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.


  1. In my case soon after the failure of the 1989 "democratic movement" I reflected upon this failure and tried to understand the underlying causes. I became a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist and eventually, a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist.

    A year later, I gave a political speech on the campus of Beijing University, which cost me two years imprisonment. For the first time in my life I had the opportunity to live with people from various underprivileged social strata. This experience was of immeasurable value. I also had ample time to read. I read Marx's three volumes of "Capital" three times, in addition to many other classical writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, Baran and Sweezy's "Monopoly Capital",Arghiri's "Unequal Exchange", G.A. Cohen's " Karl Marx's Theory of History", and Bertrand Russell's "A History of Western Philosophy".

    I started to question both the official Communist Party's account and the liberal intellectual's account (which was essentially the same as the western mainstream account) of the Maoist era. A critical question was how to evaluate the period of the Cultural Revolution. The official and the liberal account were virtually the same. Mao Zedong, either because of his thirst for power or his obsession with class struggle, single-handedly initiated massive nation-wide persecuton, killed millions, and destroyed the education system and the economy... a period referred to as Shi Nian Haojie- "Ten Years of Havoc".

    Even before 1989, I read an article in a provincial intellectual journal which qustioned these mainstream versions of the Cultural Revolution and argued that Mao's original intention was to mobilize the masses to fight against bureaucratic privilege. That was the first time I'd ever heard that Mao was committed to highly egalitarian and democratic ideals. In 1992, I was released from prison, and spent the following two years traveling around the country, debating with remaining liberal dissident activists; I also had the opportunity to make contact with both state-sector workers and migrant workers employed in the new capitalist sector.

    In the meantime, I conducted my own research into political, economic and social development in modern China, using fake I.D.'s to visit provincial and city libraries. I started to view Maoist China primarily as a revolutionary legacy rather than a historical burden for future socialist revolutionaries.

    In 1994, I completed a book: "Capitalist Development and Class Struggle in China", available at

    In short, I made a complete political and intellectual break with the Chinese liberal intellectals as well as their political representatives and firmly put myself in the camp of revolutionary Marxism. I came to the U.S. on Christmas Day, 1994 and later became a PhD student in economics at the University of Massachsetts. Since then, a new generation of the Chinese Left has emerged and the rediscovery of China's own revolutionary history has been an integral and indispensible part of the rise of the Chinese "new Left". Today, it is virtually impossible for someone in China to be a leftist without also being some sort of Maoist (with the only exception of some young Trotskyites).

    It is an essential Marxist argument that all social systems are historial and no social system can last forever. Capitalism, as a social system, is no exception.

  2. The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy" by Minqui Li; Monthly Review Pres, N.Y., 2008

    The most accessible part of Mr. Li's argument for the collapse of Capitalism is the acceptance that "peak oil" and "the tipping point" in global warming are already upon us, that "alternative energies" are unable to make up the shortfalls or reverse the warming trend, at least in the forseeable future. Thus, some form of socialist oganization will be necessary to cope with impending disasters caused by " the endless accumulation of surplus value predicated on unrenewable exploitation of material resources and of the masses of people", the waste and pollution that entails, in order to meet the basic needs of humanity itself.

    He dismisses the arguments of industry insiders like Robin M. Mills ( The Myth of The Oil Crisis) in a single sentance. Of course, his critique of neoliberal economics ( Hayek and Friedman) is on spot. "free markets" per se (at any rate an abstract ideal in a capitalist economy) are not a reliable venue for rational decision-making. But I remain somewhat reserved in my opinion about peak oil and global warming.His analysis of the potential for growth in fission-power generation of electrical energy seems dated or incomplete. Never-the-less, I must certainly add my consent to this remark on page 143:

    "Attempts to provide technical solutions to environmental problems are subject to the constraints of basic physical laws (such as he Second Law of Thermodynamics). Moreover, any technical solution must derive from human knowledge but that knowledge is inevitably limited. Many of the complex relationships and interactions of different parts of the ecological system are beyond our knowledge. Thus any technical solution that is designed to address a particular environmental impact or to overcome a particular limit of resources will inevitably have unexpected and undesireable side-effects. As our experience with the use of fossil fuels has shown, what initially appears to be an unambiguously beneficial technology could very well lead to potential catastrophies in the long run.

  3. A direct link to Li's earlier book: