1970s >> 1979 >> no-898-june-1979

Small wall of China

Since the downfall of the “Gang of Four”, the Chinese ruling class have

Democracy Wall

embarked on a policy of rapid modernisation and industrialisation. The extent of their plans can be seen in some details from the Ten-Year Plan for 1976-85, which was formulated by the State Council in 1975 and endorsed by the National People’s Congress in March 1978. It is envisaged that between 1978 and 1985 the gross investment budgeted for capital construction will be equal to that for the entire period 1950-78. By 1985 it is intended that ten new iron and steel complexes, ten oil and gas fields and thirty power stations, among many other undertakings, will have been constructed. The gross value of agricultural output is supposed to increase by four to five per cent per annum, and of industrial output by over ten per cent (figures taken from Chairman Hua Guofeng’s speech to the Fifth National People’s Congress).

To achieve all this will require vast resources, which will come from two sources: loans to the order of hundreds of millions of pounds from overseas banks to finance purchases of goods and technology, and the unpaid labour of the working class. The amount of the latter is to be increased by urging China’s workers to work harder and stifle any complaints, largely by dangling the carrot of piece-wages before them (see the Socialist Standard, December 1978). The first method seems to have been pretty successful, since banks are only too keen to lend money when they know their customer won’t do a moonlight flit and is likely to return cap in hand again and again. But the second method has run into problems.

At the same time as calling on the workers to put their backs into it, and with a sense of timing such as to make Jim Callaghan look like a political genius, it was announced that members of the so-called “national bourgeoisie”; the “patriotic industrialists and businessmen”, would have money and property which was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution returned to them. This is said to be because such people are experienced in the ways of the world (the capitalist world) and can help in China’s dealings with other countries. It is also pointed out that the earlier confiscations were illegal, and indeed according to the constitution “The state protects the right of citizens to own lawfully-earned income”. The beneficiaries of the repayments are former private capitalists whose property was nationalised in the 1950s in return for interest-bearing government bonds. Now they are having cash and personal possessions returned to them. The existence of privilege and inequality is thus flaunted and endorsed by the government, while the other side of the coin is seen in the recent ruling that families with more than two children will suffer cuts in their income. For instance, workers who produce a third child will have five per cent of their wages deducted for welfare expenses a kind of reverse family allowance which not even an English Tory would dare to propose.

Cynical Treatment
There are signs, however, that not all of China’s workers are prepared to accept this cynical treatment. For over the last few months there has been a remarkable upsurge of dissident activity, much of it centred on the “Democracy Wall” along Peking’s main street. It seems possible to discern three main tendencies within this activity. One, the most active in the production of wall posters, is the demand for “human rights”, specifically for freedom of speech. One poster asked President Carter to turn his attention to the state of human rights in China, on the grounds that China’s record in this field does not compare favourably with other countries.

There have also been at least two demonstrations for food and the “right to work”. One, in mid-January, was held outside Zhongnanhai, the compound in central Peking where the top rulers live. A fortnight later, as thirty thousand officials gathered at the Great Mall of the People to celebrate the Chinese New Year, a hundred and fifty peasants stood outside with banners proclaiming “We want to eat” and “We want clothes”; the demonstrators were dispersed, and an organiser arrested.

Lastly, there have been protests by young people against their being assigned to jobs in distant cities or deep in the countryside. This practice (which obviates urban unemployment) has long been unpopular among those affected by it, and Chinese newspapers have in the past given prominence to urban youths living in the countryside who have married local commune-members and decided to settle there permanently. In early February, Shanghai youths staged sit-ins along railway tracks and protested outside the offices of the city’s employment bureau. Others have returned without authorisation to their home cities, where they have turned to begging and theft in order to live without the ration coupons necessary for the purchase of rice and cotton clothing.

The government’s reaction to these protests has been typical of dictatorships everywhere. Critics have been arrested, the area available for wall posters has been progressively reduced, and anti-government posters have been speedily removed. In Shanghai new by-laws were passed restricting where posters could be placed; demonstrators protested that this was an infringement of their democratic rights, only to be told that the purpose was simply to reduce congestion in the streets. Nevertheless, the fact that protest still continues strongly suggests that the government feels itself unable to stamp down on it completely—presumably because the dissidents, however few they are in number, are too strong for this to be successful.

It is not reported that any of the protestors have appealed to the Chinese Constitution (adopted at the Congress mentioned earlier) in defence of their freedom to protest, though they may well have. Article 45 states: “Citizens enjoy freedom of speech, correspondence, the press, assembly, association, procession, demonstration and the freedom to strike”. Mind you, as well as enjoying such marvellous freedoms, citizens also have certain duties, for instance they “must support the leadership of the Communist Party of China” (Article 56).


The provisions of Article 45 are of course a complete dead letter. There are no such freedoms in China for any but the tiny minority of the country’s ruling class: the newspapers and other media are entirely government-controlled, and the arrests of demonstrators show that the other freedoms mentioned are inapplicable in practice. Strikes do occur, but not often, and in any case can be declared unconstitutional under Article 8, according to which no person may “disrupt the economic order of society”. The Chinese case shows clearly the limitations of paper rights and freedoms as enshrined in constitutions.


This does not however mean that the de facto ability to organise and discuss under capitalism is of no value to the working class. Without political democracy in this sense there is no possibility of establishing socialism. The events in China are evidence that at least some workers there have come to realise the necessity of achieving such freedoms and are prepared to run the considerable risks involved in acting on that realisation. It is tragic that their protests should be mixed up with nonsense about “human rights” and appeals to leaders of other capitalist countries. But at least some Chinese workers are well aware of the undemocratic nature of the society they live in, and others are not prepared just to accept their poverty.


Dissident Activity
It must be acknowledged that current dissident activity in China (it makes no sense as yet to speak of a dissident movement) is on a very low level. After all, ninety-eight per cent of the population do not live in Peking or Shanghai, and only a fraction of the population even of these cities are involved, though there may well be more going on than can be discerned from this distance (it is unlikely that the Western media will devote the same kind and degree of attention to Chinese dissidents as they do to their Russian counterparts as long as Western capitalism feels its interests to be served by trade and other close links with China). Moreover there is no indication that the current crop of protesters have managed to recognise the state capitalist nature of the society they live in, unlike many Russian dissidents and the Sheng-wu-lian group who flourished briefly in China during the Cultural Revolution.


In spite of the confused nature of their ideas and aims, the Chinese dissidents are an inevitable product of a class-divided society. We look forward to the day when socialist posters appear on the streets of Peking and the establishment of a socialist party is possible in China.


Paul Bennett