John Gittings

China through the Sliding Door: Chapter VII
Photos from China
Peace writings
Journal articles
Newspaper articles
Family links
1983 - 1987
Hardliners against Reformers

(a) Sartre and spiritual pollution

(b) The struggle for reform

(c) The dismissal of Hu Yaobang

(d) Down by the seaside

(e) Dissident voices unite


As Chinese society began to open up, for better or for worse, under Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, the Party faithful in high places became alarmed at the crumbling of old `socialist' standards. A generation taught by Mao to beware of the `sugar-coated bullets of the bourgeoisie' found that its own children enjoyed the taste of Western imports - both the goods and the ideas. The veterans were suspicious of the younger leaders around General Secretary Hu Yaobang who encouraged reform-minded scholars to explore the possibilities of democratizing the Party itself. They discussed the alienation of the people from the ruling elite, suggesting that many of China's problems arose from the persistence of a feudal and autocratic style of government.

The conservative backlash came in two waves, in the winters of 1983 and 1986. The first was a campaign against `spiritual pollution' which was endorsed by Deng but only under pressure from his veteran colleagues. It gave many intellectuals a scare but was undermined by its own excesses. Women were told not to let their hair grow long, soldiers were ordered to hand over photographs of their girlfriends, the Beijing Party Committee posted a notice banning high-heeled shoes and long hair, and young people had their sun-glasses (the new symbol of modernity) confiscated in the streets.

These absurdities were widely ridiculed. `I'll have a spot of spiritual pollution', I heard a young woman joking as she bought a tube of face-cream in a Beijing department store. Deng was persuaded that the campaign would do great harm to the unfinished economic reforms. Though his attitude towards political reform remained ambiguous, the debate resumed with Hu's encouragement. In September 1984 he gave heart to the reformists (and outraged the conservatives) by saying that `the writings of Marx and Lenin [cannot]... provide solutions to our current problems.'

Summer 1986 saw the most lively and varied intellectual discussion since the Communist victory in 1949. Older Party scholars joined forces with a new generation of critical intellectuals to hold seminars and `salons' , crossing forbidden frontiers of thought. Not only did this present a more serious threat to the Party conservatives, but it became associated with a new wave of student protests. These covered a variety of issues - high-level corruption, Japanese economic penetration, police brutality and their own poor living conditions. By the winter of 1986 the demonstrations acquired a sharper political edge, and the Party old-guard seized the chance again. They felt threatened by the informal alliance now beginning to emerge between the students and the scholars.

This time Deng Xiaoping supported fully the campaign against `bourgeois liberalization', sacked Hu Yaobang and expelled the leading dissidents from the Party. And this time Beijing intellectuals were less sanguine: the atmosphere was too reminiscent of past purges when Mao was alive - including the `anti-rightist' campaign of 1957 in which Deng had taken the lead. Beijing was enjoying fine weather beneath a clear winter sky, but the air was thick and gloomy. I spent several weeks in a small courtyard hotel in the old lanes north of the Forbidden City, listening to tales of cynicism and disillusion from Deng's previous supporters.

The short-lived farce of the 1983 backlash had turned into more persistent reaction in 1987, as contradictions multiplied in society and among the high-level leaders. There was a fresh lull while Hu's successor Zhao Ziyang established himself and the reformers watched warily. An attempt was made to set a unifying course at the traditional summer gathering of Deng and his colleagues at the seaside resort of Beidaihe. Zhao gained more room for maneouvre, at least on the economic front, but within a year the contradictions had re-emerged. The Party die-hards complained about Zhao as they had about Hu. Ordinary citizens complained about corruption and foreign influence. Disillusioned Party intellectuals raised the issue of the political prisoners from the earlier Democracy Movement - a very sensitive spot for Deng who had sent them to jail. As students joined forces with intellectuals, the scene was being prepared for the tragedy of 1989.


November 1983, Beijing

Jean-Paul Sartre made a very good stand in the Spanish Civil War, said the Chinese cadre reflectively across the dinner table. `But we cannot accept his existentialism - it does not reflect Socialist reality, and we do not approve of alienation or bourgeois humanitarianism either!'

