On the night between June 3 and 4, 1989, the Chinese People’s Army used tanks to violently suppress the mass protests which had occupied Tiananmen Square since April 26, on the initiative of the students who wanted to have festivities on the occasion of the death of former Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang.
It was a bloodbath, and while some of its victims were from among the young students who had started the protest, most of the victims turned out to be workers. Official sources put out the number of 300 dead, but other sources, both internal and external, have offered more plausible casualty figures, numbering in the thousands. The prospect that was completely unacceptable to the new Chinese leadership, headed by Deng Xiaoping—the pro-Western modernizer who returned to power in the late ’70s after being kicked out by the Cultural Revolution movement, which had arisen against the occupation by the Party of the whole political sphere and against “Deng’s capitalist path”—was that the protests might spread out even further, as they already had a presence throughout the country, coming after the bloody workers’ uprising in Changsha just a month before.
Tiananmen Square was to be the catalyst, symbol and spark that lit the fuse of this movement of social protest. From that moment to the present day, there have been tens of thousands of uprisings, according to official Chinese sources themselves—revolts which have been covered by our own Angela Pascucci.
In ’89, the contagious and radical nature of the social mobilization was calling into question two fundamental principles of the “Deng turn”: on one hand, the modernization campaigns (in industry, agriculture, defense and science/technology) which brought with them the expectation of a “fifth” modernization, one not allowed to be spoken about—i.e. the democratization of politics and society, for which the Wall of Democracy movement had fought back in 1979, and which was also repressed by the same Deng; and, on the other hand, the unity of the Chinese Communist Party, which the great ongoing mobilization was rendering problematic. Nor could one fail to take note of the radical change that Gorbachev, who visited China in mid-May 1989, represented in the USSR.
The international media chose to focus on the papier mache representation of the American Statue of Liberty, built by student groups in Tiananmen Square, and on the paint thrown on (only) one portrait of Mao. However, this failed to give an accurate view of what was happening in the square. There were thousands of portraits of Mao and red flags, and those taking part were workers, migrant farmers, women: it was an agora, the effective practice of democracy by those affected by Deng’s reforms.
In the square, one could find the full representation of the discontent of the new China, devastated by the distorted model that Deng had set into motion since the early ‘80s, together with the top officials of the party under the leadership of Zhao Ziyang—who, in the end, decided to side against the plan to repress the protests.
Deng Xiaoping’s “turn”—a plan to first build wealth on the basis of the market, and only then to lay the foundations of Chinese socialism—had come into effect since the early ‘80s, with the dissolution of 60,000 people’s communes and the start of the distribution of work in the countryside on the basis of production, and no longer on egalitarian criteria; with the double system of prices, with minimum prices under state control and raw material prices set by the market (a system that would lead to vast systemic corruption); with the introduction of “special economic zones” open to outside capitalist investments; with the start of the mass migration of hundreds of millions of people to the “special” cities, where they were made available for unbridled exploitation by multinationals; with the impoverishment of the greatest part of “deep” China, upsetting the existing balance between the countryside and the cities; with the development of a new class of the super-rich; and with the elimination of the “iron rice bowl,” the guaranteed level of welfare which, although modest, was awarded to everyone on an egalitarian basis.
China today is showing the full effects of these social transformations and the contradictions that derive from them. In truth, it has become the only truly capitalist country in the world, reinvesting its profits and its high GDP growth (numbers of which the West can only dream). The current social contract in China is founded on the “hidden” violence that was brought down on Tiananmen Square in those days in early June 1989.
It’s true that the Chinese model of the transformation of “real socialism”—what we might call “Party capitalism”—centered on economic growth alone, managed not to fail, as Gorbachev’s initiative did in the USSR—with perestroika, glasnost and the Congress of the People’s Deputies—which instead aimed at change in the political sphere alone. However, neither the high GDP figures, the hyper-productivity, nor even the “New Silk Road” can absolve Xi Jinping’s new “harmonious” leadership of the guilt for the disasters caused by the destruction of the environment in China, with an ever-widening chasm of inequality and a frantic zero-sum search for raw materials to exploit all over the world.
The current Chinese reality shows the real costs of a “growth” that, in order to exist, needs to divide 1.4 billion human beings inequitably and destroy and despoil energy resources. Looking at its history, starting with the Tiananmen massacre itself, we should ask ourselves: at what price?
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