New English edition of Seven Weeks That Shook the World with extra material published by ISA’s China, Hong Kong, Taiwan section
The following is the introduction to the new English edition of the book (176 pages, July 2023, €8.50) available from [email protected]
This book can claim the unusual distinction of being banned twice, in two different jurisdictions. When this book first appeared in Chinese in 2009, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Beijing massacre, it was almost immediately banned in China, being listed by state censors as one of the five “most” banned books of that year. Fast forward to 2023, and Seven Weeks That Shook the World has been banned again, this time in Hong Kong, as part of a crackdown orchestrated by the Hong Kong government to cleanse public libraries in the Chinese-ruled territory of “seditious” and “law-breaking” books.
National Security Law
Ours is one of 250 books culled from Hong Kong’s public libraries by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department since 2021, as part of the enforcement of Beijing’s ultra-repressive National Security Law. This catch-all law, which imposes severe punishments including life-time prison sentences, for “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign organisations”, was enacted in 2020. The Chinese regime went on a counter-revolutionary offensive following the exhaustion and fragmentation of the intense mass democracy struggle that had raged in Hong Kong throughout most of the previous year. Hong Kong’s limited democratic rights were obliterated along with dozens of democratic organisations, parties and trade unions, as Xi Jinping’s regime took de facto direct control over the Special Administrative Region.
In 2023, as the 34th anniversary of the PLA’s June 4 massacre approached, Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported that 40 percent of politically themed books, magazines and videos that were available in public libraries in 2020 had been removed. Ninety-six titles including this one were removed this year. Pressed to explain the censorship criteria for books, John Lee Ka-chiu, the CCP’s puppet Chief Executive of Hong Kong, said it concerned published material “not in the interests of Hong Kong”.
Lee stated disingenuously that books purged from library shelves could still be sold in private book shops. But the Chief Executive knows full well that after seeing his government stamp down on public libraries, booksellers will self-censor rather than risk falling foul of the National Security Law. If there was any danger of this not happening, the government would move to close that loophole by extending the ban to bookshops, as is the case in China. The banning of books, including ours, is just one measure of how far the so-called Communist (CCP) regime’s authoritarian counter-revolution in Hong Kong has gone under Xi Jinping.
Banning the June 4 vigil
Hong Kong’s annual June 4 commemorative vigil, which drew a record 180,000 people in 2019, and crowds of over 100,000 on many other occasions, is also banned. The 30th anniversary, in 2019, became the magnificent final iteration of the Hong Kong vigil. The following year, citing the risk to public health from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong police banned the vigil.
The ban has predictably been upheld every year since. Only the pandemic-related pretext has been abandoned, with the police openly stating in 2023 that anyone attempting to gather in a group or stage protests on June 4 would be arrested. On the evening of June 4, 6,000 police were mobilised in Hong Kong to enforce the ban in and around Victoria Park, which for three decades was the venue for the commemorative vigil. Pro-government groups had hired the park for a “carnival” on June 4, as an extra layer of insurance against demonstrators trying to gather there. Two dozen arrests were made for offenses such as holding flowers or electronic candles. One man was arrested for wearing a black tee-shirt.
“The Alliance” (Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China), which for thirty years was the main organiser of the Hong Kong candle-light vigil, disbanded itself in 2021. Several members of its committee are in prison on various charges connected with Beijing’s National Security Law. Most of these cases have not yet been to court – a deliberate tactic by the state, emulating the CCP’s methods in China, to detain the accused for years prior to trial, with bail refused, in order to break them down and pressure them to plead guilty in the hope of receiving a lenient sentence.
Chow Hang-tung, former vice-chairperson of the Alliance, despite appealing and defeating two lesser charges, remains in prison on charges of “inciting subversion” under the National Security Law, which could result in a ten-year sentence. The government’s case against the Alliance is built on the claim it received funding from abroad. There would have been nothing illegal about this prior to the introduction of the National Security Law, which retroactively outlawed links with “foreign forces”. Chow, her fellow committee members, and the collective act of remembering the Beijing massacre every year for three decades, are now branded part of a “foreign plot”. This is of course absurd, but shows how the ongoing counter-revolution in Hong Kong is laced with Cold War nationalist rhetoric.
