan Jiaqi, Li Honglin, Su Shaozhi, and Cao Siyuan, who were named in Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong's post-crackdown report as progenitors of the "turmoil" and "counter-revolutionary rebellion" in Beijing, (19) were among the leading participants in the 1986-87 discussions of political reform. All were party members; all seemed to espouse some version of socialism.

With some individual variation, the vision of the reformist party intellectuals centered on a system in which the communist party continued to be dominant but was checked by competitive elections and a free press in order to keep it honest and close to the people. This dominant party would run its own affairs and those of the government with openness and in accordance with laws and established procedures. For most of these intellectuals, the idea of party pluralism owed little to admiration for the American political and social system, which they criticized for its disorderliness, polarization of rich and poor, and political apathy. Although all believed that China could emulate some aspects of the American political structure, few could conceive of, or really wanted, an American-style system for China. Rather, their expectation was that party competition would develop out of China's existing system of "democratic consultation" with the nine minor political parties. (20)

Cao Siyuan used the term "socialist parliamentary democracy" to describe his vision. Yan Jiaqi emphasized "proceduralism." The vision of these party intellectuals was not fully articulated in print, probably because its realization depended upon a step-by-step approach that could pass muster with the supreme autocrat. But it was probably not far from the vision held by Hu Yaobang and some of Zhao Ziyang's supporters, if not by Zhao himself. Marxists such as Su Shaozhi, Li Honglin, and Wang Ruoshui argued vigorously that democracy is not only a part of the Marxist tradition but its fundamental aim. In short, what the party democrats had in mind was not the overthrow of socialism but democratic socialism.

That the democracy movement's mainstream was not anti-communist does not, however, gainsay the fact that a fundamental conflict existed between the democrats and the regime over the nature of socialist democracy, as well as over the pace of progress toward it. This conflict sharpened markedly beginning in 1987. In retrospect, the purge of Hu Yaobang in January 1987 was a major turning point. His demotion was accompanied by suppression of the student demonstrations occurring at that time, and was followed by the expulsion from the CCP of three ranking intellectuals (Fang Lizhi, Wang Ruowang, and Liu Binyan), soon followed by others, and by the initiation of a campaign to oppose "bourgeois liberalization."

The events of early 1987 radicalized a portion of the intellectuals, because the man in whom they rested many of their hopes for the party fell, and the influence of Wang Zhen, Deng Liqun, and others whom the intellectuals regarded as hostile increased. In 1989, the key initial demands of the student demonstrators in Beijing were to reverse the verdict on Hu and to denounce the campaign against bourgeois liberalization. An immediate sign of the serious impact of Hu's ouster was the unprecedented signing of an open letter to the party Central Committee by more than 1000 Chinese students in America, about 700 of whom used their real names. This open letter became the first of several such letters and established the network that was used in 1989 to mobilize the students against the Li Peng regime. Meanwhile, the anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign was conducted so fecklessly that it created an atmosphere in which, as Fang Lizhi said, "no one is afraid of anyone any more" ( Shei ye bupa shei ).

More fires broke out than the party's ideological watchdogs could control. The Shanghai World Economic Herald published daring articles on the failures of reform and the need for more radical economic and political solutions. A magazine called New Enlightenment made its debut in October 1988, having evaded the party's control system for periodicals by registering itself as a book series. The four issues that were published before the spring crackdown contained essays by eminent theorists, many of them party members, who were at odds with the regime's ideological authorities. Contributors to these four issues, who were soon to play prominent roles in Tiananmen or who were arrested in the subsequent crackdown, included Liu Xiaobo, Bao Zunxin, Jin Guantao, Li Honglin, Yu Haocheng, and Wang Ruoshui. The Chinese Intellectual, long published overseas, produced its first domestic issue in January 1989, also as a book series.

