Skip to: Site menu | Main content






China: What the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was really about

8 June 2009. A World to Win News Service. The following article originally entitled  "China: fascist state at the end of the capitalist road" written by Oxford University history professor Neville Maxwell was published in A World To Win magazine 1989/14 ( China’s integration into the world capitalist system has meant that the country has not followed the kind of straight down path to "economic collapse and social disorder" foreseen in this article, but the analysis and scathing critique of the developments in China after Mao’s death in 1976 and of the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square in 1989 remain basically sound and highly relevant.

It was a pig walking on its hind legs. Yes, it was Squealer. A little awkwardly, as though not quite used to supporting his considerable bulk in that position, but with perfect balance, he was strolling across the yard. And a moment later, out from the door of the farmhouse came a long line of pigs, all walking on their hind legs... And finally there was a tremendous baying of dogs ... and out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him. He carried a whip in his trotter. – George Orwell, Animal Farm

It is difficult to think of a political event that has been the subject of greater misunderstanding in the West than has the Tiananmen demonstration and its brutal suppression by the Chinese government. Forgetting the politics of the Chinese revolution, making it an act of faith that Deng Xiaoping's "Reforms" have brought great benefit to China and that the Chinese simply demand more of them, Western observers and analysts have seen what they wished to see: an Oriental replay of Eastern Europe's rejection of communism.

The West's failure of analysis is signalled by the wild semantic confusion, degenerated now into utter garbling, of its descriptions of post-revolutionary China's political factions:  "Radicals", "Conservatives", "Reactionaries", "Hard-liners", the labels and their wearers have switched and shifted bewilderingly. The ruling faction in China, best named as Dengist, has of course deliberately added to the confusion with its own chameleon verbal camouflage, first presenting itself as upholders of Mao Tsetung against those they called his enemies and theirs, the "Gang of Four"; then, with the power they took through the 1976 coup d'etat consolidated, moving through repudiation of the Cultural Revolution to tacit rejection of Mao himself – a "mad recluse", they told us, for the last 19 years of his life; and finally Deng, to justify his repression, is found parroting the language of his own Cultural Revolution tormentors and labelling his victims "counter-revolutionaries".

Keys to clarify this confusion are available. The most detailed, accurate and sophisticated lies in the writings of China's "Maoists" but for those who find such a source suspect Animal Farm will do. The Aesopian morals of that great political fable are two: that revolutions are born infected with the virus of counter-revolution, ie, those who lead the structuring of a revolutionary society can become a class whose self-interest is served by its undoing; and that in this age counter-revolution will always present itself as revolution continued. In Orwell's terms, the "pigs" of the Chinese revolution seized power in the later 1970s, and instituted policies of restoration and regression which progressively reversed the achievements of the previous three decades; and of course in the "human" world outside the Farm these "Reforms" and the humanoid antics of the pigs, on golf course and in rodeo stage-coach, were rapturously applauded.

Whether Mao ever knew of Animal Farm is not known, but he certainly lived it.

The Chinese Communist Party fractured almost immediately after its triumph in 1949. The coalition of classes which Mao had put together and which overwhelmed the decadent Kuomintang regime divided over China's future road, in what appeared at first to be mere difference of priority. But the differences in fact were absolute. For the Dengists (whose first leader was Liu Shao-qui) the pre-eminent task was that of building China into a powerful modern state, and the natural leaders – and prime beneficiaries – of that process would inevitably be the bureaucracy, allied with the intelligentsia, reinforced with elements from the old order and supported by whatever friends could be won abroad. In a term, a new bourgeoisie – but one that was to be controlled, strictly when necessary, by the Communist Party.

In that scenario, the peasants would put down the arms with which they had won the revolution, take up again their sickles and hoes, and toil as usual until the benefits of modernisation began to trickle down into the rural sector. Even then, there would be other levels of filtration: a renascent rich-peasant and potential landlord class in alliance with urban interests would have to benefit first in order that agriculture could generate the surpluses needed for industrial modernisation.

For the Maoists, the task was to build society in the interests of the peasants and the workers, whose numbers would rapidly grow as China industrialised. So far as the peasantry was concerned, Mao's confidence that they potentially had an inexhaustible enthusiasm for socialism was vindicated in the extraordinarily compressed saga of the 1950s that carried rural China from the small-holding agriculture which land distribution had extended and revivified – and which Mao recognised as the route back to stagnation and poverty for the majority – through primitive and then sophisticated stages of cooperation and, with accelerating pace, into collectives and the newly conceived people's communes with their enormous potential for sustained, comprehensive and flexible development.

