Wang Dan: I think the June 4th movement can be seen in either way, according to the time-frame we take. If we look at its background, it was more like a political awakening, that started with the intellectual ferment of the preceding year, when hopes were already stirred among academic circles that major changes were possible in China. On the other hand, if we view the movement as it developed, it is clear that it was a cultural rebellion by young people in an atmosphere of euphoria and revelry. The actual reality was a mixture of these elements.
For the Communist régime that emerged in China after the 1949 revolution had a contradictory character. It was not the working class but a privileged bureaucracy that controlled political and economic power—in Marxist terms, New China remained an exploitative society. But the People’s Republic of China (prc) was not just an oppressive régime. It was the product of a genuine social revolution that mobilized broad layers of the people. So, to some extent, it had to reflect their material interests and values. Urban workers gained real socio-economic rights—to employment, food, health care, education and housing. In a more limited way, peasants benefited too. But the problem was that this combination was unstable. Theoretically, two solutions were possible. One was a deepening of the revolution, allowing workers to win effective control over political and economic power. The other was a consolidation of the rule of the bureaucracy, allowing a new privileged class to deprive workers of their economic and social rights, along a path of outright capitalist development. It was the second process that actually took place.
In the 1980s, workers’ rights were steadily eroded as the bureaucracy started to impose ‘scientific management’ in state-owned factories—in effect, capitalist-style work-discipline—and to break the ‘iron rice bowl’ of secure employment. Naturally, the result was growing resentment and discontent in the big cities. But this could find no political outlet. For the Maoist ideology of the Cultural Revolution had been discredited, and no alternative vision of socialism was available. In practice, the Chinese working class was unable to act as an independent force in defence of its own interests. Instead, from the mid-1980s onwards, there developed an enthusiastic consensus among Chinese intellectuals in favour of free-market capitalism: leftist voices were virtually unheard-of. The result was that popular discontent found expression in a democratic movement led not by ordinary working people, but by intellectuals and students committed to a system quite foreign to them. Of course, this made any active and effective mobilization of the great mass of urban workers ultimately impossible. But without their participation, the movement was doomed to failure.
Wang Chaohua: Surely the question is rather about how future history will remember the movement of 1989? So we have to consider what has actually happened in China since. From this perspective, I would be inclined to admit—unhappily—that June 4th looks less similar to May 4th than to the 1848 revolutions and the 1968 student revolts in Europe. For, however we define the nature of the conflicts in 1989, we
Wang Dan: I stand by what I have said, but I would make a distinction between the process and the result of 1989. The movement itself can indeed be compared with May 4th, as both a political awakening and a social revolt. But I agree with Chaohua that its effects have been more like those of 1968 in Europe. We have to register both aspects.
Li Minqi: I believe the failure of the 1989 democratic movement actually paved the way for capitalist development in China. To unleash full-blown capitalism in China, workers had to be deprived of the extensive social and economic rights they enjoyed after the 1949 revolution. The problem was that they would not accept this voluntarily, but lacked the political organization and ideological confidence to impose any other direction. Meanwhile, there was another force, intellectuals and students, which was capable of acting in its own interests. They agreed with the government on the economic future of the country—both wanted capitalism—but disagreed on the distribution of political power. Although the aims of the intellectuals were actually against the interests of the workers, the urban masses had little choice but to rally to the democratic movement led by them, which was, after all, directed against their present—as opposed to potential—oppressors.