Other constituents of a nascent civil society that was gradually working itself loose from effective CCP control were the Stone Group Corporation and its Institute of Social Development, the Beijing Social and Economic Research Institute (SERI), the Capital Steel Research Institute, and the Happiness Bookstore. These institutions had somewhat ambiguous relationships to the CCP. Most of them were nominally "hung" ( gua ) from some part of the CCP organizational network, but they operated independently. The same was true of some institutions that the party itself had established, such as the Economic System Reform Institute, the Rural Development Research Institute, some institutes of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and some sections of the China International Trust and Investment Corporation. Politically-oriented intellectuals used these institutions as bases from which to test the bounds of tolerance more and more adventurously.

The regime was confronting the beginnings of a "desertion of the intellectuals," against a backdrop of rising inflation and corruption, the abortion of price reform, and the ever more intense, long-standing succession conflict. (21) Deng Xiaoping and Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong were not entirely wrong in attributing the origins of the "turmoil and rebellion" to the sharp challenge to the ethos of the regime presented by intellectuals using increasingly sophisticated tactics. But their analysis of events turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. By proclaiming the intellectuals' democratic socialism to be non-socialist, Deng set up a head-on conflict with the intellectuals who would have preferred to work within the system.

On January 6, 1989, Fang Lizhi wrote an open letter to Deng calling for the release of political prisoners, including Wei Jingsheng, to mark the upcoming 40th anniversary of the PRC. Thirty-three noted intellectuals followed with a letter of support on February 16. Also in February, 42 leading Beijing scientists joined the call for the release of "youth imprisoned or sent to labor reform for ideological problems." And in March, 43 writers and theorists called on the NPC to grant amnesty to Wei Jingsheng and others. (22) A young democratic activist named Chen Jun, who had links with China Spring, was planning to use the scheduled April 1989 meeting of the National People's Congress to submit "A Report on Amnesty '89," amidst much publicity, which he was skilled in generating. Petition campaigns in Hong Kong, France, and the United States were launched in support of the amnesty request. A shift of many of China's most prestigious intellectuals to a pro-Wei position 10 years after his arrest signalled how far the conflict between the regime and the intellectuals had developed.

The intellectuals' impertinence annoyed Deng. He was confronted with a coalescing group of influential non-party and party intellectuals, informally linked to the hated China Spring, who were conducting a sophisticated international publicity campaign around an issue that was divisive within the regime and embarrassing to him personally. To hold firm would look churlish; to yield would legitimize an independent opposition. The regime felt trapped and its responses revealed as much. The regime declared the call for an amnesty illegal, clumsily blocked Fang Lizhi from attending the banquet in Beijing to which President George Bush had invited him, confiscated an international petition to the NPC delivered from Hong Kong in support of the amnesty drive on the grounds that it was propaganda, and used a weak pretext to expel Chen Jun from the country. Not only were these responses ineffective, they tarnished the regime's international image.

The student movement thus emerged against the background of a general crisis in the regime and a specific crisis in relations between the regime and the intellectuals. But in rhetoric, tactics, and demands, the students at first avoided pressing their advantage too aggressively. They positioned themselves within the established tradition of moderate democratic remonstrance. They cast themselves not as dissidents but as loyal followers, appealing to the authorities to live up to the values the authorities themselves had articulated. The purpose of the hunger strike, which was symbolically undertaken in front of the Mao Mausoleum, in the shadow of the monument to the martyrs of the communist revolution, was to force the leaders to recognize the movement as being patriotic. The message was that the students valued the welfare of the state above their own lives. It was thoroughly in the tradition of Qu Yuan, who had lived in the fourth century BC, and who committed suicide to show his loyalty to the ruler who failed to heed his advice. Indeed, Qu probably represented a more influential precedent for the opposition's tactics of non-violence than the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Corazon Aquino, so often mentioned in the Western media.

