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The RW Interview

The Tiananmen Square Rebellion: An Inside Story

Revolutionary Worker #1009, June 6, 1999


Li Minqi brings a unique perspective to the tenth anniversary of the massacre carried out by the Chinese government against workers and students in Beijing. He was involved as a student activist in the protests and momentous events of 1989. He was arrested by the Deng regime in 1990 and spent two years in prison. Today, Li is a Marxist actively committed to building a new revolutionary movement against China's bureaucrat-capitalist rulers. Maoist political economist Raymond Lotta spoke with Li Minqi in May.

RW: Tell us a little bit about yourself as a political activist in 1989.

Li Minqi: I was a student at Beijing University studying economics in 1989. I was involved in the student movement in 1988 and then became engaged in the democratic movement. I suppose my consciousness was by and large the same as most of the university students in China at the time.

At that point in time the Chinese regime was trying to pursue a kind of capitalist development. On the ideological front, Marxism-Leninism was regularly being replaced by the dominance of bourgeois ideology. So that dominance of bourgeois ideology also happened among the university students.

I was part of that. I accepted pro-West, pro-capitalist ideology. I believed in Western-style democracy and Western-style capitalism. I entered the movement with that kind of consciousness when it broke out on April 15, 1989.

RW: This started as a student movement, but it struck a very deep chord in society and became a broader movement. What was going on in Chinese society at the time?

LM: I think it is very important to raise this question, because obviously the 1989 movement was not simply a student movement. It became a nationwide mass democratic movement exactly because social classes other than the students were involved in the movement. That made a major difference compared to other student movements that also happened in the 1980s.

Before 1989, you had other student movements, but they did not become a nationwide mass movement. It's important to understand this social condition.

RW: So why was this?

LM: To give a relatively short answer: Basically since the late 1970s, there has been fundamental change in Chinese society, in politics and economics, especially in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. It began to pursue a capitalist approach of development since the late 1970s.

Part of the problem of this capitalist development is that you have the workers who had enjoyed extensive social and economic rights in the socialist period as a result of the revolution in 1949--and those economic and social rights were fundamentally incompatible with what is required for capitalist accumulation and exploitation. Therefore it was inevitable that the ruling regime would initiate programs, reform policies, etc., trying to take away those rights from the workers.

Throughout the '80s, the contradiction between the working class and the ruling class of Chinese society at the time was growing, and workers' resentment against the ruling class was growing.

RW: Could you give a few examples?

LM: A typical problem was the "iron rice bowl," which basically secured the right of employment for workers. This right was a result of the socialist revolution. It also included a basic safety net--like health care, cheap housing, various guarantees of people's basic needs. All of this had been undermined in the "reform" period.

You have a government which tries to do away with these guarantees. They talked about "breaking the iron rice bowl" and replacing the fixed employment system with the so-called "contract employment system"--to introduce, in their language, more "flexibility" into the labor market and also give the managers in state enterprises more power to punish and fire workers. So you have a situation in which workers' rights were being undermined in various ways.

In the socialist period, there had been "two participations" (of cadres participating in labor and workers participating in management), the reform of unreasonable rules and regulations, and also the combination of cadres, workers, and technicians in technological innovation.

Since the "reform" began, this was replaced with one-man system of management, giving the manager the exclusive power in the factories, and basically denying the workers in the factories the democratic right of participation in management. As a result, many managers abused their newly enhanced power, imposing fines and other punishments on workers. Also, the income gap between workers and managers increased in the 1980s.

According to an investigation by the official trade union in China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the resentment of the workers with respect to the reforms and the cadres increased in the '80s.

RW: The students were raising demands about lack of political rights and protesting the extensive corruption and abuse of power at the top levels of the party and government.

LM: Right. If you think about the social position of students and intellectuals compared to working people, they are in a relatively privileged position. But compared to the bureaucratic class, they are not in a position of political power. And they were not satisfied with that, they wanted some of the power that has been exclusively occupied by the bureaucratic class.

However, by and large, because Chinese intellectuals are in a different social position from the working people, they accepted capitalist ideology rather than being ready to fight for the interests of the working people. They agreed with the capitalist approach of development that the ruling class was pursuing, but wanted to ask for some political power in exchange for political support for the regime.

RW: So why did the student movement attract the sympathy of the workers?

LM: The workers were suffering from the capitalist attacks of the bureaucrat class in the 1980s and their social rights had been undermined. However, after the failure of the Cultural Revolution, there was not a revolutionary socialist organization with a well-developed socialist ideology to provide ideological and organizational leadership for the working class.

RW: You're saying that the workers joined this movement out of their contradiction with the capitalist reforms and saw an opportunity to go into the streets to express their grievances.

LM: They had their immediate experience, their immediate perceptions of what the capitalist reforms had done. However, they were not in a position to present their political and economic interests in a scientific and conscious way.

RW: This raises an interesting historical point. At the time, the media in the U.S. painted Tiananmen as nothing but a love affair with the West. But you're saying that people were entering this movement for different reasons and that various class interests were getting expressed.