The crackdown goes far beyond the Alliance, which in truth was an extremely ‘moderate’ i.e. conservative voice in the Hong Kong democracy movement. Year after year, the June 4 vigil became depoliticised under the Alliance’s control.
While on an emotional level the experience was always a powerful one, with more than 100,000 people gathered together in candle-light, the leading group clearly wanted to tone down any connection between the 1989 mass movement and the red-hot democracy struggle in Hong Kong itself. This, despite the painfully obvious fact that it was precisely the same regime in both cases – the CCP dictatorship – that had to be fought.
Limits of NGOs
The Alliance was typical of almost all so-called NGOs and nonprofits, which always play a complicating role in mass struggles. NGOs can produce some valuable research, but they completely lack democratic membership structures. They operate in a top-down bureaucratic way and invariably seek to limit and depoliticise struggles, partly to boost their own influence and control.
It was an open secret that most of the ‘affiliates’ of the Alliance in Hong Kong were fictitious or defunct organisations. These were kept on the books to perpetuate control by the biggest ‘moderate’ pan-democratic groupings. The supporters of International Socialist Alternative (ISA) in Hong Kong vocally opposed the monopoly of the ‘moderate’ pan-democrats over the June 4 anniversary event through their control of the Alliance. We argued the vigil should be transformed into “a platform to mobilise for mass struggle”.
In an article on chinaworker.info in June 2015, Jo-yen of Socialist Action (ISA in Hong Kong) noted: “[The Alliance] has been under heavy criticisms over the last few years for turning the commemoration into a mere ritual which doesn’t fight for anything and has no connection to the democracy struggle today. The ‘moderate’ pan-democrats treat the June 4 event as their own political instrument, turning this into a display of emotion and tears without providing any real answers and perspectives on how to end the CCP dictatorship. Due to the lack of organised combative alternatives the masses have felt increasingly powerless as to overthrowing the CCP dictatorship. This has led some to turn towards the illusion of ‘separating the democratic movements in Hong Kong and China, that Hong Kong can survive on its own.’” [Hong Kong: Has June 4 candlelight vigil become just a “ritual”? June 3, 2015, chinaworker.info]
Sure enough, the Hong Kong nativist groups (anti-mainlander chauvinists) began to agitate for a boycott of the main June 4 vigil, organising smaller rival events which they argued shifted the focus to Hong Kong, because what happened in China “did not concern” Hong Kong people. As Jo-yen’s article warned:
“Socialist Action stands for replacing the ‘moderate’ pan-democrats at the head of the democracy struggle by more radical and revolutionary forces. However, the nativists’ idea that it is ‘none of our business to build a democratic China’ represents a step backwards even from the pan-democrats’ position. This is not a moral question but a question of political reality. Under the one-party dictatorship there is no way that the CCP will allow more autonomy for Hong Kong. Whether one is fighting for an independent Hong Kong or a democratic China, one must overthrow the entire CCP regime, and to such end those who want change in Hong Kong must link up with mass struggles in mainland China. Struggles for democratic rights and against repression have much greater chances of success if they are spread as widely as possible, not isolated to one city or country where it is easier for those in power to suppress them.” [ibid.]
In the above lines we find an exact prediction of what subsequently happened with the exhaustion and failure of the Hong Kong movement in 2019. This was despite its unparalleled size and audacity, largely because of the mass movement’s inability to overcome a Hong Kong-only perspective, as well as the lack of a program to link immediate demands against police violence, for the dropping of charges, and for democratic rights, with demands to root out the deeper causes of the social and political crisis – China’s authoritarian capitalist system.
Today, the CCP’s crackdown in Hong Kong has expelled public remembrance of the massacre from every square foot of Chinese territory. In a sense, this symbolises the completion – after a 30-year delay – of the bloody suppression of June 4, 1989. The crackdown in Hong Kong has claimed many other victims. More than 60 organisations – including unions, churches, media groups, and political parties – have disbanded since the National Security Law was enacted in 2020. The largest independent trade union umbrella organisation, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, voted to disband itself in October 2021. The HKCTU had 165,000 members in 75 affiliated unions.