The students' demands followed the logic of two decades of Chinese democratic activism. Absolute power corrupts, and a good socialist government must allow itself to be supervised by the people. The demonstrators asked that the Chinese government recognize popular sovereignty and the political rights that are guaranteed by the PRC constitution. They carried signs that read "We firmly support the correct leadership of the Chinese Communist Party" and "The people love the people's police." (23) They demanded that the government end corruption, overcome bureaucratism, promote reform, and improve education. In effect they paraphrased the words of the regime's spokesmen.

The two key demands were for a free press and for dialogue - the latter implying recognition by the authorities of the students' autonomous organizations. By a free press, the demonstrators did not mean entrepreneurial, commercial, unregulated mass media that compete for readers and live off advertising, but simply a press that reports the truth. Except for such experiments as the World Economic Herald, in the spring of 1989 most Chinese media remained under the effective direct or indirect control of the CCP's Propaganda Department or its local bureaus. What was published or broadcast remained determined by the policy needs of the party, although Chinese journalists have long argued that both the people and the regime would be better served if Chinese journalists had the authority to publish what they knew to be true. Because corruption and special privilege are among the features of the communist system that most alienate the people, the students and the professional journalists who later joined them argued that a truthful press would be the best mechanism for cleaning up, and hence saving, the regime.

A draft press law defining the professional rights and responsibilities of Chinese journalists has been undergoing revision for years. According to some reports, the law was finally scheduled for enactment in late 1989. (24 ) The provisions of this law had been sharply debated, but even a relatively conservative version would have gone a long way toward meeting the demands of the demonstrators. The government needed only to have made some final revisions and handed the draft to the NPC to enact. But this possibility was overtaken by events.

The second key demand - for dialogue - was also ostensibly compatible with the regime's own logic. As part of its political reform, the government had promoted the development of the nine minority democratic parties and increased its practice of "democratic consultation" through the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and informal forums with "democratic personages." It was a CCP tradition for leaders to go to work units and solicit the people's opinions. In the course of Deng's reforms the party had re-established a system of offices for "letters and visits work" to which individuals could come with complaints. On April 4, 1989, the National People's Congress passed an Administrative Proceedings Law, which enabled citizens to take government organs to court to protect their rights. (25) Accordingly, the students' demand for dialogue received widespread support, including from school administrators and political hacks, and from the official trade union federation. (26)

The regime attempted to respond on its own terms to the demand for dialogue. Cabinet spokesman Yuan Mu received a student delegation for a nationally televised discussion on April 29. Li Peng held talks with student leaders on May 18. United Front Work Department director Yan Mingfu and other party leaders went to Tiananmen Square to speak with hunger-strikers. And finally, in his May 19 speech announcing the imposition of martial law, Li Peng emphasized that "dialogue between the party and government on the one hand, and the broad [masses of] students and personages of various circles on the other, including dialogue with students who have participated in parades, demonstrations, classroom strikes, and hunger strikes, will still be actively continued at many levels, through many channels, and in many forms, in order fully to hear opinions from various quarters." (27)

However, the dialogue that the authorities had already engaged in, as well as the type of dialogue they promised in the future, was not what the students demanded. The government attempted to treat its encounters with the students as opportunities to feel the public pulse without decentralizing power. Yuan Mu and Li Peng acted as hosts and as authority figures, avuncularly urging the students to return to classes, defending the government's position, and delivering threats. The students in turn stated that such encounters were unsatisfactory and acted out their dissatisfaction by behaving impolitely at the meetings. They demanded that the two parties be placed on an equal footing, that the government's representatives in the dialogue be of high rank, that observers and reporters be present, and that the government give prompt responses to the students' questions. The students also demanded that their representatives be elected by autonomous student groups distinct from the puppet student unions established under party sponsorship. (28)

Here was the Trojan horse that the regime could not accept. Had this demand been granted, the students would have achieved the legalization of the first completely independent political organization in PRC history, and the effective negation of Deng Xiaoping's four basic principles, as they were understood by Deng. This demand explains why Deng had early on "determined [the student movement's] nature" ( dingxing ) to be "a planned plot, a turmoil, whose essence is to negate fundamentally CCP leadership and the socialist system." (29)

