A Huge Difference from the June 4th Movement: The Relationship between Students and Workers in Today’s Leftist Movement in China and Its Limitation of Thought Resources

Written by Kuo Jia.

Image credit: China 1978 by Carlos Lorenze /Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Framework of the June 4th Movement Discourses and the Invisibility of Workers

In the three decades that have passed since the June 4th Movement, the discourse around the movement has been solidified and institutionalized outside of mainland China. In this post-cold war age, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Western world the June 4th Movement is often framed as a conflict between ‘democracy-capitalism’ and ‘authoritarian-socialism’. Hence, it still serves the purpose of justifying the global political and economic order established by the United States.

Beyond such institutionalized discourse, the memory of the June 4th Movement remains fresh and vivid in the hearts of the Chinese people. However, these memories do not necessarily fit the framework of ‘democracy-capitalism’ vs ‘authoritarian-socialism’. Besides the silhouette of Zhao Ziyang (趙紫陽), the army and the students in hunger-strike, there always lies the silhouette of the workers. Despite of the endeavor of different people trying to narrate their memory on the June 4th Movement, as long as neo-liberalism still serves as the hegemonic discourse in society and academia, only the memories that fit the ‘democracy-capitalism’ vs ‘authoritarian-socialism’ remain solid; the memory of participating workers therefore only appears as an opaque specter floating in the air of those outside of China.

This is because the framework we use to reinterpret the June 4th Movement and the presence of workers in the Tiananmen Square has not been reinvented. The ‘democracy-capitalism’ vs ‘authoritarian-socialism’ framework that people use nowadays is a product of Fukuyama’s discourse on “the end of history”. Therefore, the refusal of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government to rehabilitate the June 4th Movement serves as an evidence that mainland China remains unqualified as a modern state. Using such a framework to understand the June 4th Movement, people will only be able to see the PRC as a never-changing entity – forever authoritarian and forever ‘socialist’. When the image of PRC becomes a freeze-frame, whatever government crackdowns and oppression are suffered by workers, peasants, residents, women and other ethnic groups will be seen as replays of the June 4th Movement. However, not only does this hinder us from understanding the presence and demands of the workers in the square in 1989 and obscure us from understanding its meaning and connection to present-day workers struggle in China, it also forbids us from reconnecting with resources and thoughts from the movement. Such a flawed framework will only make us unable to truly analyze the changes of the PRC government, hence generating flawed solutions, but also hinder the present day struggles and movements in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Because the hegemonic discourse of the June 4th Movement is so student-centric, workers and residents do not hold any significance. As long as workers and residents become a presence-absence, it is easy for leftist scholars to criticize the nature of the June 4th Movement, especially because the students and intellectuals in Tiananmen Square did bundle their democratic demands with privatization. However, this criticism again overlooks the presence of workers and residents in the movement. Although under the same banner with the students, the political democracy that workers and residents demanded was not backed up by a craving for modernity, but for economic democracy. It was because of their demands for anti-corruption, anti-guandao (official profiteering) and anti-inflation (but not privatization) that they sought political democracy.

Students and intellectuals were too self-absorbed in liberalism, which was the dominant thought trend in 1980s China as a reactionary response to cultural revolution. These students were not motivated enough to connect with the workers, who were seen as unenlightened. Not only did the uncontextualized and off-the-ground dogmatic liberalism that these students adopted prevent them from concretely examining the historical conditions of economic and political change in China, it also separated the students from the masses. Although the number of workers and residents who participated in the movement far overrides the number of students, students still refused to communicate with them. The students even drew a demarcation line with the rest, so to preserve their purity and authenticity. The students pushed away the workers and the residents, claimed the moral high ground, and were at last able to establish themselves as the voice of the movement: this image has not changed over three decades.

Jasic Movement as the Largest Student Movement after 1989

After 1989, there were still sporadic student movements in universities in China, but none of them were comparable to the Jasic Movement in scale, media influence and radical intention. What the Jasic Movement and June 4th Movement have in common is that they both propose a holistic picture of political and economic transformation for mainland China, they both have strong capacity of organization and mobility, and they both experienced harsh crackdown by the PRC government.

