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.footnote1 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.footnote2 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.

In a recent speech to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (prc), the veteran leader Ye Jianying spoke of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath as an ‘appalling catastrophe’ that ‘traumatized our Party and people.’ These sentiments are widely shared by Chinese of all social groups. They are a main reason for the present popularity of Deng Xiaoping, who was both an opponent and a victim of the campaigns of the late 1960s.

The Cultural Revolution was an extremely complex historical movement within which many different forces sought to express themselves. A minority of Red Guard organizations successfully resisted the manipulation of the Party leaders and developed independent political positions, but most became bogged down under the influence of competing groups in the Party leadership in an increasingly violent power struggle in which factional allegiance got the better of political principle. The outcome of the Cultural Revolution at the level of the Party leadership was the emergence of a new ruling group around Mao which lacked broad support, either in the country or in the Party, and which pursued its political aims through increasingly dictatorial means.

The characteristic political instrument of this new ruling group was the Campaign or yundong, involving the mobilization of large numbers of people and resources to achieve the political goals of the Party leaders.footnote3

During campaigns the pressure mounted on local cadres to root out ever larger numbers of ‘class enemies’. The mental and physical strain of constant criticism, self-criticism and ‘struggle’ led to numerous suicides. Many innocent people suffered expulsion from their jobs, expulsion from school, imprisonment and even execution as the scope of political offences broadened to include the most trivial charges. The decade after 1966 was one of almost uninterrupted yundong. It was undoubtedly the most destructive and divisive period in the history of the prc, and according to press reports is said by some Chinese to have led to the direct or indirect political victimization of as many as 100 million people.footnote4

The Cultural Revolution was accompanied by an alarming decline in the norms of treatment of political offenders. Repression of political difference has a long history in the prc, but many people who experienced repression in the past have reported that it was generally applied without vindictiveness, and in a spirit of reform.footnote5 During the Cultural Revolution this changed as a result of the intensity of the factional confrontation, the ever growing number of ‘deviants’ uncovered and the lack of experience of newly recruited younger cadres. Cruelty, torture and even summary execution became not unknown, as even official sources now testify. So many deaths resulted from political maltreatment during this period that a new category of martyrs has been established to commemorate them.

The central strategic aim of the post-Mao leaders is to create the conditions for the overall modernization of the Chinese economy before the end of the century. As an integral part of this programme they have pledged to reform the political system, starting with the rehabilitation of innocent victims of political campaigns and going on to establish a regular legal system.