The Chinese leaders have been obsessed since 1956 with what they see as the deterioration of the Leninist system in Poland and Hungary. In this connection, the formation of a "Capital Autonomous Workers' Association" during the demonstrations was a particularly alarming development. Although it was a tiny group, its existence evoked the specter of a Chinese "Solidarity." Leaders of this group were arrested even before the general crackdown of June 4. (30) As Li Peng told the other leaders shortly after declaring martial law: "There was no way out. You give a step, they advance a step; you retreat two steps, they advance two steps. It had gotten to the point where there was nowhere else to retreat. If we were going to retreat any further, we might as well have handed China over to those people." (31) The leaders preferred military repression to seeing China become another Poland.

Chen Xitong, in the regime's most thorough indictment of the democrats to date, contends that the democratic movement wanted to achieve the violent overthrow of the government. (32) The regime needed to portray the spontaneous, uncoordinated acts of defensive violence by people throughout the city of Beijing on the night of June 3, when the troops moved in, as part of a coordinated plan in order to justify calling the democrats' activities a "counter-revolutionary rebellion." Chen quoted some unsigned leaflets as calling for the use of violence to overthrow the CCP, but he was unable to name the organizations or individuals responsible for them. Nor could he find direct quotes from any specific democratic activist calling for the overthrow of the party or the use of violence. Chen could only find personal attacks on Deng and Li Peng, criticisms of the Chinese socialist system, and appeals for thorough-going reform.

The only exception, one worth pausing over, is Chen's charge against literary theorist Liu Xiaobo, who was arrested after June 4 and is believed to be in danger of receiving a heavy sentence for his activities. (33) Liu was one of four intellectuals who began a 48-72 hour hunger strike on June 2. Chen accused Liu of membership in China Spring and quoted him as having stated in a published interview: "We must organize an armed force among the people to effect Zhao Ziyang's comeback." But an investigation by a Chinese-language news magazine in New York has established that these words were a mistranslation. The interview was conducted by telephone in Chinese, but the transcript was prepared in English in New York by the activist Chen Jun, for publication in the West. Chen provided a copy of the transcript to the Independence Evening News of Taiwan, which translated a statement by Liu, to the effect that all social forces must be mobilized, back into Chinese as "armed forces in society must be organized." The text was reprinted in Hong Kong and from there picked up by Chinese intelligence and quoted by Mayor Chen. (34) These facts are important not only because they may affect Liu Xiaobo's fate, but also because they confirm the nonviolent character of the democratic movement even after the declaration of martial law.

After the June 4 killings and the subsequent wave of arrests, many intellectuals broke completely with what they call the Deng-Li Peng-Yang Shangkun regime. Liu Binyan, who was often criticized by younger intellectuals after he was purged from the CCP because he continued to express hope in the communist party, has denounced the regime and predicts its fall within two years. (35) This attitude is widespread. But the loss of hope in the Deng regime has not brought with it a break in the moderate, remonstrative tradition of Chinese democracy. The opposition has stopped short of calls for either the use of violence or the overthrow of the CCP.

The official press has taken pains to present the post-June 4 democratic movement in exile as consisting of revolutionaries who seek to overthrow the Chinese government by armed action. This assertion is made to legitimate condemning the movement's foreign support as interference in China's internal affairs, and hence a violation of international law. (36) However, these charges can only be made plausible by selective quotation and quotation out of context. No major democratic organization in exile so far has called for either armed rebellion or terrorism, or, for that matter, for the overthrow of the CCP.