In May 2018, workers of Jasic Technology (Shenzhen) were fired after seeking to form a labor union. Workers were beaten by unidentified people and then were arrested while protesting for reinstatement. In an act of support, university students across the country then came to Shenzhen to form the Jasic Workers Solidarity Group. Although the demand for forming a labor union is not new, and it did not exceed the common economic demands as seen in other labor struggles in Shenzhen, it did receive much public and media attention firstly because it called a group of nearly 100 students to demonstrate outside the police station, which was the largest in scale since 1989. Secondly, students made use of their network with Marxist societies in famous universities and organized members to give speeches on streets of Shenzhen or show online support. Such organization was done over a short period of time and was big in scale if you counted the number of organizations that participated. Thirdly, it received attention because students, workers and elderly Maoists held up Mao’s portraits in some demonstrations.

The Jasic Movement started as a labor struggle. Workers started off by defending their rights in the factory. It then turned into a political movement when students and workers formed a joint force and raised the banner of Maoism. However, the movement did not last long. Police responded by removing the students away from Shenzhen in August 2018, following up a large-scale arrest of workers, students and related leftists.

Since July 2018, some mainstream media in the UK and US have promoted and reported the Jasic Movement, framing it as the largest student movement since 1989. However, they did not mention the movement’s Maoist inclinations. They turned a blind eye to this prominent feature because they were too used their old framework and formula in understanding Chinese movements.

Before the Jasic Movement, all the rights-defense movements reported in the Western media all shared an agenda of liberalism. Therefore, they lacked experience and knowledge to understand and comprehend why would students identify themselves as Maoists. Their liberalist inertia told them China’s authoritarianism was a Maoist legacy, therefore, it made no sense to them when all they saw was students using “authoritarian Maoism” to fight against “an authoritarian government that had its legacy inherited from Mao”. What puzzled them further was the students choose to turn left in the rise of the global alt-right.

The incapability of the Western media to understand China is because they have too consistently focused on reporting its economic development and political authoritarianism. It is true that the Western media often reports social conflicts in China, but they are too often framed as contradictions between the authoritarian state and its citizens. What they rarely report on are the rising social contradictions and labor-capital contradictions due to capitalistic high-speed economic growth. Such a fast transition and rapid industrial development has resulted in class solidification and social immobility. Graduating from famous universities no longer guarantees a decent middle-class life – the students know this better than anyone.

According to such social situations, students started to doubt the success and legitimacy of the opening-up policy. Their evaluation of China’s economic policy led them to recognize 1978 as a watershed in China’s history. The history before 1978 and the Chinese revolution inspires them to seek an alternative to today’s China. As orthodox Marxism and Maoism were the leading philosophies of that time, the students are therefore motivated to learn more about these. And very often if they are serious and curious enough to learn more than just this simplified version, their school teaching will open the gate to an ocean of hard-core knowledge about social transformation and, even, revolution.

In fact, all students in China are required to study orthodox Marxism when they receive a secondary education. That said, it is often a simplified version, and most students consider it as irrelevant state propaganda and never take it seriously. However, when one wants to seek radical knowledge resources, the handiness of these Marxist teachings often make them an immediate choice.

Therefore, holding up Mao’s photo during the protest is not a movement strategy or intentional mockery. The Jasic students have a broader revolutionary imagination and holistic agenda that goes far beyond laborers’ rights in one particular factory. This is because they started the movement under the influence of Maoist philosophy and strategy.

Obviously, as the largest and most influential student movement after the June 4th Movement, the Jasic Movement has major differences with it. Primarily, with the socialist political and economic democracy, students in the Jasic Movement have surpassed the ideals of Western parliamentary democracy proposed by students in the June 4th Movement. More importantly, students in 1989 excluded workers and their demands, but students in the Jasic Movement think that their thoughts and this movement came from the perspective of the working class, and that the working class is the power to change society.

Before the actions and discourses showed the alliance between students and workers in the movement, many members or graduates of the Maoist student communities had already entered factories to work together with the workers and had done organizing work. The approach of this kind of worker-student solidarity comes not only from the traditional Marxist understanding of the historical position of workers, but also comes from Maoist methodology of “from the people, to the people”.

Thought Resources for Leftist Students beyond Orthodox Marxism

Perceiving the Jasic Movement from a left-wing perspective, the way students participate in the factory-worker organization has a huge significance in the development of China’s leftist movement. However, the relationship between students and workers is not flawless.

The Jasic Movement exposes the students’ problem of holding a monoscopic understanding of workers. Under their Maoist philosophy, once they recognized the worker as the only legitimate revolutionary subject, they tended only to be able to see the “worker face” of the workers, but were not able to see workers as workers who embody multiple and even conflicting faces. They were too eager to believe that workers will be radicalized and motivated once they accept Maoism and were unable to grasp and deeply analyze the negative affects in workers which include passiveness, nervousness, anxiety, hesitation, fear and lack of confidence.