Among the few pro-democracy groups that still operate in Hong Kong, there is the League of Social Democrats, which faces escalating repression. This year, the LSD’s bank accounts were frozen – a financial sanction the CCP has stolen from U.S. imperialism’s toolbox. The party’s most famous public figure ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, the only left-wing representative in Hong Kong’s former (semi-elected) Legislative Council, has been in prison since 2021, also awaiting trial for “subverting state power” under the National Security Law.
Still, a few hopelessly confused ‘lefts’ internationally have applauded the CCP’s crackdown in Hong Kong as progressive – an alleged blow to Western imperialist ‘intrigues’. The mental gymnastics of these pseudo-socialists has led some of them to retrospectively reverse their positions on 1989. Having sympathised with the Tiananmen movement at the time, they now realise their “wrong thinking” and understand it as a pro-Western “colour revolution”. The CCP and its supporters describe the mass movement in Hong Kong in 2019 in the same terms. This lie is answered in Seven Weeks That Shook the World, while the true character of the Hong Kong movement, with all its complications, is explained in our book Hong Kong 2019: The Storm Breaks and in numerous articles on chinaworker.info.
Paranoia of Xi’s regime
In China itself the regime’s paranoia over 1989 has not diminished despite this outwardly terrifying extension of its repressive control. On the contrary, as its almost farcically pedantic internet censorship measures reveal, Xi’s regime is deeply insecure. The numbers 8, 9, 6 and 4, and combinations thereof, have been blocked on social media platforms for many years at the time of the anniversary; also derivatives like “May 35th”, and not only images from 1989 but pictures of candles, crowds, even “objects lined up in a row”. The latter, because this can be a coded allusion to the PLA tanks and the famous ‘tank man’ incident in 1989.
In more recent years, the CCP’s censorship instructions have gone even further to include “numbers with unclear implications”. In 2023, even government websites were ordered not to post new content during the three-day period June 3-5. This, to prevent anyone using the comments section to post seditious content such as candle emojis, tanks, “old photos”, “unclear slogans” and “numbers with unclear implications”. Furthermore, account managers were instructed to regulate and ensure “the number of retweets, comments, or likes on official-account content should never be a sensitive number”. How strong and stable is a regime that is afraid of sixty-four (“64” = “June 4”) retweets or likes on a mundane government post?
Also in 2023, for the first time, the June 4 censorship regime deleted Sitong Bridge in central Beijing from online maps. This was the site of the daring one-person protest in October 2022, by 48-year-old Peng Lifa, who unfurled anti-Xi banners just days before the CCP’s 20th Congress at which Xi Jinping cemented his lifetime rule. Peng became known as the “Bridge Man” and “New Tank Man” – a reference to the famous but unknown 1989 protester – and so the bridge itself has become a taboo topic.
The Sitong Bridge protest had a huge effect in China given the gargantuan political vacuum that exists with a total lack of opposition political channels. “The huge outpouring of support for this act of protest shows how China under Xi Jinping has become a vast lake full of gasoline that just one spark could ignite,” wrote chinaworker.info on October 17, 2022. These words were dramatically confirmed only five weeks later, when China erupted in the most serious mass protests since 1989.
2022 “white paper” protests
The so-called “white paper” movement of November-December 2022, shook Xi’s regime to its foundations. This was despite the fact that the protests were not large, given the size of China, and certainly not on the scale of the 1989 movement. Research based on tracking social media images and posts counted protests in 40 cities and up to 100 universities. Therefore the 2022 protests broke the pattern since the brutal 1989 crackdown whereby protests in China were mostly localised and uncoordinated. They marked the very first nationwide movement since the events described in this book.