Yan Jiaqi, who has emerged as the main spokesman for the democratic exiles, has predicted that Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng, and Yang Shangkun will "reap the storm" that their violence has sown and will be publicly tried for their crimes. However, such statements merely describe the fragility of a coercive regime, and do not constitute a call for violence or a declaration of anti-socialism. The program of the Democratic Chinese Alliance ( Minzhu Zhongguo zhenxian ), which Yan established with Uerkesh Daolet (Wuerkaixi), Liu Binyan, Su Shaozhi, and Wan Runnan in Paris on July 20, makes "reason, peace, and nonviolence our standards for action" and "freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights" its goals. (38) The organization's strategy, according to Yan, envisages four stages. First will occur the inevitable fall of Li Peng, which will come about through his own weakness and unpopularity at home and abroad; second, the Alliance will press for reversal of the verdict on the democratic movement; third, its members will return home to participate in revising the constitution so as to establish an open, pluralistic political system similar to the ones that the Soviet Union, Poland, and Hungary are now moving to establish; and finally, it will work to establish a federal system in China within which the Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet problems will be amenable to resolution. At the end of this process, the CCP will be competing peacefully in elections with the Kuomintang and the Democratic Alliance. Yan estimates that the entire process will take 10 years or longer. (39) He argues that democracy cannot be achieved by violent means and that the democracy movement itself must begin the democratization process, by relying on dialogue and the power of ideas rather than on force.

The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars in the United States established itself in Chicago in late July 1989 on a platform of moderation. It is a loosely organized liaison group rather than a political movement or party. It intends to work for democratization chiefly through the dissemination of information to China. As citizens of the PRC, its members seek to maintain normal relations with China's officials and missions abroad. (40)

Even the organization that the Beijing authorities deem the most radical and dangerous, the Chinese Alliance for Democracy or China Spring, has not crossed the line separating reformism from revolution. At its Fourth National Congress, held in Los Angeles from June 23-26, 1989, China Spring debated a motion to include "overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party in its constitution." It also examined a proposal to abandon exclusive reliance on nonviolent tactics in favor of "revolutionary" methods, which included the formation of suicide squads to conduct "secret armed struggle on the mainland" and the use of terrorism abroad against PRC officials and their children in order to deter the authorities from arresting and executing leaders of the democratic movement. Both of these proposals were rejected. (41)

To say that the major dissident organizations in exile have eschewed anti-communism and the use of violence is not to say that these issues are not debated among exile democrats, (42) or that there is no armed resistance in China or assistance for it from abroad. Scattered shooting has been reported in Beijing, a train wreck occurred that might have been due to sabotage, some democratic movement leaders have been spirited out of the country, and others have somehow found ways to evade capture. Money is being collected by individual activists abroad for unspecified purposes and some individual Chinese do speak of the need to resort to violence. It is hard to gauge the prevalence and impact of such activities, which are by nature secretive, and obviously the advocacy and use of violence may increase. But so far, violence remains a minor thread in the movement as a whole, and it is not publicly advocated by any major democratic organization.

Regime Monopoly of Force

Besides intellectual reasons for nonviolence, practical concerns have dictated a nonviolent approach as well. The regime still controls overwhelming military and police force, and recent events have confirmed the importance of this factor. The events of June showed that the instruments of proletarian dictatorship - the least-mentioned but perhaps the most important of Deng's four cardinal principles - are still firmly in the hands of the senior leaders. It is hard to say whether their control is due to ordinary military discipline, the effectiveness of the political commissar system, or the reinforcement of the control system with personal networks. Whatever the reason, the army and police forces have stood firmly with the regime.

