Chinese Anti-Party Protests of 1987

From Red Guard To Old Guard

Twenty years ago, China tried to break the mould of world politics, and failed. Mao made a serious attempt to build a society without the profit motive and without major inequalities. His plan was that the young “Red Guards” should attack and then regenerate the apparatus of the Communist Party. He never doubted that effective power should be in the hands of the Communist Party (ruling “on behalf of the broad masses”, of course). But he suspected, quite correctly, that those in charge of the apparatus would be willing to allow private profit and inequality in the quest for economic growth. Therefore, he organised the Red Guards.

The result was chaos. Red Guards fought each other in a mad factionalism that defies any simple explanation. Everything was disrupted. Leaders appeared, disappeared, and sometimes re­appeared. Lin Piao [Lin Biao] went suddenly from hero to non­person, and then from non­person to arch-villain. (And this was before the fall of the “Gang of Four”. Mao’s politics were visibly getting nowhere. After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping rose to supreme power, and duly took the “capitalist road” that Mao had always been warning against.

One constant in all this struggle was the power of the Communist Party. Mao attacked the actually-existing party in the name of an idealised party. His opponents defended what actually existed. All factions agreed that those who had “correct ideas” had a perfect right to suppress those whose ideas were wrong. They just disputed which set of ideas were correct.

A few months back, some Chinese students tried to change the terms of the debate. They called for greater freedom of opinion – even, in a few cases, for a multi-party system. Since the official line on “correct ideas” had changed so many times, it might seem logical to allow open debate and free discussion. Logical – but not expedient. The latest movement for democracy has been suppressed, as previous ones were.

Power is in the hands of the Communist Party apparatus, and likely to remain there. At any given stage, those in charge reckon their own ideas to be “correct”, and see no need to give freedom to their opponents. This is the sad legacy of Leninism and one-party rule. Ideas of equality have been toned down. Ideas of planned production – to be based on actual human needs, not profit – have been very much reduced. But the power of the Party apparatus remains.

This was shown in a drastic form by the sudden fall of Hu Yaobang, who had been second in command and heir apparent to Deng. It is widely assumed – though no one knows for sure – that he lost power because he had allowed protest to go beyond what the ruling party thought acceptable. It is uncertain if Deng chose to remove him or was forced to sacrifice him. Chinese politics are made by those in charge of the Communist Party apparatus, and they tend to keep their reasons secret from everyone else. Deng has now declared that the leadership crisis is over – but says little about what the crisis involved.

It seems that the economic changes will not be reversed. They have, after all, boosted production greatly. On the other hand, it seems absolutely certain that the Party apparatus will remain the only place where real politics occurs – and occurs quite secretly from the rest of the society. How such a system will evolve – if indeed it can evolve – remains to be seen.

Gwydion M. Williams (writing as Madawc Williams).


This appeared in April 1987, in Issue 2 of Labour and Trade Union Review.

The protests mentioned that foreshadowed the much better known protests of June 1989.


Update by Gwydion M. Williams, September 2019.

At that time I had not looked in detail at China for several years, and still accepted a false picture that was being presented by the Western press.

Experience in the 1990s showed that the sort of transformation that I thought of in 1987 would not in fact end well and would damage the society.  Though even in 2019, there are any number of people who pride themselves on having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.