Not only does their monoscopic understanding of workers affect their organizing outcome, but their monoscopic understanding of themselves also makes them out of sync with workers. When they used a highly moralistic Maoist language to demand themselves to be progressive and radical, they blocked themselves from synchronizing, hence understanding and solving, the passiveness in workers. The movement started as a workers’ movement, but it later appeared as if only the students were the center of attention. While the students, in fact, lacked strategy, method, and resources to earn strong and solid support from the workers, this made them appear only as flag-waving martyrs at the frontline. And while this time the students passionately welcomed the workers and were enthusiastic believers of revolutionary ideas (unlike in the June 4th Movement), they again failed to collaborate with the workers to form an organic and strong front.

Maoist philosophy now needs reinvention and renewal to cope with organizing needs. It is necessary for students to absorb resources from new social movement theories and Western Marxism in order to grasp the multiple-faces of modern-day worker subjects. And this does not mean they have to look into Western writing immediately. Taiwan, in fact, is an excellent reference point and thought resource for them to dig into, with a fruitful canon of work that discusses the relationship between different revolutionary subjects. For example, in the Preservation Movement of Lo-Sheng Sanatorium started in 2003, student organizers keep discussing their relationship with the sanatorium residents. And in the independent labour union movement in 1980s Taiwan, left-wing intellectuals introduced various methods and angles to evaluate the movements, and also theorized their relationship with workers.

The Jasic Movement not only revealed the problems with Maoist students in understanding and handling their relationship with workers and its deeper problem of lack of thought resources, it also exposed the problem with contemporary Maoist philosophy. As the radicality and reinvention momentum in Maoist philosophy has been suppressed by the PRC government for decades, it lacks renewal, reinvention and sometimes relevance. It is not yet a well-developed analytic tool to explain modern day China which is deeply incorporated into global capitalism and comprises complex experiences of Chinese workers.

I do not mean to criticize orthodox Marxism. I am criticizing the monopoly of such dogmatic academic orthodox Marxism in China. Such an approach is castrated from its radicality, its inner momentum of renewal, and its dialectical relationship with movements and struggles. Such a monopoly also disabled the leftist students in China to have deeper contact with other Marxist knowledge.

Indeed, the left in Taiwan borrows heavily on this knowledge in its analysis of subjects and effects in movements. However, I do not mean that Western Marxism and new social movement theory that developed in Taiwan from the 1990s is always better or more progressive. I am just suggesting that these may inspire or supplement mainland China’s orthodox Marxism for young leftists and their movements. My call for left-wing students and activists in the mainland to reference Taiwan is also because I have considered the linguistic convenience and similar contexts shared by the two places. At the same time, I also wish to call for left-wing intellectuals in Taiwan to connect with these activists in mainland China, to share your knowledge and experience on movement with them, to provide them with alternative left-wing thought resources. I also wish that my proposal for such an agenda can also successfully overcome the problem nowadays in mainland-Taiwan leftist solidarity which is sometimes too trapped in elitist politics or anti-PRC politics.

Kuo Jia, Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connections between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.

2 comments

  1. “In fact, all students in China are required to study orthodox Marxism when they receive a secondary education.”

    While “most students consider it as irrelevant state propaganda and never take it seriously”, those few students who take Marxist ideas seriously and act on them become the target of state oppression. For a mind trained in a liberal environment such a phenomenon appears irrational and highly ironic. However, for a mind trained in a despotic environment this kind of idealism and believing is just a sign of stupidity. Everyone knows that one has to go through the motions of believing in whatever -ism is presented by the authorities but never, never is allowed to act on the -ism’s prescriptions.

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  2. “Maoist philosophy now needs reinvention and renewal to cope with organizing needs. It is necessary for students to absorb resources from new social movement theories and Western Marxism in order to grasp the multiple-faces of modern-day worker subjects.”

    May I ask what “new social movement theories and Western Marxism” are materially providing to the needs of workers. Does “grasp[ing] the multiple-faces of modern-day worker subjects” provide anything materially tangible to workers? I am not aware of anything.

    However, I am aware that proponents of various brands of Western Marxism love nothing more than bicker among themselves while having next to no interactions with workers.

    So, advising activists on the mainland to progress to the more advanced state of one’s own theories fits this pattern quite well. And this behaviour is especially preposterous if one considers that the mainland activists actually do something for workers in need of support.

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