Other less philosophical concepts, Chinese officials say, as they try to explain their campaign against `spiritual pollution', have also slipped in through the open door from the West. Tapes, books, and magazines of nude photos have been smuggled in, and the People's Daily has warned that criminal charges would be brought against peddlers of pornography.

Such things no doubt exist, and have genuinely shocked the survivors of the revolution who still lead China. But in the cold wind which is blowing sand from Siberia through the streets of Beijing, some people are muffling up against a campaign which they fear will have much wider targets. On 16 November they collected the People's Daily to find a familiar reminder of previous political campaigns. Two-thirds of the front page was taken up with an editorial blast against spiritual pollution, calling for a new `ideological struggle.' With practised eyes, they skimmed through the verbiage for the punch line, which was buried somewhere around the 2,000th character. It said that this would be a long struggle, that opinions opposed to socialism cannot be vanquished overnight, and that a protracted battle must be waged.

In another alarming sentence, it said that `bourgeois humanitarianism' had already been criticized in the 1960s - a reference to the Cultural Revolution. Although it said that the Cultural Revolution had gone too far because it also attacked Socialist humanitarianism, this is still a disturbingly ambiguous thought. People thought that the campaign might have peaked two weeks ago when Zhou Yang, the aged Party cultural hack who has veered with the wind for decades, criticized himself for getting the concept of alienation wrong. But the word is out that his self-criticism was not sufficient, and there has been the dismissal of two senior members of the People's Daily editorial board.

No one is quite sure what this all means. But a teacher of foreign literature quietly cancels a public lecture that he was going to give. Video recorders - a potent indicator of possible pollution - are disposed of. Chinese television shows a meeting of aged intellectuals, denouncing pollution with wooden voices around the conference table as if they have been there before. It then shows happy workers playing football and painting posters which exemplify spiritual culture.

In the official view, the fears are groundless. It may be a struggle, it is explained, but it is not a `movement' of the type which swept China in the Cultural Revolution. `You can be sure that it will not be another Cultural Revolution, because it is the present leaders of China who suffered most of all'. The social ills which allegedly require the new campaign are depicted frankly.

The need to re-establish a centralized grip over economic policy reinforces the leadership's concern at the loosening of political control which followed the Cultural Revolution. The most common complaint about local Communist Party officials is that they just do not do what they are told. Meanwhile outside the Party, the spread of foreign ideas, laxer moral standards among the young, growing rank and file cynicism among the work force, and a straight-forward law and order problem, all add to the concern of the old men in Beijing.

`Uphold and improve Party leadership', said the People's Daily recently in a remarkable admission that for a section of society the Communist Party has forfeited its mandate to rule. In 1978-79, it says, `a handful of people in society advocated so-called democracy by discarding Party committees.' And although these ideas were firmly rebuffed, there are still `a small number of people who... deny that Party leadership is a necessity for socialist construction.' Yet others argue that, although the Party should lead, it has disqualified itself by the serious mistakes which were made in the Cultural Revolution.

One way of restoring faith in the Party is through the current anti-crime campaign and the holding of mass executions. These seem to be generally welcomed (though a minority are further alienated by them). But the campaign also undermines the spirit of legal reform which has picked up since 1979.

Foreign ideas, says the leadership, should be judged on the basic principle of whether or not they `serve China's purpose.' This is essentially a return to the `self-strengthening' concept of the late nineteenth century when the modernizers of the Qing dynasty sought to import Western techniques while preserving the `essence' of Chinese civilisation. It may have some value in making the Chinese more cautious about coyping foreign models, or importing technological processes that only work on the basis of capitalist relations of production. But the most likely result is that the trivia of Western society - particularly the leisure pursuits assoicated with the tourist industry and entertainment - will continue to be admitted, while serious and critical ideas are now excluded.