Their support explains why it would be unrealistic for the democratic movement to take to the hills as Mao did in the 1930's. Conditions today are very different from those encountered by the Jiangxi Soviet when it faced Chiang Kai-shek's army. The total Nationalist forces were less than half the size of the PLA today, and much more poorly trained and armed. Chiang Kai-shek controlled only about one-fifth of the Nationalist Government's military forces, and he controlled even those forces through factional allies rather than directly. Chiang had to allocate proportionally more military resources to national defense than the PLA does today and had correspondingly fewer resources to spare for internal security. Communications and transport were primitive and the Soviet Union was willing to help the insurgents. Despite all these advantages, the CCP barely survived Chiang's extermination campaigns of the early 1930's. (43)

The democrats say that if violence is to play a role in China's future, it will have to come from within the Chinese military and not from the democratic movement abroad or the democratic underground in China. In a debate over the use of violence at the recent Fourth Congress of the China Spring, Chairperson Hu Ping stated: "When the 'Gang of Four' was arrested in 1976, this certainly wasn't a peaceful change, but nobody complained about it. If somebody comes forward now to arrest the group of people who are holding power, there certainly won't be anyone to complain that they did not use peaceful methods.... However, our organization does not have the power to carry out a military coup." (44) According to Wan Runnan of the Chinese Democratic Alliance: "Our principle of nonviolence doesn't mean that no blood will flow. There is a division of roles. Our role is to carry out activities that are peaceful, rational, and nonviolent. But others will play other roles." (45)

With violence ruled out as an option, nonviolence and support for socialism offer the best possibility of building a broad anti-regime coalition and maximizing official and unofficial foreign support. As a China Spring leader stated during the Fourth Congress debate, "only the flag of peaceful methods can get wide popular acceptance.... If anybody here asks me for money for guns [to use against the communists], I would certainly claim to be giving you the guns to use for hunting birds." (46)

Social Composition of the Movement

The last factor that has argued for peaceful methods is the social composition of the democratic movement. The demonstrators in Beijing and other cities this spring were overwhelmingly urbanites ( shimin ) - students, peddlers, office workers, teachers, shop and factory workers. In exile, the class basis of the movement has become even narrower. It is now composed almost exclusively of students and intellectuals and a few ex-officials, with financial support from overseas Chinese in Hong Kong and elsewhere (including Taiwan). The intellectuals are in no position to take up arms without the support of other classes, if only because their numbers are so small - less than half of 1 percent of the Chinese population is college-educated. (47)

It is difficult to imagine an insurrection in China that is not based in the countryside. So far as I know, the democratic movement did not enjoy much active support in the rural areas. The rural dwellers may have lacked information about the democratic movement; if they participated in it, they would not have enjoyed the same anonymity as did urban crowds; they were busy earning a living; and, perhaps most importantly, although the farmers were dissatisfied with the regime, they have not been as severely affected by inflation as urban dwellers and have greater possibilities for making do economically. As Wan Runnan has said, "When the economy worsens, the peasants will suffer. This is what is needed to change their political stance. For now, they still hope to muddle through; they still think they can make it." (48)

Of course, the social makeup of the countryside is becoming increasingly complex. Rural dwellers include not only farmers but also industrial workers, shop clerks, peddlers, fishermen, teachers, monks, and local officials. Members of some of these groups have evidently been willing to help the democratic activists go underground or escape. But this scattered assistance does not provide the critical mass necessary for a peasant uprising.


Although the democratic movement has maintained its tradition of moderation, a fundamental conflict over the nature of socialism in China reached a climax in 1989. Mikhail Gorbachev was so popular with the Chinese demonstrators not because he was seen, as so many Americans see him, as leading a retreat from socialism, but because the Chinese saw him as symbolizing the hope that a Communist regime can permit a free press, a dialogue with society, and an independent political opposition, and can thrive under the stimulus of such challenges. Deng and the surviving senior revolutionaries, by contrast, have remained orthodox Stalinists on the question of power. To Deng, "the key point is that [the demonstrators] wanted to overthrow our state and the party. Failing to understand this means failing to understand the nature of the matter.... Their goal was to establish a bourgeois republic entirely dependent on the West." (49)

Deng has a point: if his four principles are the standard of true socialism, then the democrats did want to overthrow the socialist system. If open, competitive democracy and political freedom are the monopoly of the bourgeoisie, they did want to establish a bourgeois republic. If the exercise of free speech that is guaranteed by the Chinese constitution is illegal, then the students and intellectuals denounced by Chen Xitong did commit subversion. But the democrats continue to see their relation to the regime differently. In the words of the biographer of China's first remonstrator, Qu Yuan: "It was his fate to be faithful and yet doubted, to be loyal and yet suffer slander - can one bear this without anger?" (50)


1 Interviews by author in New York on Aug. 12, Oct. 25, and Nov. 20, 1987; Chung-kung nien-pao (Yearbook of Chinese Communism), Taipei, Chung-kung yen-chiu tsa-chih she, 1969 and 1971.

