1990s >> 1990 >> no-1030-june-1990

Will China Follow?

The momentous events of Eastern Europe have found little echo in China. Since its bloody suppression of the democracy movement a year ago this month, the government has carried out a widespread programme of arrest and repression. Anyone who played any kind of prominent role in the strikes and demonstrations is liable to summary imprisonment, torture or execution. Ordinary people have been pressurised into betraying their relatives or neighbours. The rulers’ aim is to cow people into submission and apathy.

It should not be thought that the protests for democracy and against corruption were merely the work of a few thousand students, however much attention was centered on the events in Tiananmen Square. On 17 May last year, over a million workers marched through the streets of Peking to show their support. An important aspect of the movement was the demand for independent trade unions. After the 4 June massacre, the government bracketed the autonomous Workers Union with the autonomous Student Union as illegal organisations whose leaders must be brought to book. There were hunger-strikes and demonstrations in other parts of China too, for instance a demonstration of 300,000 in the provincial capital of Xian on 20 May. The government’s response would not have been anywhere near so brutal had they just been dealing with a few students rather than a temporarily-united working population of Peking and elsewhere.

The army’s actions were not just aimed at teaching ordinary workers a lesson, they were directed at “liberals” in the Communist Party who felt some sympathy with the protesters. It has been suggested that the first army firing on that fateful Saturday night, just before Tiananmen Square was cleared, was against workers and their barricades in the Muxidi area in west Peking, overlooked by the flats occupied by many middle-ranking Party officials. They, too.,were being shown that no concessions to popular demands would be countenanced.

In fact, since June, many Party members known, or suspected, to be sympathetic to Zhao Ziyang, the disgraced Party Secretary, have been purged and replaced by those loyal to the hardline leadership. In November, Deng Xiaoping, one of those with the blood of June on his hands, resigned his last official post as chair of the Central Military Commission, though he remains a power in the background. The new CP Secretary. Jiang Zemin, brought in to oversee the return to “normality “, took over Deng’s post as well.

On 11 January martial law was finally lifted in Peking, showing that the government felt confident enough to take the troops off the streets. But, at the same time, the government and ruling class cannot be sure to count on the loyalty of the army if it is again called on to slaughter Chinese citizens. The events in Rumania, in particular, sent a shock-wave through China’s ruling circles. It is hard to know how accurate they are, but there are reports that up to 1500 soldiers and officers face court martial for mutiny during last year’s protests, and that many high-ranking military officials were opposed to the use of force last June. The top brass went to great lengths to ensure that the soldiers used in the massacre could be relied on. Now many officers are having their loyalty investigated, and ordinary soldiers are having the importance of unquestioning obedience drummed into them.

Economy in a mess

Economically, too, hard-line rhetoric is now the order of the day. The reforms of Deng and Zhao—decentralisation, promotion of private enterprise, special zones with privileges for overseas companies—are being partially withdrawn as the government reassumes economic authority. Wealthy private capitalists are attacked in the media and subjected to ever-higher taxes as the tentative steps towards private capitalism are put into reverse. But there are still government bonds and company shares to be traded, and a real-estate industry. buying and selling urban property, is growing fast. Joint enterprises still flourish, with over 47 billion US dollars invested so far from abroad, and in October the largest-yet solely overseas funded project was opened in Tianjin.

The economy, though, remains in a mess, despite the best efforts of the government to control the uncontrollable. Inflation was cut to 18 per cent last year, while urban living costs went up by 16 per cent. In September passenger fares on trains, ships and planes were virtually doubled overnight. Yet city dwellers’ incomes increased by only 12 per cent in 1989, and over one-third of families saw a drop in their income. In the words of the State Statistical Bureau, “actual per capita income of low-income families fell”. So in China, too. the poor get poorer.

A particular problem for many workers is that their factories have stopped paying bonuses, which often amount to as much as the basic wage. Industrial output has fallen as factories go on short time, unable to obtain raw materials. In the countryside, last year’s harvest was better than previous years, but the government may again fail to pay in cash for the grain it has contracted to buy. Most workers employed by the state have been forced to buy government bonds, thus cutting their disposable income drastically. No wonder many workers (from 20 per cent in Tianjin to 70 per cent in Wenzhou) have taken to moonlighting. doing a second job in the evening or at weekends to supplement their incomes and make ends meet. Others vent their frustration by go-slows and sabotage.

In December the Chinese currency, the yuan, was devalued by 20 per cent, in an attempt to boost flagging exports. At the end of 1988. the foreign debt of China was 40 billion US dollars, and large repayments lie ahead. International capitalism has been wary of investing in China since last year’s events (they are worried about the security of their profits, not about the slaughter of Chinese workers). But the president of the World Bank has recently been making conciliatory noises about resuming loans to China, declaring himself satisfied with the new economic plans. Tourism has begun to recover, too, though many of the luxury hotels gracing Chinese cities have empty rooms and empty coffers.

For the time being, then, the developments in Eastern Europe are unlikely to be repeated in China. The Chinese working class have shown both themselves and their rulers their potential, but have also seen the ferocity which is unleashed when the ruling class reply. Yet the economic problems which gave rise to the protests remain, and are even being exacerbated. Repression and tyranny have won the current battle, but the class war continues.

Paul Bennett