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China in the 1980s: lessons for today

The China Centre lecture on Tuesday 16 March 2021 was delivered by John Gittings, Research Associate, China Institute, SOAS, University of London, and former Assistant Foreign editor and Chief Foreign Leader-Writer, The Guardian (UK).  The main body of John Gittings's lecture analysed the political landscape of China in the 1980s.

John Gittings began his lecture by noting that the Chinese economy and society are ‘in a very different place from 40 years ago’, but for him, the 1980s is the ‘most interesting decade in China’s modern history’. The central theme of his lecture was consideration of the counter-factual possibilities for different paths that China’s politics might have taken after the 1980s. He examined the political outlook of different segments within Chinese society. In his analysis of the students, he focussed on student protestors, especially in Beijing in 1989. He noted the history of student protest movements in modern China since the May Fourth Movement in 1919. He drew attention to the impact upon student protestors of the death in April 1989 of the former Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang. In his analysis of scholars, he focussed on those who argued for political change along western lines, represented by Su Shaozhi, who absorbed the ideas of a wide array of international socialists, including Rosa Luxemburg, Erich Fromm, Jurgen Habermas, and Joan Robinson, as well as Milton Friedman and argued for the pluralist nature of Marxism and the relevance of the concept of ‘alienation’ for analysing a socialist society.

John Gittings analysed the evolution of political thinking among different segments within China over the course of the 1980s and the political impact of Gorbachev’s visit to China in May 1989.

In the final part of his lecture he linked China in the 1980s with Hong Kong. He discussed the political choices facing Hong Kong and the complex tapestry of the negotiations between Beijing and the UK government that established the structure of ‘one country, two systems’.

A wide array of issues was addressed in the Q&A session. They included questions on the political views of Chinese student protestors who live outside China; the reliability of western opinion polls showing high levels of support for the Chinese government; the political views of student protestors in Hong Kong today; the role of law in Chinese political development; the possibility of Soviet-style collapse in China; the challenges of governing a developing country with a population of 1.4 billion people; China’s strategies to catch up with the West in advanced technologies; the role of violence in student protests; and the challenges of implementing a strategy for sustainable development in China.

John Gittings began reporting from China in 1971 and was on the editorial staff of The Guardian for many years, where he was also Foreign Leader-Writer. Hs is Associate Editor of the Oxford International Encyclopaedia of Peace. His books include Real China (1996), The Changing Face of China (2005), and The Glorious Art of Peace (2012), and he continues to work on China and on peace history. He is a Research Associate at the China Institute, SOAS, University of London.

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