How to come to terms with the outside world remains at the heart of the Chinese dilemma as it has for a century and a half. One young Chinese in Beijing, himself a former student abroad, sums up how he sees the contradiction between the present leadership's attempt to restore the old values and the impact of the new world: `I remind myself constantly,' he says, `that China has two distinct kinds of tradition. One is that of Chinese bureaucratic civilisation from Confucius onwards, and the other is the Russian political model. It is no coincidence that the two are combining together very nicely. That is what makes China great'.

`However,' he continues hopefully, `there are young people who are making a serious study of Marxism and other political and economic theories. Those who have been and who are now abroad will have a tremendous influence over China's future.' It is an optimistic view of a society still facing enormous economic tasks, run by an elite for whom `liberation of thought' ( another reformist concept which is now rarely mentioned) has very definite limits.



October 1984, Beijing

The Central Committee of China's Communist Party, which is now discussing drastic urban reforms, represents a triumph for Deng Xiaoping. But he has had to struggle for it, and opposition to his policies may not yet be over. Ever since National Day, when Deng reviewed the troops in Tiananmen Square, he has been at pains to identify himself personally with the reforms. Last week, as the Party plenum was beginning to assemble, he told a Japanese Komeito Party delegation - which he would not normally meet - that China was determined to transform the economy.

The plenum will formally approve, on a national level, some reforms which have already been tested quite widely, in particular those which decentralize and reduce planning powers, and which give individual factories more control over production and prices. It goes into new territory in seeking to curtail the central regulation of prices. This reform has been delayed over the past year, with the name of Chen Yun - one of the six Politburo standing committee members and with long experience of economic planning from the 1950s - linked to the critics.

But the really intriguing puzzle about this plenum is the missing item on its agenda. The rectification of the Communist Party, which Deng`s people have been pushing to the displeasure of some army leaders, is likely to be mentioned only cursorily as part of the political background to the economic reforms. A year ago the last Central Committee plenum agreed to hold a new session soon on ideological matters. It was promised for the winter, postponed until spring, downgraded to a `representative conference', and now deferred again.

The rectification campaign first ran into trouble with the short-lived but disturbing counter-campaign against `spiritual pollution', apparently encouraged by the same left bureaucrat forces who might themselves be the targets for rectification. Then the armed forces emerged in the late spring as a focus for discontent. Army officers who had acted on Mao Zedong's instructions during the Cultural Revolution failed to see why they should have to `completely repudiate' the past.

Opposition to the economic reforms from within the Party (of which the army cadres only form one special interest group) has a variety of sources. There are no doubt some senior leaders who are morally offended by the new get-rich-quick mentality. This weekend the People's Daily admitted that some local officials are cashing in on the reforms, `mixing public and personal business' and using state funds to invest in private enterprise. But it would not be Marxist, said the People's Daily, to use these `side currents' as an excuse for pouring cold water on the whole reform package, or to try to pin `personal responsibility' for them. One catches here the echo of serious argument within the leadership.

There is also room for real and varied argument about the consequences of the proposed price reforms, as Mr Deng has half conceded, saying that the policy must be carried out step by step, with caution. In theory, China will still have a socialist-planned economy, and market forces will be restrained by guidelines from Beijing from going too far. The pricing structure belongs to an earlier period when it was used to subsidize a low standard of living, ration goods in short supply and stimulate heavy industry. Price deregulation, although necessary, could lead to inflation and a lopsided production of profitable items.

New laws to attract more foreign technology reflect both sides of the coin. From January next year, local governments and businesses will be able to negotiate more easily abroad, bypassing the Ministry for Foreign Trade. The real question is whether the guidelines from the Ministry in Beijing will be strong enough to prevent local excesses, without negating the object of the reforms.



February 1987, Beijing

The leftwing theologians of the Chinese Communist Party have captured the high ground again, and scholars and artists are taking cover from the righteous `struggle against bourgeois liberalism'. One option is to travel abroad and write essays on essentially touristic themes. Another is to head for the south of China and `rest.' When asked to join the struggle, one can try saying `I am not in very good health, and I'm afraid that my level of understanding is still comparatively low.' That may work, or it may not, there is talk of lists being compiled by the zealous leftwingers in and around the Party's theoretical journal, Red Flag. Intellectuals who are Party members must observe Party discipline. In or outside the Party, no one is going to take chances. Even if the struggle fizzles out, everyone agrees, the deep breath of intellectual courage taken last year has expired. There will be nothing very interesting written or performed for a long time.

