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New Left Review I/122, July-August 1980


Gregor Benton

China’s Oppositions

Since late 1978 an original dissident movement has sprung up in the main cities of China under the slogan Democracy and Science. This movement is still in its infancy, and the conditions under which it operates change from day to day. It is heterogeneous in composition, and it is not yet clear in which direction it will evolve, assuming that it is not successfully suppressed by the authorities. Here I set out to describe the nature and aims of this movement, beginning with an account of the wider political context within which it has emerged. The democratic movement in China is only one manifestation of a shifting and unstable political conjuncture over the last two to three years. It is necessary to examine the nature of this conjuncture if only because the continued existence of independent political tendencies hinges greatly on it. [1] Non-Chinese press sources on which this study is based (excluding those referred to in separate footnotes below) are articles by David Bonavia, Melinda Liu, Jerome Alan Cohen and Helmut Opletal in the Far Eastern Economic Review (hereafter feer) for the whole of 1979; and by Jay Mathews and Fox Butterfield in the International Herald Tribune for late October and early November 1979. Official statements by Chinese Communist leaders referred to in this article can be found unless otherwise indicated in Beijing Review or in the Quarterly Chronicle and Documentation section of The China Quarterly. Some translations from Beijing unofficial journals can be found in the us Government series Joint Publications Research Series (hereafter jprs). Is it justified to use the term ‘dissident’ in connection with the Chinese democratic movement? Few of its supporters are openly opposed to the Party leaders around Deng Xiaoping, and some of the main activists in at least one of the groups associated with it are members of the Communist Party and the Communist Youth League. [2] Xu Wenli’s April Fifth Forum (Siwu luntan); see Phoenix van Kemenade-Chang, ‘Peking-lente bloeit weer op,’ in Nieuwsnet, Amsterdam, 20 October 1979. A lively if shortlived theoretical exchange went on between its leading thinkers and contributors to the more outspoken official publications. None of its main tendencies is anti-socialist, and only one (Wei Jingsheng’s Exploration) is anti-Marxist if one takes the term Marxist in its wider definition. In this respect at least they have little in common with most Soviet and Eastern European groups to which the label ‘dissident’ attaches. But whatever its connections, the democratic movement has no official status, and not all its vows of loyalty to the Party need be taken at face value. What is more, its supporters share in common with dissidents in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe a belief in the superiority of Democracy over Dictatorship and a tendency to understand those concepts abstractly, without reference to the social systems that underlie them. It is therefore not unreasonable to categorize it as a movement of dissent.

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