LM: It's true that among many students there were pro-Western sentiments. It's a kind of illusion, but it was an illusion that existed at that point in time.

However, that's definitely not the whole story. In the first place, as I explained, if that were the case, it would have only been a student movement, it would not be a mass democratic movement. And, actually, if not because of the masses, especially the workers, the movement would never have gone as far as it did. Because from the very beginning, the liberal intellectuals and the student leadership were trying to stop the movement from going that far.

For example, I was a student at Beijing University. The first demonstration was on April 17. On that night, before we went out of the campus, Wang Dan, the famous student leader, stood up and tried to persuade the students not to go to the streets. Nevertheless, the students did go out of the campus into the streets. And then a couple of professors tried to persuade the students not to go into the streets. That kind of thing happened again and again.

But when the students came out and the workers began to show sympathy with the students, and as more and more workers got involved in the movement, that actually pushed the movement forward.

RW: You explained to me that the students launched their hunger strike on May 15 to keep the student movement going, but it was workers who entered the struggle in huge numbers.

LM: Right. None of us had expected that. Student leaders had speculated that the hunger strike would give the student movement some new spirit, but they were not expecting the workers. And the student leaders were totally in a chaotic state, because they didn't know what to do about that.

The workers came into the streets starting about May 17. And the number of people participating in the demonstrations increased to the scale of millions. Before that tens of thousands of students were on the streets.

When the workers came into the streets expressing their own resentment at the government, that really terrified the government. This was a turning point.

RW: The situation was growing more dangerous for the regime.

LM: The workers were expressing their own interests and desires, which were against the interests of the government. And this government, of course, is not popular among the masses. It's not a revolutionary government with a social base among the workers.

This was the first time since the Cultural Revolution that there were this many people mobilized. The government was terrified and ready to take extreme measures.

RW: To what extent were the workers' feelings and sentiments about the socialist period part of the political landscape, part of people's political frame of reference?

LM: Honestly, my own experience was that workers' feelings were by and large presented in a weak way, not in a clear way.

But they would generally talk about what it was like under Chairman Mao, what it is like now under Deng. Under Chairman Mao everyone was equal and the cadres actually cared about the workers. Nobody forced us to work, but we liked to work, we voluntarily increased our work and made our work better. But now it is different between the cadres and workers: the cadres are cadres, the workers are workers. The cadres have various privileges, but we cannot do anything.

Actually, at the time, I did not understand it very well. Later, along with other transformations of my ideas, it began to make sense.

RW: How were you affected by this transition from a largely student and intellectual movement to one marked by this kind of worker mobilization?

LM: Initially I shared the general dominance of bourgeois ideology among Chinese students. The student movement did not expect to become a mass democratic movement.

But by May 17, when the workers really came into the streets, I began to realize that this was totally different from what I expected. I was saying to myself: this is more and more like a revolutionary situation.

Before that, all that the students were demanding was to have dialogue with the government. They were making specific demands of the bourgeois intellectuals--like freedom of speech, freedom to organize, etc. But when large numbers of workers came into the streets, and with the conflict between the government and the masses, I began to realize that this was way beyond what the students and intellectuals had imagined and demanded.

I became aware that all the demands were already not enough. They were not enough to handle the situation. The situation was going to bring the movement into fundamental conflict with the government, and there was probably no room to retreat from that at that point in time. That's what I thought on May 17.

RW: What about the activity of the workers at this point?

LM: By and large, it was unorganized. I think probably the most important form was for the workers in each factory to come organized by their work unit--but not organized across their work units, not organized citywide or nationwide.

They came out more or less spontaneously. For example, when they heard the news that the army was going to enter the city, they spontaneously went into the streets to stop the army.

Basically, they tried to understand what the student leadership wanted them to do, to get direction. But, of course, the student leadership did not provide effective direction to workers.

RW: This was a very challenging situation.

LM: The student leadership was not ready to mobilize workers. Anyone with a sane mind could see that the conflict between the government and the movement was already fundamentally unsolvable: it must be solved either with the defeat of the government or with the defeat of the democratic movement. But nevertheless the student leadership created the illusion that without mass mobilization you could still achieve the goals of the movement in a "peaceful and rational" way; success or not, you had to stay on this "peaceful and rational" course. Moreover, they created the illusion that this problem could be solved within the legal framework.

So, for example, between May 20--this is crucial for the final phase--and June 4, the student leadership did not do anything effectively to bring out their own forces.

As soon as martial law was declared, the people of Beijing spontaneously came out into the streets to stop the army. The army could not get into the city.

The government was in a position of panic. Essentially there was a new central government. Zhao Ziyang [the secretary-general of China's phony "communist" party--ed.] was out. The local governments did not know what exactly was happening in Beijing, and they were not quite sure that the current central government was the right one to follow.

RW: Why did Deng Xiaoping react as brutally as he did to this movement?

LM: I was not surprised. When the ruling class's rule over the country was actually threatened, it would resort to any possible means.

