Sunday, May 17, 2009
Tiananmen Square by Minqi Li
'I was a student at the economic Management Department of Beijing University during the period 1987-90. This department has now become the Guanghua Economics Management School, a leading Chinese neoliberal think tank advocating full-scale market liberalization and privatization. At Beijing University, we were taught standard neoclassical microeconomics and macroeconomics, and what I later learned was termed "Chicago School" economics- that is, the theory that only a free market economy with clarified private property rights and "small government" can solve all economic and social problems rationally and efficiently.
We were convinced that the socialist economy was unjust, oppressive, and inefficient. It rewarded a layer of privileged, lazy workers in the state sector and "punished" (or at least undercompensated) capable and smart people such as entrepreneurs and intellectuals, who considered to be the cream of society...thus, for China to have any chance to catch up to the West, to be "rich and powerful", it had to follow the free market capitalist model.
The 1980s was a decade of political and intellectual excitement in China. Despite some half-hearted official restrictions, large sections of the Chinese intelligensia were politically active and were able to push for successive waves of the so-called "emancipation of ideas" (jiefang sixiang). The intellectual critique of already existing Chinese socialism at first took place largely within a Marxist discourse. Dissident intellectuals called for democracy without questioning the legitimacy of the Chinese Revolution or the economic institutions of socialism.
After 1985, however, economic reformed moved increasingly in the direction of the free market. Corruption increased and many among the bureaucratic elites became the earliest big capitalists. Meanwhile, among the intellectuals, there was a sharp turn to the right. The earlier, Maoist phase of Chinese socialism was increasingly seen as a period of political oppression and economic failure. Chinese socialism was supposed to have "failed", as it lost the economic growth race to places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many regarded Mao Zedong himself as an ignorant, backward Chinese peasant who turned into a cruel, power-hungry despot who had been responsible for killing tens of millions. The politically active intellectuals no longer borrowed discourse from Marxism. Instead, western classical liberalism and neoliberal economics, as represented by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, had become the new, fashionable ideology.
Liberal intellectuals disagreed among themselves regarding the political strategy of "reform" (that is, the transition to capitalism). Some continued to favor a call for "democracy". Others had moved further to the Right by advocating neo-authoritarianism, the kind of capitalism that existed in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which denied the working class democratic rights but provided protection of the property right ( or "liberty"). Many saw Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, as the the one who could carry such an "enlightened despotism." Such were the ideological conditions in China before the emergence of the 1989 "democratic movement"....
As the student demonstrations grew, workers in Beijing began to pour into the streets in support of the students, who were, of course, delighted. However, being an economics student, I could not help experiencing a deep sense of irony. On the one hand, these workers were people that we considered to be passive, obedient, ignorant, lazy, and stupid. Yet now they were coming out to support us. On the other hand, just a few weeks before, we were enthusiastically advocating "reform" programs that would shut down all state factories and leave the workers unemployed. I asked myself: do these workers really know who they are supporting?
Unfortunately, the workers did not really know... After the "failure" of the Maoist Revolution, the Chinese working class was politically disarmed. The official television programs, newspapers and magazines now positively portrayed a materially prosperous western capitalism and highly dynamic East Asian capitalist "dragons". Only China and other socialist state appeared to have lagged behind. Given the collaboration of the official media and the liberal intellectuals (as certainly aided by mainstream western academia and media), it should not be surprising that many among the Chinese workers would accept the mainstream perception of capitalism naively and uncritically. The dominant image of capitalism had turned from one of sweat-shop super-exploitation into one synonymous of democracy, high wages and welfare benefits, as well as union protection of workers' rights. It was not until the 1990's that the Chinese working class would again learn from their own experience what capitalism was to mean in real life.