Furthermore, the 2022 movement was a supposed impossibility – a “black swan” event – given the vast sums of money the CCP dictatorship has invested in “digital authoritarianism” to construct the world’s most technologically advanced police state. Xi’s China now has half the world’s security cameras alongside extensive deployment of A.I.-guided police surveillance technology.
The three-year hardline Zero-COVID policy, under which at different times over 500 million people were placed under some form of lockdown, was used to dramatically ramp up the state’s electronic surveillance capacity and control over the population. Therefore, when despite all this, the country erupted in a wave of youth- and women-led protests, it is impossible to overstate the degree of trauma this triggered in the ruling circles of the CCP regime. The collapse of the Zero-COVID policy, not so much by executive order as by an outbreak of total confusion and panic within the CCP-state, was instrumental in ending the protests quickly.
This was welcomed as a partial achievement of the protests by many participants and followers, although the terrifyingly rapid spread of the COVID Omicron variant in the following weeks also acted like an all-pervasive “biological police agent” keeping the population away from further protests as they searched frantically for medicines and ways to protect elderly relatives. Credible estimates suggest a million to 1.5 million deaths in China between early December, when Zero COVID collapsed, and the Chinese New Year holiday at the end of January, 2023. That “would make this COVID surge the most lethal event in peacetime China since the 1959-61 famine that followed the Great Leap Forward”, according to US-based China expert Minxin Pei.
The reissue of Seven Weeks That Shook the World is important also because it is one of the foundational political documents of ISA’s organisation in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, with which it has developed its work over the past decade and a half. A correct characterisation of the 1989 movement and an understanding of the processes of revolution and counter-revolution has been crucial for clarifying the political tasks of Marxists and the future workers’ movement in China and beyond. This political clarification has not been an automatic or guaranteed process.
In the work of research and discussion for this book in 2009, before ISA, then known as the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), had established an organisation in China, we deepened our understanding of what happened and what this meant for our political perspectives. The understanding that the CCP regime that emerged from the bloodbath of 1989 was a regime of capitalist restoration, but also one that had consciously chosen to preserve and subsequently strengthen its authoritarian mode of rule, a regime and state that was congenitally opposed to any form of bourgeois democratic transition – this was a key conclusion of the 1989 events.
This became another important but largely unknown chapter in the ‘China Debate’ within the CWI, which took place over almost twenty years (from our World Congress in 1998 until the departure of the old leaders of the CWI in a split in 2019). There is not the space here to summarise all the aspects of this debate, although it is an extremely important and politically valuable one. Not least, the understanding of China’s capitalist and imperialist character has helped lay the foundation for ISA’s clear analysis of the new Cold War, pitting U.S. and Chinese imperialism against each other, which is today the central feature of world economy and politics.
Discussion and debate are an inevitable and vital process inside a Marxist organisation, to clarify what needs to be done. More longstanding ISA members will recall debates between the CWI’s International Secretariat (IS) and comrades from the China, Hong Kong and Taiwan section over the class character of the Chinese state and economy. The differences perhaps seemed at first sight to be rather small. The IS argued China was “moving towards” capitalist restoration and that its “direction was clear”, but insisted China was not “fully” capitalist. An unfinished process had produced a “hybrid” social system, they said, which gave the Chinese state more possibilities and room for action than would be the case if capitalism had been “fully” restored. These are formulations and an analysis they defend even today. We argued this was lagging behind processes; capitalist restoration in China had been carried out much earlier than they realised.
Debate over financial stimulus
Later, in 2009, when the Chinese regime implemented a mega credit stimulus package to mitigate the impact of the global financial crisis, the IS claimed to be vindicated: no (“fully”) capitalist government could carry out such a project. We favoured a more careful, less gung ho appraisal of the Chinese stimulus. We predicted, as did some capitalist economists, that it would lead to a historic debt crisis in China, which is exactly what happened. We said the Chinese state’s “uniqueness” as a hybrid formation – neither capitalist or Stalinist – was not proven by the 2009 stimulus package, as they claimed.