RW: What was the message Deng was sending the workers?

LM: For the workers, that was simply repression--basically to destroy the political rebellion of the workers and pave the way for capitalist reform.

RW: And to the intellectuals?

LM: For the intellectuals, the first message was don't try to share political power with us. Second, Deng Xiaoping nevertheless believed that this would not destroy the political alliance between the ruling class and the intellectuals which was crucial for capitalist development. And the way to do this was to provide more material privileges for the intellectuals.

RW: Let me take a step back in terms of an overview. You're saying that the forces and political perspectives in the leading position of this movement were bourgeois in their outlook, but that this movement, as it further developed and broadened, was coming increasingly into conflict with the regime and its capitalist program. Nonetheless, an anti-capitalist outlook was not being expressed.

LM: I think that summary is accurate. Basically, the workers had those social and economic rights during the socialist period. And they would not give that up voluntarily. So there would have to be a political struggle between the ruling class and the workers with respect to capitalist reform.

Unfortunately, the workers at that time were not in a position to organize themselves as an independent political force. Nevertheless, that does not mean they would not try to protect their political interests in some other way, including under the leadership of bourgeois-oriented intellectuals. That happened and actually became the political expression of workers' resentment against reform.

But as a result of the failure of the movement, that made it impossible for the workers to organize politically for the near future. There was no plausible political force that existed that could challenge the regime for quite a period of time.

RW: You had mentioned that this was the largest outpouring of workers since the Cultural Revolution of the Mao era. That's interesting because, at the time, Deng frequently raised the specter of the Cultural Revolution--saying that was the worst possible thing. What was your understanding of the Cultural Revolution?

LM: That's actually a tough question. Because at that time we did not know enough about the Cultural Revolution, not as much as Deng Xiaoping knew. Later, I could understand why he recalled the Cultural Revolution in that way.

Let me put it this way. At that time, I was still under the dominance of bourgeois ideology. I accepted it and also accepted the official interpretation of the Cultural Revolution--which was that it was ten years of chaos in which people crazily fought each other, tortured intellectuals and cadres, and so it was totally a bad thing.

We knew nothing about the Cultural Revolution as a good thing. So when Deng Xiaoping talked about this, we thought he was totally wrong...what we did was for just causes and had nothing to do with the Cultural Revolution. But of course, later when I began to be attracted to Marxist ideas, then I began to take another point of view about the history of the Chinese revolution. And I had more access to information about what happened in that period.

I would like to mention Maurice Meisner's book on the Maoist period, Mao's China. That was translated into Chinese. Actually that was the first book that gave me a systematic view that the Maoist period could be different from what I had thought.

RW: Tell us more about the development of your political understanding.

LM: In the movement, I already sensed that something was wrong. The student leadership did not dare to mobilize the workers, did not dare take steps to organize to take political power, and that resulted in the failure of the movement.

So I began to rethink what I had believed, what I had taken for granted--Western ideology and Western-style democracy. I began to think maybe some alternative ideas are needed. And the most obvious alternative idea is Marxism.

Also the experience in the movement, observing the participation of the workers, gave me a sense that some kind of class analysis was needed. I began to read more Marxist and leftist-oriented books. I can read English, so I read leftist publications in English. They appeared to make sense to me. So I was more attracted to that.

And then you have the event which was important for me personally. That was on midnight on June 3 of 1990--the spontaneous demonstration on the campus at Beijing University. I was there and I made a speech. Because I was beginning to have socialist ideas, I began to talk about the importance of recognizing the interest of workers, the importance for students to join their forces with the workers. I was arrested for that speech and later sentenced to two years in prison.

The years in prison actually gave me a perfect chance to read Marxist books, including Marx's Capital. I always told other people I'm sure that in some other context, I could not read through the whole three volumes of Capital. But then you are restricted in that small place, and you have plenty of time.

RW: Let me jump forward to the current situation. There have been demonstrations in China against the U.S./NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy.

LM: A new generation of students and intellectuals is emerging in China, and the development of all kinds of contradictions in China will be reflected in the minds of these intellectuals gradually.

What we are observing right now, with the student demonstrations against America...this could be an important turning point to have people, especially intellectuals and young students, to understand the nature of capitalist development in China, the nature of the relationship between Chinese capitalism and U.S. capitalism, the nature of the global capitalist system.

As a first step, these bombings show in a brutal way how imperialism continues to exist in this world and continues to oppress the people in the world. And that could serve as a first step to awaken people to the nature of imperialism, to become conscious of the problem of imperialism, and begin to question all those values and ideas and theory that have been presented by imperialism and their ideologues.

RW: These demonstrations do have some new features.

LM: In the 1989 movement, towards the end of the movement, there were some students who set up the statue of the goddess of freedom, following the example of the American goddess of freedom [Statue of Liberty--ed.] as a way of showing they are admirers of American values and U.S.-style democracy.

In the latest demonstrations in Beijing, you also have students presenting a statue of the goddess of freedom...but in this case the face of the goddess was replaced by the face of the devil.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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