2 Chinese Law and Government (Armonk, NY) Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall 1977, pp. 15-62.

3 Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy , Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1986, Chs. 1 and 2.

4 Tens of thousands of demonstrators mourning the recently deceased Zhou Enlai and criticizing Mao and his close collaborators were forcibly dispersed on this day.

5 Deng's August 18, 1980 speech, "On the Reform of the System of Party and State Leadership," in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping (1975-1982) , Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 1984, pp. 302-25.

6 Liao Gailong, "The '1980 Reform' Program of China," Chiushih nientai (Hong Kong), Mar. 1, 1981, trans. in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: People's Republic of China , (Washington, DC - hereafter FBIS-CHI ), Mar. 16, 1981, pp. U/1-29.

7 Nathan, Chinese Democracy , Ch. 10.

8 Ibid., Chs. 4, 6.

9 Wei Shiqing, "History Will Not Forget This Meeting: Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Conference for the Discussion of Guidelines on Theoretical Work," Huaqiao ribao (New York), Feb. 1, 1989, pp. 2, 10.

10 Yan Jiaqi wrote "The Secret of Modern Religion," under the pseudonym Bu Shuming in Beijing zhi chun No. 1, 1979, and "Democratic Self-Management and the Theory of the Withering Away of the State," under the pseudonym Wen Qi in ibid., No. 6. He had given the latter as a speech at the theoretical work conference in 1979. Personal conversation with Yan Jiaqi, New York, Aug. 1, 1979.

11 Interview by author, New York, Aug. 28, 1989.

12 Bao Tong, "Several Questions Concerning the Current Reform of the Political Structure," Qiushi (Beijing), July 1, 1988, trans. in FBIS-CHI , July 19, 1988, pp. 21-26.

13 Cheng Ming (Hong Kong), June 1, 1989, in FBIS-CHI , May 31, 1989, p. 29.

14 Chen Xitong, "Report on Checking the Turmoil and Quelling the Counter-Revolutionary Rebellion" (hereafter-"Report"), Beijing Review, July 17-23, 1989, pp. I-XX. More details of the charges against Zhao are contained in "Main Points of Yang Shangkun's Speech at Emergency Enlarged Meeting of Central Military Commission on May 24, 1989 (edited from transcript of speech)," Ming Pao (Hong Kong), May 29, 1989, in FBIS-CHI , May 30, 1989, pp. 17-20.

15 A useful summary of 10 years of political reform is Liu Zheng, Cheng Xiangqing, and Du Xichuan, "Important Accomplishments and Experiences of the Last 10 Years of Our Country's Democratic Construction," Zhonggong dangshi yanjiu (Beijing), Nov. 25, 1988, pp. 28-36.

16 The law on demonstrations enacted in July 1989, on the contrary, makes autonomous demonstrations virtually impossible; see "People's Republic of China Law on Assemblies, Parades, and Demonstrations (Draft)," Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition (Beijing), July 8, 1989.

17 See Benedict Stavis, China's Political Reforms: An Interim Report , New York, Praeger, 1988; and Stavis, Ed., "Reform of China's Political System," Chinese Law and Government , Vol. 20, No. 1 (Special issue), Spring 1987.

18 "Only Socialism Is Capable of Developing China," Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, July 22, 1989.

19 Chen Xitong, "Report," pp. I-XX.

20 See James D. Seymour, China's Satellite Parties , Armonk, NY, M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1987.