Last year's intellectual challenge, which led to such a devastating coalition between Party conservatives and leftwingers against Mr Hu Yaobang's reformers, did not come primarily from the older literati who have seen so much before. It was itself the product of a coalition - between progressive Marxist scholars operating from well within the Party establishment and an entirely new phenomenon of scholar-activists like the scientist Professor Fang Lizhi and the journalist Liu Binyan, who have dared to challenge old Party tigers.

The activists reject Chinese intellectual chauvinism and believe that the Party's still semi-feudal bureaucracy must be challenged head-on. Subtle arguments by allegory are no longer enough. Even friends of Mr Liu warned that he had gone too far at a conference last November in Shanghai, where he spoke openly before foreign academic visitors about the need for greater courage. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, he said, Chinese politics had been not just on a mistaken but on a reactionary path. Yet even now writers shied away from tackling the real injustices. Mr Liu also touched on a sensitive nerve when he reproached fellow-writers with `just seeking a reputation abroad... I think there's a problem when good writers are only concerned with trying to win a Nobel Prize. ' The vanguard of the reform movement last year, said Liu correctly but woundingly to his audience, were younger political and natural scientists who had dared to enter the forbidden areas. Their experience abroad has been a liberating one.

The Hefei University of Science and Technology, where the student demonstrations begun, has sent more than 100 research graduates abroad since the `open door' policy began. Professor Fang Lizhi, vice-president of the university until his dismissal last month, seemed recently to spend half his time commuting to Princeton and New York for conferences on astro-physics. Chinese scholars still have problems not usually encountered by Western academic jet-setters. Professor Fang first offended the leftwingers a year ago when he openly criticized a deputy mayor of Beijing - a former `Worker Hero' - for taking a free trip to the United States to attend a conference on nuclear accelerators about which he knew nothing. Professor Fang was asked to apologise by the Academy of Sciences but refused. He was then criticized by the conservative leader, Bo Yibo, as `going too far, ` by the leftwing ideologue, Hu Qiaomu, for `belonging to the wrong headquarters' (a sinister phrase from the days of the Cultural Revolution) - and by Mr Hu's wife who works at the academy. He was also denied a passport for his next visit to the US.

It is an involved tale, but an essential one for understanding of the complex web of factional and personal relationships which underlies every `theoretical struggle. ' The tale ended happily with the intervention of Hu Qili, a protege of Mr Hu Yaobang. But this week Hu Qili's close colleague, the Party propaganda chief, Zhu Houze, formally lost his job, leaving Mr Hu increasingly exposed as an alleged patron of `bourgeois liberalism. ' Professor Fang, a hero to the Chinese student demonstrators, is now a compulsory target for criticism at Party meetings all over China.

High profile activists like Liu and Fang play for high stakes, and are criticized by more cautious reformers working from within for risking all at once. It is hard to believe now that an interview with Fang in which he argued that intellectuals were now the `advanced class' of modern society, was published only six weeks ago in China`s main English-language journal, the Beijing Review. `Intellectuals,' he said dangerously, `who own and create information and knowledge, are the most dynamic component of the productive forces: this is what determines their social status.'

Meanwhile, last year a much larger group of political scientists were seeking - with Hu Yaobang's encouragement - to argue the case for political accountability and reform in a coded and less protective way. They began, at a conference sponsored by the academy of social sciences in April, by producing a quote from Deng Xiaoping which legitimized - but only just - their new inquiry. `Comprehensive economic restructuring,' Mr Deng had said, `will affect every field in politics, education, science, etc.' They interpreted this to mean that economic reform (which Deng has always championed) must be accompanied by political reform (about which he is very wary). More tactfully than Professor Fang, they, too, began chip away at Marxian class theory: `The Socialist state,' said some of them,' should mark the transition from a state based on class to one based on society .'

