Long Live the People: A Contested Slogan - SOAS China Institute

//Long Live the People: A Contested Slogan

Long Live the People: A Contested Slogan

Tiananmen Square, May 1989. – Photo credit: John Gittings ©

By John Gittings | 07 December 2022

When the citizens and students of Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere cried out “Long Live the People”, renmin wansui (人民万岁), in recent demonstrations, they were echoing a call often heard at previous political protests – notably in 1989. But the slogan is a contested one: it is also claimed by the Chinese Communist Party where it means something rather different, and it is now associated personally with President Xi Jinping.


On May 1st 1989, the students from Beida (Beijing University) marched towards Tiananmen Square, and many who were watching, workers or passers-by, raised two fingers in a victory salute or waved out of windows: “Long Live the Students”, they shouted. And the students shouted back: “Long Live the People”. (I witnessed this and similar scenes that month). It was this unity on the streets between so many ordinary citizens, and workers, with the students that would lead a month later to the crack-down and the tanks.


When voiced or published by Party leaders and media, rather than by protestors, “Long Live the People” has rarely been used on its own. Party historians note that Mao Zedong did so several times, first on the evening October 1st 1949 from the Tiananmen plinth, in response to the crowd wishing him Long Life, and later to the Red Guards in 1966. Exceptionally, the People’s Daily published a long commentary on December 21, 1978, under the banner  headline “Long Live the People”. It had been commissioned by Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded new Party General Secretary, in order to reverse the “counter-revolutionary” verdict on the April 5th 1976 protest, which was now judged to be “a great revolutionary mass movement”.


Otherwise “Long Live the People” is used together with one or two other wansui, so as to dilute its significance, accompanied by “Long Live the Chinese Communist Party” and sometimes also by “Long Live the People’s Republic of China”.


The “two wansui” (两个万岁) as they are referred to – Long Life to the Party and the People – was given new currency by Xi Jinping on the 70th anniversary last year of the Party’s foundation when he proclaimed, again in Tiananmen Square:

“Long Live the Great, Glorious and Correct Chinese Communist Party”
“Long Live the Great, Glorious and Heroic Chinese People”
伟大,光荣,正确的中国共产党万岁! 伟大,光蓉,英雄的中国人民万岁!

This proclamation inspired a spate of analysis in the Party media. As expounded by Zhongguo Xiguan (中国习观, English title Xi Theory), the success of China as a socialist and modernised great nation is down to the strong leadership of the Party and the close unity of the people. Other commentaries stressed that China’s great successes, now and in the future, all stem from the Party’s leadership of the people’s struggle – with Xi Jinping at the Party’s core. The adjectival difference between the two slogans drives home the point: The Party is Correct; the People are Heroic.

Students at Southwest Jiaotong University, Chengdu, holding a candlelight vigil for victims of the 24 November 2022 Ürümqi fire. / Wikimedia Commons

In the decades since 1949, this top-down relationship between Party and People, and the errors and distortions to which it leads (the heavy-handed administration of Covid lockdowns is the latest example) has been a consistent target for protest. One of the most outspoken critics during the 1956-67 Hundred Flowers movement, Lin Xiling (林希翎), argued that “socialism belongs to the people, not only to Party members”. During the Cultural Revolution criticism of Party dominance came from the “left” (accused of being “ultra-left”) as in the Shengwulian manifesto which called for a real social revolution led by “the masses”.


On Democracy Wall in 1979-80, demands multiplied for a more responsive Party, with specific proposals for elections. Democracy means “the right of the people to choose their own representatives to work according to their will and in their interests”, wrote Wei Jingsheng (魏京生) in the essay that sent him to jail. And in May 1989, essays and manifestoes argued that the People should take first place over the Party, while posters proclaimed Long Live the People and Long Live Democracy. “This country is our country, its people are our people, the government is our government”, declared the Beida hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square (these and other examples are found in the anthology Cries for Democracy edited by Han Minzhu).


The latest protests may lack the scale and breadth of 1989, but they reflect a continuing inability to resolve the paradox of the Maoist “mass line”: The principle of “from the people, to the people” is still asserted, and at the 20th Party Congress Xi Jinping spoke of the Party’s need to “stay true to our fundamental purpose of serving the people wholeheartedly, maintain a people-centred mindset, and carry out the mass line.” Yet this is in conflict with the equally powerful insistence that the Party should lead everything, which prevails at crucial moments. In one important respect 2022 is similar to 1989. Those leaders following events from inside the Party’s headquarters in the Zhongnanhai will have seen students, workers and ordinary citizens once again sharing the same space. And the passion and courage of those who removed their face-masks and spoke out recalls the spirit of past protestors. Whether the Party Centre can draw the right lessons from this remains to be seen.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.