21 For the term "desertion of the intellectuals," see Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, New York, Vintage, 1956, pp. 42-52; for the general crisis, see Andrew J. Nathan, "Politics: Reform at the Crossroad," in Anthony Kane, Ed., China Briefing 1989 , Boulder, CO, Westview, 1989, pp. 7-25.

22 Chiushih nientai , Apr. 1, 1989, pp. 20-27.

23 The New York Times , May 5, 1989.

24 Huaqiao ribao , Jan. 30, 1989.

25 Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, Apr. 11, 1989.

26 See, e.g., Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, May 19, 1989, FBIS-CHI , May 22, 1989, pp. 78-81.

27 Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, May 20, 1989.

28 Ibid., May 4, 1989.

29 This is quoted from the crucial April 26 editorial. The words are thought to have been taken from an internal talk by Deng the day before. Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, Apr. 26, 1989.

30 Huaqiao ribao , June 1, 1989.

31 "Important Points in the Speeches of Comrades Li Peng, Yang Shangkun, Qiao Shi, Yao Yilin, at the May 22 Meeting," inner-party document, reprinted in Huaqiao ribao , June 14, 1989.

32 Chen, "Report," pp. I-XX.

33 See the denunciation of Liu in Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, June 26, 1989, reprinted from Beijing ribao , June 24, 1989.

34 Ch'en Chih-hsiung, "Journalistic Ethics as Seen from the Huang Tepei Incident," Shih-pao chou-k'an (New York), July 15-21, 1989, p. 3; Chen Xitong, "Report," p. XVI.

35 See "Liu Binyan Discusses Beijing While Visiting Hong Kong," Huaqiao ribao , June 19, 1989.

36 See, e.g., "Renegade Elements Conduct Activities to Overthrow the Chinese Government With the Protection and Support of American, Taiwan, and Hong Kong Reactionary Forces," Renmin ribao , Overseas Edition, Aug. 2, 1989.

37 Yan's June 4, 1989, statement in Paris; Shih-pao chou-k'an , July 1-7, 1989, p. 14.

38 "Proposal to Establish the 'Chinese Democratic Alliance'," Shih-chieh jih-pao (New York), July 21, 1989.

39 Yan speech at Columbia University, New York, Aug. 1, 1989.

40 Shih-pao chou-k'an , Aug. 5-11, 1989, pp. 8-10.

41 Zhongguo zhi chun (Flushing, NY), July 15, 1989, p. 23.

42 For example, New York-based dissident Ni Yuxian takes issue with Yan Jiaqi's stand of not opposing the communist party; see "The Democracy Movement and the Chinese Communist Party," Shih-chieh jih-pao , Aug. 21, 22, 23, 1989.

43 Lloyd E. Eastman, Seeds of Destruction: Nationalist China in War and Revolution, 1937-1949, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1984, pp. 131-32; William Wei, Counter-revolution in China: The Nationalists in Jiangxi during the Soviet Period, Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press, 1985, Ch. 2.

44 Zhongguo zhi chun , July 15, 1989, p. 32.

45 Speech at Columbia University, Aug. 1, 1989.

46 Zhongguo zhi chun , July 15, 1989, p. 33.

47 Zhongguo tongji nianjian 1984 (China Statistical Yearbook 1984), Beijing, Zhongguo tongji chubanshe, 1984, p. 492.

48 Wan Runnan speaking at Columbia University, Aug. 1, 1989.

49 Deng's June 9 speech in Beijing Review , July 10-16, 1989, p. 18.

50 Sima Qian in the Historical Records , quoted by Laurence A. Schneider, A Madman of Ch'u: The Chinese Myth of Loyalty and Dissent , Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1980, p. 21.

Chinese Democracy in 1989: Continuity and Change
Andrew J. Nathan
Problems of Communism, Sept.- Oct. 1989
Reproduced with permission of the author. All rights reserved.

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