In publishing this book in 2009, we also wanted to point out that the original analysis of the CWI, made during the events of 1989, much of which we think is still extremely valuable today, was nevertheless mistaken on a fundamental point: its rather schematic view that the crackdown was carried out by a ‘Stalinist’ bureaucracy, resulting in the re-establishment of a Stalinist regime. From this they drew the conclusion that the task ahead for the working class in China was a new political revolution (to remove the bureaucratic “tumour” on the planned economy and establish a regime of workers’ democracy).
We argued this was no longer possible in China. The restoration of capitalist economic relations and the emergence of a new intrinsically bourgeois state formation that was organically connected to – even “merged” with – the new capitalist class meant that the conditions for an anti-Stalinist political revolution had passed in 1989. Now, only a social revolution against the CCP’s authoritarian capitalism could lead society to socialism.
Disagreeing also on this point, the IS argued that in keeping with China’s “hybrid” nature, the coming revolution would have a “mixed” character: it would need to combine the tasks of the political and the social revolution. We explained that rather than inventing something new, what the IS comrades were describing was actually a social revolution. In every case a working class revolution against capitalism must combine the conquest of economic and political power.
Other controversies arose over the perspectives for democratisation in China. The IS, again proceeding somewhat schematically from their “hybrid” characterisation, believed the capitalist class in China would seek to bring about a more “normal” bourgeois democratic regime (a “fully capitalist” state, presumably) and therefore at some point would move into opposition to the CCP dictatorship, rallying sections of the middle class and working class behind democratic slogans.
This was a complete misreading of processes in China on almost every count: the capitalist class and the authoritarian state are completely integrated; there is no liberal capitalist class seeking to challenge the CCP. Accordingly, the pressure for democratic change does not come from the capitalists. It is a caricature to see democratic demands as bourgeois demands or demands that primarily emanate from that class, even if Western imperialism for its own power interests hypocritically tries to expropriate the democracy issue.
We explained – based also on a wealth of experience in Hong Kong’s mass struggle (where the capitalists overwhelmingly support the authoritarian crackdown) – that the democracy struggle in China is a modern expression and confirmation of Leon Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution. The Chinese bourgeoisie as a historically belated and dependent class is not capable of accomplishing its historic tasks, which include introducing “democracy”. Only the working class can accomplish this feat, but that also requires it to go further, by overthrowing capitalism upon which the authoritarian regime has built its apparatus of control.
When Seven Weeks That Shook the World was published in 2009, the response from the CWI’s leadership was unenthusiastic. We got no real feedback, not even direct criticism, which is almost always helpful and clarifying. They did not promote the book or encourage its circulation. We did not complain, but busied ourselves with building, organising and also selling our book. The only comment we got was a question: “Are you repudiating Stephen Jolly’s account?”
The inclusion of Stephen Jolly’s 1989 pamphlet in our book (chapter 5), is proof enough that the editors value it as a unique and historically important testimony. There is no other account in English or Chinese by a Trotskyist activist, with such a conscious grasp of what was unfolding, who at incredible personal risk came so close to all the horrors of June 4. Chen Mo’s chapter in this book, which is a carefully researched and forensic study of the June 4 events, confirms the veracity of Stephen Jolly’s report and underlines its importance as a unique eyewitness account.
But with this book we also wanted to point out there were gaps in Stephen Jolly’s assessment. For example, when he says that he never met anyone in Beijing, “who had any illusions that the way forward for the struggle was to move towards capitalism in any way, shape or form” (chapter 5). As we now know, that assessment was far too optimistic and overestimated the consciousness of the mass movement. That does not in any way devalue his account. Nor do we claim that everything else in this book is flawless. Inevitably, the process of developing ideas and an analysis over years and decades means that some areas are stronger than others; some conclusions need to be adjusted or corrected based on later experience. Marxist analysis is not astrology.
In 1989, when Jolly went to China, the CWI had no organisation or members there. With the founding of our Chinese organisation, we have subsequently gained a much clearer insight into the movement than was possible for non Chinese-speaking Marxists at that time. Also, and a factor of equal importance, the CWI’s understanding of processes in the Stalinist states in 1989 had not yet reached clarity.