It is a measure of the seriousness of today's leftwing counter offensive that I hesitate now to name the leading neo-Marxist reformers who last year breathed new life into Chinese political theory. The more often they are named as potential targets in the foreign press, the more vulnerable they will be. Certainly they are not answering phone calls, and it is rather thoughtless even to try calling..

China is a highly anniversary-conscious culture, and this year is a particularly unhappy anniversary - thirty years since the anti-Rightist movement with which Mao Zedong, vigorously supported by Deng Xiaoping, nipped the Hundred Flowers [the 1956-57 movement in which intellectuals were encouraged to criticize the Party] in their first hesitant bloom. Can one blame the literati today for being hesitant about blooming at all? The sociologist Fei Xiaotong published a famous open letter in 1957, asking Mao whether the early spring would lead to real warmth. A month ago Professor Fei spoke out against the reformers and was praised for it by Deng Xiaoping.

The writer Wang Meng suffered for 20 years as a `rightist', most of them spent in a village in remote Xinjiang. Finally rehabilitated, he published some mild satires on bureaucracy, and then was lured to become Minister of Culture. Last month he, too, spoke out against the reformers - though perhaps not fiercely enough to satisfy the Red Flaggers. Fei and Wang are both sad figures, still fulfilling a debt to the Party which owes them a much larger one.

But the future, as Chairman Mao might have said, lies not with them but with the youth - both the cynical young men and women of the post-Mao generation and a growing minority who have new experiences, in many cases gained abroad, and a new and assertive view of their role in society.






August 1987, Hebei province

Deng Xiaoping's summer politicking by the seaside at the Beidaihe resort in North China is going fairly well - apart from a plague of poisonous jellyfish which have to be kept at bay by fine-meshed nets.

The issues to be thrashed out at this traditional `summer court' (the term is borrowed from Imperial China) include an outline programme for political reform and an entire name-list for the leadership which will emerge in October out of the 13th congress of the Communist Party. Hovering in the background, rather like the jellyfish, is the latest unwelcome news of rising inflation. Mr Deng's economic reformers believe they must push ahead to make the Chinese economy more `entrepreneurial' - the new vogue word. But the figures do give ammunition to lurking conservative critics.

None of these issues are likely to be thrashed out at formal Politburo meetings on Beidaihe's Middle Beach. The leaders will be relaxing in their fin-de-siecle villas (Beidaihe was `discovered' by British engineers building the railway in the 1890s). Mr Deng will send out for cream cakes from Kiessling Bakery and enjoy another rubber of bridge. The real work will be done by the private secretaries, in discreet coded discussion. `The Chairman is concerned for the health of his colleagues', the message goes out. `He hopes they will not have to work so hard after October. ' It is a delicately Chinese version of Yes, Minister.

Every so often a signal from Beidaihe reaches Beijing. Last week the People's Daily published a commentary reproaching the Party's `theoretical workers' for failing to keep up with the times. `The value of theory depends on whether it can satisfy the demands of reform', it said. It was not very helpful to stick to old ideas or spend time arguing over `who is right and who is wrong'.

The obvious message is another reproach to the conservative left-wing ideologues who briefly made the running early this year in the campaign against `bourgeois liberalism'. Has the chief ideologue, Deng Liqun, perhaps been obliged to make a self-criticism?

But things are never quite so simple. One hears simultaneously that two of the most prominent names on the blacklist of bourgeois liberal intellectuals - compiled last February by the theoretical thugs of Deng Liqun - have been asked to leave the Party. One of them is the controversial Party theoretician, Wang Ruoshui, whose argument about the persistence of `alienation' in a Socialist society helped to provoke the last conservative counter-attack in 1983 against `spiritual pollution'. `It's only two out of twenty', one is told reassuringly. `And a price has to be paid for getting all those old men to step down'.

Everyone agrees that Mr Deng has jockeyed his old colleagues, President Li Xiannian, and Politburo members Chen Yun and Peng Zhen, to move back with him a few paces in October. As to who will fill these and other vacant slots created by the forced resignation last January of Hu Yaobang, there are as many different scenarios as there are Hong Kong magazines publishing `Letters from Beijing'.

