This article will feature in Issue 34: Protest and Revolution (November 2019)

The world watched on on October 1 as Xi Jinping led massive military parades in Beijing, ostensibly to ‘celebrate’ the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. Fundamentally, it served as an expression of Chinese might, designed to confront the ‘foreign forces’ (i.e. the US) that the Chinese ‘Communist’ Party is in continued imperialist conflict with.

This year also marked the 30th anniversary of the gigantic Tiananmen Square protests, which began with the mass occupations of squares. These were primarily led by students who often lived in poverty, experiencing the slow turn of the Chinese economy away from it’s planned system towards a capitalist model.

Chai Ling speaks to a crowd at the student-led mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, 1989.

The factors leading to this outbreak have their roots in the Stalinist system that had been instituted after the revolution. Although it led to the abolition of capitalism, it did not have the working-class at its core, instead being led by the CCP, which based itself on the peasantry. The result was a revolution that delivered a bureaucratic dictatorship in the mould of Stalin’s Soviet Union. In spite of this, the result of rapid industrialisation provided some benefits. Life expectancy, for instance, rose from 35 to 65 years after the revolution until 1975. The whittling away of the social safety net under the rule of Deng Xiaoping had led to a mass resentment among large swathes of the Chinese population.

A spike in corruption throughout the 80s led to growing demands for democratic reforms. Students unfurled banners saying “Down with corruption! Long live democracy!” Contrary to what the CCP and Western press reported, the mood, however, was not in favour of the restoration of capitalism. Many students had flown banners of Mao Zedong. The classic revolutionary socialist anthem, ‘The Internationale’, became an unofficial anthem of the movement.

A turning point came when workers became an active part of the movement, with the formation of strike committees across China that fused democratic demands with calls for basic workers rights, which the CCP had failed to protect. The growing power of China’s industrial working-class marked a shift for the CCP, who brutally replied when Li Peng, the Chinese Premier, implemented martial law. On June 4, the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ were sent in and were ordered to open fire indiscriminately into the crowds.

To this day, information surrounding the massacre is widely censored by the Chinese state. Search engine results for things as basic as ‘June 4’ in China are repressed. The CCP fears that if the youth were to discover the estimated amount of deaths, between 1,000 and 10,000, they will be enthused by the legacy of Tiananmen.

Hong Kong today

Today, the Tiananmen Square massacre is openly commemorated during yearly vigils in Hong Kong, where the so-called ‘protest culture’ has presented serious problems for the rule of the CCP since being returned to Chinese rule in 1997. This has been exacerbated by the fact that the movement for democratic rights in Tiananmen was unsuccessful – repression is currently at an all-time high.

The news has been plastered with stories about the region’s ongoing protests, which were sparked by the attempt to introduce an extradition bill, making Hong Kongers liable to legal extradition to the Chinese mainland. This would effectively bring an abrupt end to the modest democratic rights afforded to people in Hong Kong (the right to form political parties, to strike, to protest etc). Behind the outrage, there is no doubt that there is a built up anger towards the conditions working and middle-class people in Hong Kong are facing. Housing remains severely overcrowded and overpriced, inflated due to the runaway private market system in the sector. Similar conditions have led to a surge in ‘Maoist’ – ideas among young people on the Chinese mainland, seen through the popularity of websites such as redchinacn.net.

Hong Kong Umbrella Protest, 2014.

On June 9, around one million Hong Kongers took to the streets, followed by two million (more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s population of 7.5 million). Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has consistently been forced to ‘stare down’ the protests, offering little to no concessions to the protestors. While she eventually withdrew the bill, she immediately followed it up with a draconian ban on the use of face masks by protestors, clearly to try and split the movement between its more radical and moderate elements. This has been twinned with a constant onslaught of police repression, which reached a peak at the start of October when a young protestor was shot in the chest at point-blank range.

Regardless of what Carrie Lam says, it is widely understood that Lam is under the complete control of the Chinese dictatorship. This was proven to everybody when, in September, audio was leaked of Lam speaking to a select circle of business leaders saying: “If I had a choice, the first thing I would do would be to quit”. Thus, when Lam came out recently declaring that the PLA could be sent in to Hong Kong if the situation “got so bad”, it was widely understood to be a proxy threat directed by the CCP against protestors.

How to challenge the CCP?

It is important to take into account the wider situation taking place in Hong Kong. While the city is home to almost one-hundred billionaires, 1.35 million people (1 in 5) live below the poverty line. The movement will ultimately have to go beyond the protestors’ five demands (withdrawal of extradition bill, a public inquiry into police brutality, freedom for political prisoners, an end to the description of protests as ‘riots’ and universal suffrage), and push ahead for wider demands that would confront the rule of billionaires and millionaires that the ‘Communist’ Party in China protects. One revolutionary socialist website, chinaworker.info, stressed the importance of a co-ordinated class struggle, to link up with the new workers movement on the Chinese mainland:
“In order to win the support of workers and young people in mainland China, we cannot just appeal for support for our movement’s five demands. We must also raise demands that further the struggle against oppression and dictatorship on the mainland: Immediate and full democracy in China and Hong Kong, the right to form independent trade unions, freedom of political association, freedom of speech against censorship. We also want to support the struggle of Chinese workers, youth and poor peasants, for an 8-hour work day, universal retirement protection, and a massive increase in public resources such as healthcare, education and housing.”