The CWI’s view at that time was that capitalist restoration was impossible in China and other Stalinist regimes. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say this was a serious error. We corrected our analysis in the course of the following three years, in the light of the regime collapses in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and two years later in the Soviet Union. The CWI had underestimated the corrosive effects of Stalinism on mass consciousness, which opened the way for huge political illusions in Western ‘democratic’ capitalism. We had also, although to a lesser extent, underestimated the extent of the economic collapse in these societies.
These mistakes in our analysis and understanding of processes, were corrected through discussion combined with actual experience, but this also necessitated a split in the organisation. In 1991, a minority who clung to the “impossibility” of capitalist restoration left the CWI. That group went on to form the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), which ironically considers “theory” to be its strongpoint.
Working out perspectives
The 2011 preface (Lessons of the 1989 mass democracy movement) also featured, unknown to most of our comrades, in the ‘China Debate’ with the former leaders of the CWI. This was an important year, with China also deeply impacted by the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings and subsequent political crackdowns.
The IS declined to publish this article on the international’s web page socialistworld.net, describing it as “unbalanced”, an objection we had heard quite a lot. The article was published in English on chinaworker.info and in Chinese in the 2011 (traditional Chinese) edition of Seven Weeks That Shook the World. The crux of their objections concerns a phrase in the following paragraph:
“One of the aims of this pamphlet is to debunk the myth that capitalism stands on the side of democracy in China and Hong Kong. As Vincent Kolo explains, ‘Today, China is a lot more capitalist, but a lot less democratic than it was in 1989.’ This is even clearer now, as China enters a new ‘dark age’ of state repression, than when this was written in 2009.” [Lessons of the 1989 mass democracy movement, May 30, 2011, chinaworker.info]
IS comrades insisted it was inaccurate and an exaggeration to say that China was entering a new “dark age” of state repression. It was also at this time, in 2011, that the IS began to raise the perspective of the CCP moving towards some degree of political relaxation: democratic reform or even “weak democracy”, the opposite in other words of the perspective chinaworker.info was outlining. They suggested this was an inevitable development, and could not understand why the Chinese comrades were “so categorical” in discounting this scenario. We believe the history of the past decade, the trajectory of Xi’s ultra-repressive rule, completely confirms our perspective.
For the most part there is no written account of the numerous political disputes that surfaced over China, apart from a brief article series in 2007 published in Socialism Today, the journal of the CWI’s England and Wales section. The discussion was mostly informal and private, but sometimes at forums such as the International Summer Schools and World Congresses. Even then, a large number of comrades were perhaps unaware of these debates if they were insufficiently familiar with the territory.
Therefore, much of this discussion was off the radar for the majority of ISA/CWI members. But these discussions held a crucial importance in regard to the main processes and the disposition of class forces in the democracy struggle, the prospects for repression and – in Hong Kong’s case – brutal counter-revolution.
Perspectives are a guide to action. In the situation of China and now also Hong Kong this can have a life-or-death significance for a revolutionary socialist organisation. Had our comrades been miseducated to expect and prepare for a period of authoritarian retreat and “inevitable” democratic opening, this could have politically disorientated and damaged our organisation.
If the IS scenario – an inevitable phase of democratisation – contained any validity, why did the CCP dictatorship move in precisely the opposite direction in Hong Kong? If there was one place where a CCP-sponsored “democratisation” would logically begin it would have been Hong Kong. That the CCP was moving to attack the city’s democracy movement was clear and explained in our material already from 2012 onwards.
As the above questions illustrate, the ideas and analysis in this book are the sum of a process of debate, criticism, and in some cases (too few in our opinion) of polemics, between different standpoints in the Marxist movement. The book is a product of political struggle, which was absolutely necessary to prepare the ground for building a revolutionary socialist organisation in China.
We must study and learn from the bloody history of the 1989 movement, and now also from the vengeful counter-revolution unleashed upon Hong Kong. But we do so mindful of the words of Joe Hill, the Swedish-American labour activist and songwriter who was executed by firing squad in 1915: “Don’t mourn, organise!”