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 predecessors the 1989 democracy movement enjoyed great
popular support. Student groups received food and other supplies and money.

People saw more and more corruption amongst the party elite and were angered by
falling wages and living standards despite party promises to the contrary.

Meisner paints a picture of China at this time which shows a country in moral
chaos. The government had basically lost control of officials in the southern
coastal regions where there was cut-throat competition for scarce raw materials.

Officials had access to supplies at low state-regulated prices, and they caused
there to be an overproduction of consumer goods, while necessities were in short
supply. Basically, the economy was out of control. For example, the government
gave out promissory notes instead of cash payment for grain. The Deng era in the
history of the People's Republic began in late 1978 with the new regime broadly
supported by intellectuals who rallied around the promise of socialist democracy

A decade later the most vocal intellectual partisans of the regime were
advocates of a capitalist autocracy. By 1989 neither socialist nor democratic
goals had survived Deng Xiaoping's reform program, at least not in official
circles (Meisner, 1996; p. 395). The intellectuals of China did not participate
in earlier democratic demonstrations. The reasons for this lack of activity are
various. For a long while, they were still seduced by Deng's program of reforms,
and they were told that, as a class, they would play a prominent role in the

Four Modernisations. There was also a certain air of snobbishness in that the
intellectuals felt that early movements were really led by self-educated workers
and not students. By early 1989, this was beginning to wear on the collective
conscious and the government began to receive well-publicised letters from
famous intellectuals calling for the release of political prisoners. The
intellectual element also began to challenge the government on other fronts. It
began to challenge the government's position as the sole interpreter of Marxist
doctrine. Beginning around 1987, dissident political literature could be bought
right on the street from book carts along with pornography imported from Hong

Kong. According to Meisner, Deng made a serious error when he allowed the
standard of living to go down for intellectuals after 1985. Thus, it can be seen
that pressures toward some sort of political unrest had been building for quite
sometime. The students knew that the death of a Party leader was one of the rare
occasions when the regime would tolerate a symbolic political action and
spontaneous gatherings. After the government violence which brought the student
democracy movement to a bloody and tragic end, one U.S. magazine, The National

Review, criticised the students for not foreseeing that the government would
eventually resort to violence. However, it is easy to see how this could happen.

On April 27, the students enjoyed a major victory when the government agreed to
meet with them and listen to their demands. On April 28, the government conceded
another demand and gave local newspapers permission to cover the political
unrest. The student who was the leader of the Federation of Beijing University

Students, Wuer Kaixi, debated the Prime Minister, Li Peng, on national
television. The government was taking a very conciliatory tone in all of its
public statements. Government officials actually allowed themselves to be
questioned publicly about the alleged corruption. To the young, and for the most
part, inexperienced students it looked as if the impossible was happening the
government teetered on the brink it looked as if it would capitulate. A second
meeting was set up between the student activist and government officials on

April 30. Zhao Ziyang had been on a diplomatic trip to Korea during this time.

He returned to China just as the government really started to get desperate and
instituted marshal law. The government essentially was frozen after the
institution of marshal law for two weeks while Ziyang and Deng confronted each
other over what to do next. Ziyang cautioned against violence, but Deng and
other government leaders were absolutely certain that by threatening the
authority of the Communist party if they did not act boldly the entire country
would be thrown into chaos. The wholesale massacre of the student demonstrators
started around 6 p.m. on the evening of June 3, 1989. The decision to use
violence against the Chinese people was not made rashly, or within the context
of some violent emotional response. Meisner writes, rather, it was a coldly
deliberate decision that Deng and his old comrades were determined to carry
out...They thus ignored one opportunity after another to peacefully resolve the
crisis because they were intent on terrorising the population, they wanted to
punish the people for their transgressions (p. 466). The actual events began
with very large demonstrations. On April 26 the People's daily editorial
condemned the demonstrations. The demonstrators demanded it be repudiated.

Martial law was declared immediately after Gorbachev's visit ended in the early
hours of May 19. The demonstrators took steps to forestall military intervention
by setting up barricades and by talking to soldiers and explaining that they
were not counter-revolutionaries but a patriotic democratic movement supported
by the whole of the urban citizenry. Thus the first few attempts at military
intervention were rebuffed by the sheer extent of public support for the
demonstrations. But decisive military action was perhaps inevitable despite
apparent disagreement among the party leadership over how to deal with the
movement and rumours that some sections of the army did not want to be involved
in the suppression. The final military intervention began on the night of June

3rd. The earlier conscripts were replaced with more experienced troops whose
loyalty was assured. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled in, smashing
through the barricades. Demonstrators fought back and the massacre continued
throughout the night and there were armed "mopping up" operation for
days after in Beijing, shots still being heard ten days after the square was
cleared. Outrage at the massacre gave renewed impetus to demonstrations in other
cities. In Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xi'an and many other cities, there were strikes
in the days following the massacre and main streets and bridges and railway
lines were barricaded. But the suppression continued throughout June and July.

Different tactics were used in handling students and workers. Students were
given the chance to repent their errors whilst workers organisations and
individuals were much more likely to be condemned as criminal hooligans and
incarcerated or executed. (Fear of solidarity) The Future of Democracy in China

There is still discontent: inflation is rising rapidly Asian financial crisis
etc. Since Tiananmen there has not been any mass movement against the communist
party. However the party has moved against Underground democracy workers groups
which have been banned and their members arrested for example in March 1994

League for Protection of Working People in China The party has now gone so far
away from socialism and towards the Market that it is now hard for the party to
bring out the old argument that Socialism provides better security and benefits
than do the rights and freedoms they would enjoy under a Western-style liberal
democracy e.g. League for Protection of Working People in China argued that
workers need to be able to strike and form independent unions to protect
themselves in the new market-socialist China Saturday clampdown on Sino-Overseas
publications (censorship) Monday Zechen & Wenjiang face trial (China

Democracy Party) CCP still in control Jiang Zemin, China's current leader, has
currently dismissed human rights concerns as something which an emerging China
doesn't have time for right now. Only quite recently, standing beneath a massive
portrait of Deng Xiaoping, has the Chinese leader tried to put any distance
between himself and the events in Tiananmen Square Democracy Movements in China

Democracy Wall 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.