`Don't believe what you read there,' warns a Chinese journalist in touch with the Hong Kong scene. `They may be right, or it may just be someone in Beidaihe floating an idea out on the waves'. One idea refloated last week was the notion that the Party's ruling Standing Committee of the Politburo might be abolished altogether in October. It has a certain attraction. If it is so difficult to fill the vacancies created by Mr Deng, Mr Li, Mr Chen, and Mr Hu (who is till technically a Standing Committee member) that could leave a committee composed of one - Mr Hu's successor as secretary-general, Premier Zhao Ziyang.

It will be hard finding a replacement for Mr Zhao as premier - currently there are at least four names in the air. The problem is that the Chinese political style still requires some sort of Gang of Five (or six or seven as in the old days of the Standing Committee). Any threat to abolish may simply be designed to speed up agreement on a new list.

Any new list should contain at least one spokesman for the People's Liberation Army, probably the deputy chairman of the Party`s Military Affairs Commission, General Yang Shangkun. He is reassuringly close to Mr Deng, yet here too Mr Deng may have to pay a price. The Minister of Defence, General Zhang Aiping has criticized `some people' (the usual phrase for dissenting colleagues) who say that China now enjoys a peaceful international environment and can afford to `put the weapons back in the arsenal and graze our war-horses on the hillside. '

Even more preposterous, said General Zhang in a speech on the 1 August Army Day, is the view expressed by such people that China impoverished itself in the past in its struggle to develop a nuclear capability. There is a strong whiff in army propaganda today of the McNamara doctrine of limited war translated to China in the 1980s. National defence, it is said, in the age of superpower deadlock, requires more attention to the dangers of regional conflict. Strategic frontiers, explained the army newspaper recently, may have to differ from geographical frontiers.

Ever since the Hu Yaobang affair, it has been widely believed that somehow or other the PLA - politically on the decline ever since it lost its dominating role after the Cultural Revolution - must somehow profit. It may not be necessary, some observers believe, for the PLA to feature too obtrusively in the October name-list. What it is really asking for, and what Mr Deng can hardly refuse, is to move defence much higher up in the list of the Four Modernizations.

Meanwhile, the reformers led by Zhao Ziyang remain back on track. Their definition of political reform is more limited than the radical explorations of last year which brought about Hu Yaobang's downfall. But the main thrust for greater efficiency and real measures against bureaucracy are designed to deal with the Party's dangerously low reputation in the public eye.

A lower political profile also allows a sharper cutting edge for economic reform. The Economic Daily, which has regained its leading role in sparking new ideas, last week called for `large numbers of entrepreneurs, in the real sense of the word,' to run China's industrial and commercial enterprises. The point is - and the Economic Daily did not conceal it - that they would replace thousands upon thousands of government officials who, it argued, merely carry out plans made by superiors and do not answer for taking risks or making profits. Things were managed much better, it said, in the `developed' (ie: capitalist) world.

A name-list of many thousands, reaching down into the provincial and local bastions of bureaucratic self-interest, will prove at least as difficult to draw up as the more exalted list at the Central Committee level. Nor can it be simply fixed by early morning conversations at the seaside.


March 1989

A Red Guard poet who used to compose secretly in a photographic darkroom; a former director of the Institute of Mao Zedong Thought; a journalist threatened with libel cases by two Chinese provinces; and an astrophysicist who was sacked from the Communist Party.

These and other dissenting voices in China, of very different generations and outlook, have come together recently to present the first united challenge to the Chinese leadership. This new working alliance, in a political culture which is habitually weakened by the divisions of age and elite connections, proves that dissent in China has finally come of age.

The barring of the astrophysicist, Professor Fang Lizhi, last weekend from President Bush's Texan barbecue at the Great Wall Hotel has now forced a largely reluctant audience outside China to pay attention. Western governments have ducked the issue of human rights in China because - unlike the same cause in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe - there is no political advantage to be gained. But after ten years of uncoordinated actions, starting with the 1979 Democracy Movement, China's dissenting voices can no longer so easily be ignored.

