The Chinese Intellectuals and the Revolt

The Beijing revolt of 1989 has caught the world’s attention, but the malaise that led to the emergency is broader and deeper than any of its conspicuous slogans can suggest. For foreigners like myself who live in Beijing, it was already clear nine months ago, as one listened to the complaints of intellectuals, students, and ordinary citizens outside official life, that yet another modern Chinese crisis was looming. People were angry, depressed, and confused. The intellectuals, still largely accepting the Confucian duty to “worry first” about their country and not about themselves were, in private, down-right morose—and frankly despairing that much could be done.

The intellectuals had tried before to become involved. Many had thrown themselves idealistically into the revolution in the early 1950s only to have their good intentions cruelly betrayed—“our back-bones severed, our brains discarded”—in Anti-Rightist campaigns of the late 1950s. Horribly humiliated during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s (imagine being told you had to pay for the bullet that had “executed” your teen-ager), they somehow mustered their patriotic optimism again in the late 1970s. Deng Xiaoping’s “reforms,” they hoped, might truly, and finally, put China on the right track.

But by the late 1980s this second round of optimism had also collapsed. The economic reforms, which did much good in the short term, particularly in increasing food production, had stalled in the face of the leadership’s unwillingness to accept the loss of political control that was implicit in pressing those reforms further. Inflation was running near 30 percent. Corruption was running wild, and it seemed only the more serious as one looked higher up the power structure. Official Marxist ideals appeared as empty shells, mere tokens manipulated in public word games in order to increase a speaker’s private advantage. But what other faith was there? Calls for more democracy had been crushed in 1979 (as “unstabilizing”), in 1983 (as “spiritual pollution”), and again in 1987 (as “bourgeois liberalism”). The top leadership seemed, with rare exception, frozen in the cast of mind of the 1950s or earlier, or—even worse—themselves inwardly cynical, jealous of their own narrow interests. Meanwhile China faced problems whose severity would daunt even a vigorous, efficient government: overpopulation, food and energy shortages, mounting foreign debt, resurgent illiteracy, environmental pollution.

Could one look to the people, hope for change “from below”? The Chinese common people, newly given the right to make money, seemed preoccupied by that goal. Crass commercialism was rampant. Swindling, armed robbery, prostitution—even the hijacking of freight trains—were on the rise. Public ethics were in decline; people on the streets were colder and ruder to one another than ever before. Improve this through education? But China’s per capita investment in education, as a percentage of GNP, was among the lowest in the world, even the third world. The teaching profession, with its paltry and fixed salaries, was viewed as a dead-end career. True, the city of Beijing …

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