That triumph, with the secular increase in agricultural production and the rescue from poverty of the majority of the peasants – say 60 percent – in a mere 25 years, the Dengists have had to deny and belie in order to substantiate their false claim that they inherited from Mao a failed agricultural strategy, and that their Reforms had to be introduced to save an economy on the point of collapse. Credulous specialists in the West, well-disposed towards the "Reformers" who were so eager to learn from them, have been glad to accept these formulations.

It became apparent in the early 1950s that the growth-at-all-costs strategy for China's development, which would reverse the revolution's egalitarian thrust and jeopardise the country's new-won economic independence, had committed support in the Communist leadership. That the strategy they sign-posted "Capitalist Road" would lead to a shot-in-the-arm surge of rural prosperity the Maoists recognised, accepting that it would therefore have powerful appeal to many peasants; but they foresaw that its beneficent effects would be short-lived, bought at the cost of the factors for long-term growth that collectivisation had built into the rural economy.

Through the 1950s and especially after the first years of the 1960s, when the Dengist faction of the Party had the opportunity to introduce, tentatively, what later it could impose as "the Reforms", Mao evolved an analysis of his opponents' policies that carried on into diagnosis of their class affiliation. By the mid-1960s the Maoists had concluded that a new bourgeoisie was emerging in China, and that the peasants and workers who constituted the vast majority of the society were in a relationship of conflict – class conflict – with the bureaucrats who formulated the policies that shaped their lives, and with the groupings interlinked or in common cause with the bureaucracy: professionals, intellectuals, party cadres – especially those of the higher ranks – and their families.

The Cultural Revolution was the Maoists' counter-attack against that emergent class, whose hostility to the revolution could be inferred from their policies although it was of course denied in their rhetoric. Although it appeared at first that the Cultural Revolution had succeeded in consolidating and advancing the egalitarian principles and practices that served socialism, the power of the Dengist right of the Communist party was not broken, merely put to tactical retreat. By the mid-1970s the Cultural Revolution was on the defensive, the Right resurgent. In 1976, the year of his death, Mao was quoted as saying of China's cadres: "You are making the socialist revolution, and yet don't know where the bourgeoisie is. It is right in the Communist Party – those in power taking the capitalist road. The capitalist roaders are still on the capitalist road."

Indeed they were. Only a month after Mao's death they struck, in a classic praetorian coup d'etat. Unit 8341 of the P.L.A., charged with the safety of the national leadership, was turned against the left, and China's great reversal, its Restoration, began. As Mao had foreseen, once the right had full power in the party leadership, the purge of the left would be easy to achieve and China could be made to "change colour". Mao foresaw also that the policies of "the capitalist road" would turn out to be a shortcut to catastrophe for the country, leading it into economic collapse and social disorder. That took just over a decade.

The problem, from the Dengists' point of view, was that if the Communist Party is used to bury socialism it changes into something very different and becomes a Stalinist or even fascist party. The students in Tiananmen knew, as do most Chinese, that the Party has become corrupt and alien, and believed perhaps that it had also become impotent and irrelevant. They forgot that Deng had made much of the "professionalisation" he intended to work on the army, so that it would no longer be a "people's liberation army", custodian of moral and social values, but learn to goose-step and to obey, like any other third-world force.

The "Reforms", which have been so consistently applauded by Deng Xiaoping's Western clique, have left China facing a long period of division and turmoil. Deng's new model army cannot be used successfully as an instrument of coercive government for China as a whole, and the process of political disintegration that has begun cannot readily be reversed. The problems facing Beijing were enormous and beyond resolution even before the students took to the Square: not only an economy out of control and a currency threatened by accelerating inflation but, deadliest of all, an acute grain shortage that is the direct consequence of the decollectivisation of agriculture. China would need a coherent, effective government with the support of a united people to steer a way to national survival through the rapids into which the "Reforms" have led it. As it is, with the only alternatives repressive military rule or challenges by force that could lead to civil war, China faces an ineluctable regression into the disorder, fragmentation and renewed mass poverty from which its revolution once rescued it.
            - end item-

[ Back to top ]