It was Professor Fang who took the initiative last month with a letter to Deng Xiaoping appealing for the release of the 1979 dissident activist, Wei Jingsheng. Ten days ago, thirty-three intellectuals, young and old, joined to send a second open letter. Mr Wei, a young Beijing electrician, belongs to that generation of former Red Guards who were radicalized by being `sent down to the countryside'.

Mr Wei is still serving a 15-year jail sentence, no one knows exactly where. But last week the poet, Bei Dao, another prominent signatory of the open letter, said that he heard he had `gone mad' in solitary isolation. During the Cultural Revolution, Bei Dao took advantage of his job as a building works photographer to start his first novel, using a darkroom where no one would disturb him. `Let me tell you, world,' he declared in his most famous poem published on Democracy Wall, `I do not believe!'

But the defiant shout of the Democracy Movement was suppressed by the early 1980s, and found at that time no overt support among older intellectual critics of the regime. These include Professor Su Shaozhi, who is also a signatory of the appeal. Unlike Professor Fang, he, together with the playwright and co-signatory Wu Zuguang, was allowed to pass the police cordon to enter the Great Wall Hotel. As a young political scientist after the 1949 revolution, Professor Su had loyally charted the reefs of Mao's shifting thoughts on political economy until the Cultural Revolution. After Mao's death he played a leading part in the think-tank set up by Mr Deng to redefine socialism in terms of the struggle to improve China rather than the class struggle.

As head of the Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought (a compromise concept to appease surviving Maoists) Professor Su argued mostly from within. But in 1986 he became prominent among Communist Party scholars who - encouraged by the then secretary-general Hu Yaobang - queried Marx's relevance to China's problems.

`With a spirit of democracy,' he argued, `there can be no spirit of science,' calling for a fresh study of advanced capitalist society. Professor Su lost his post following the enforced resignation of Mr Hu in the 1987 conservative backlash. Surviving in silence, he spent much of last year at St Antony's College, Oxford, researching for a new book called Re-interpreting Socialism But he returned to China to speak out on the 10th anniversary of the reforms. `China is in a crisis,' he said last month, `a spiritual, economic and cultural crisis.'

From the leadership's perspective this is clerical treason in dangerous reverse by China's most distinguished neo-Marxist scholar. Professor Su now argues that other schools of thought should be encouraged by the Party, and warns openly against a recurrence of `the personality cult and despotism'. The editor of the radical Shanghai Economic Herald, who published Professor Su's speech, has been sacked. Professor Su has also described corruption in the Party as the worst for 40 years - that is, since the dying months of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, which has always been the benchmark for corruption.

The unprecedented unity of old and young dissenting intellectuals now makes it possible for the first time to envisage the development of a dissident movement in China comparable to the Soviet or Czech examples. The catalyst appears to have been the gloomy collapse of all the fresh hopes attached to Mr Hu's successor, Zhao Ziyang, whose own political future is now being questioned.

Signs of a renewed counter-offensive by the Party conservatives (who overlap politically with the remnants of Mao's leftist leadership) have prompted the dissenters to speak out first, defying official warnings, in the phrase so familiar from the past, not to `go too far'.

Chinese students and scholars who increasingly travel abroad have also become impatient of the tacit rules of the game which allowed passports to be issued against the implied obligation of good behaviour. The open letter appealing for an amnesty was also signed by Liu Binyan, the crusading journalist who has written nothing since he was forced out of the Communist Party in 1987, but has been allowed to take a fellowship at Harvard. Mr Liu's exposes of official oppression had provoked bureaucrats in two provinces to threaten libel action against him, with the complaint that `wherever he writes something, chaos ensures'. He caused particular offence by drawing attention to many cases of injustice.

Chen Jun, who distributed the petition to foreign journalists in Beijing, typifies the breaking down on national barriers. Mr Chen studied in the US but now runs a private bar in Beijing and has a British wife. A colleague of the poet, Bei Dao, he has named the new grouping Amnesty 89. But Professor Fang remains the voice who has gone the furthest.