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China Illusion of 'Unity and Stability' Shatters in Winter of Student Protests

January 18, 1987|Maurice Meisner | Maurice Meisner, whose most recent book is "Mao's China and After" (Free Press-Macmillan), is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

MADISON, WIS. — Deng Xiaoping, China's "paramount leader," must surely be disappointed. The young elite he has so carefully cultivated as China's future leaders--in what he envisions as a socially harmonious process of modernization--turned rebellious. Students at the most prestigious universities in China's elitist education system took to the streets, shattering the illusion of "unity and stability" Deng has fostered, reluctant to follow the path of orderly careerism the government has mapped out.

Chinese students have long been a source of frustration for their elders, thwarting expectations of ruling elites for nearly a century. Their refusal to take assigned places in the existing order goes back to the 1890s, when young Confucian-trained scholars forsook traditional bureaucratic careers and instead embarked on an ill-fated attempt to reform the last of China's dynasties. In every generation since, student rebels have been intimately involved in crucial chapters of China's long revolutionary history: in the movement that helped topple the old empire in 1911; in the famous May 4 Movement and the great revolutionary upsurge that followed in the 1920s, and in the Dec. 9 Movement that mobilized resistance to Japanese aggression in the mid-1930s.

The tradition of student activism survived the establishment of communist rule in 1949. Mao Tse-tung's "100 Flowers" campaign reached its radical culmination with "the storm in the universities" in spring, 1957; and militant student political activism was one factor in the tragic decision to suppress that brief era of free expression. In 1966, students (and other youth) responded by the millions to Mao's Cultural Revolution call to "dare to rebel" against the Communist Party's authority--but many proved too rebellious for the late chairman. Their revolutionary organizations were brutally disbanded by the army in 1968. Students were prominent in the celebrated Tienanmen incident of April, 1976, that undermined the moral legitimacy of the regime as the Mao era was ending. And students, or, more precisely, ex-students and former Red Guards disillusioned by their Cultural Revolution experiences, reappeared in the abortive Democracy Movement of 1978-81.

The demonstrations that erupted on China's campuses this winter--and spilled onto the streets--open a new chapter. Save for the Cultural Revolution, the current movement is unprecedented in scope and scale. But unlike the early days of the Cultural Revolution, when student rebels proceeded under Mao's deified authority, these current demonstrations appear as an entirely spontaneous defiance of state power.

The aims of the students are diverse, their goals as yet unfocused. It is premature to assign political labels to an embryonic movement. When marchers sing the "Internationale," it cannot be taken for granted (as some foreign journalists report) that Chinese students desire the importation of Western capitalist models--or, as the official Chinese press charges, that they are infected with "bourgeois liberalism."

But whatever the eventual results, the student demonstrations have already severely shaken the foundations of Deng's post-Maoist order. A key pillar of that foundation, and one essential for Deng's sober pursuit of the "Four Modernizations," has been an effort to depoliticize a society that had been overly politicized during the Maoist era. In 1979, Deng advised the people that their business was production, not politics. "Working hard in study is the politics of students," he decreed, just as "growing more grain is the politics of peasants." Politics as such, he might have added, was to be the business of the Communist Party.

In attempting a depoliticized society, Deng declared the disappearance of class differences. He has enjoined people to work within the confines of their own occupational spheres and promised that they will be rewarded accordingly. And he has set purely economic criteria to measure success for individuals and the nation. Those who have not immediately benefited from the new economic policies are to find consolation in the slogan, "some must get rich first."

The recent demonstrations reveal that Deng's efforts have been less than entirely successful, at least in student terms. Many are not content simply to study, nor are they satisfied by the guarantee of privileged positions in a rapidly modernizing society. They are concerned with broader issues, unwilling to entrust those matters to party bureaucrats.

At the same time, student activists have challenged Deng to add democratic substance to his promises of political reform. Deng's image as a "democratizer" was tarnished in 1979, when he suppressed the Democracy Movement that assisted his drive for power in late 1978. Once firmly established at the apex of China's political system, Deng no longer had any use for his one-time democratic allies, at least not those who operated beyond the organizational control of the Communist Party.

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