20 years ago this week the mass student protests in Beijing began
On 15 April 1989 Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, died of a heart attack. This became the start signal for one of the biggest mass movements in modern history, a movement that soon grew beyond the wildest expectations of its initiators and came close to toppling the dictatorial regime of the so-called ‘communist’ party.
On 17 April the first contingents, around 700 students and teachers, marched 15 kilometers from their university campus into Tiananmen Square at the heart of the Chinese capital. They chanted, “Long Live Hu Yaobang! Long live democracy! Down with corruption! Down with autocracy!” In the ensuing weeks these slogans would echo around the world.
Millions would join wave upon wave of demonstrations in Beijing itself, with anti-government protests spreading to over 110 cities across China. Throughout this movement and right up to the bloody finish, the demonstrators sang ‘The Internationale’, giving the lie to the regime’s claim that this was a bourgeois counter-revolutionary movement. Just five days after the first modest demonstration, up to 200,000 people defied a government ban, occupying the Square on the day of Hu’s funeral. An indefinite ‘student strike’ was called at over 20 universities and colleges in Beijing and the formation of an ‘autonomous federation’ was announced to coordinate the movement. By mid-May, the industrial working class too was beginning to organise and lay the foundations for an independent trade union movement. This development above all else – “The Polish fear” [growth of an independent mass workers’ movement] – terrified China’s leaders.
A revolution, said Leon Trotsky, is when the masses begin to shape events directly and sense their power to do so. This sums up the situation in China at that time. The regime of Deng Xiaoping, praised by Western governments as the man who brought capitalism back to China, “seemed confused and impotent” noted the historian Maurice Meisner. The government hierarchy and military were deeply split. As Militant, newspaper of the CWI in Britain, explained “…all the conditions were there for the peaceful overthrow of the bureaucracy… The only thing missing was the vital ingredient of a clear programme, strategy and tactics.” [Militant, 9 June 1989]
On the night of 3-4 June 1989, Deng Xiaoping and his ‘hard-line’ supporters within the ruling group, waded through the blood of thousands of workers and youth in order to restore their control. Deng mobilised 200,000 PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops for a full-scale ‘invasion’ of the Chinese capital. By way of comparison, the U.S. deployed 248,000 troops for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to Amnesty International at least one thousand people were killed in the storming of central Beijing. More than 40,000 were swept up in police raids during the following weeks and months, with workers rather than students suffering the most serious consequences. Workers who had organised or tried to organise strikes in the final days of the movement were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or executed as “counter-revolutionaries”. The short-lived Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation, which had called for a general strike to stop the military onslaught, was accused of planning an armed insurrection against the government and its activists hunted down.
Those reading this article should know that such information is considered ‘seditious’ by the Chinese state. For 20 years a blanket ban has been in force on all reporting of ‘liu si’ (‘6/4’ – the June 4 incident), other than the government’s Kafkaesque version. This asserts that “no one died in Tiananmen Square” and that Deng was forced to act to avert “social chaos” and secure “China’s prosperity”. The rapid economic growth of the 1990s and 2000s is offered as historic justification for the massacre. Suppressing the 1989 movement had nothing to do with preventing the return of capitalism to China, contrary to some of the statements made by Chinese leaders at the time. The regime has instead pursued a combination of increasingly neo-liberal capitalist policies alongside a revamped system of authoritarian rule. Those who argue that the market (capitalism) and democracy go hand-in-hand have a tough job explaining what has happened in China – and why the ‘Chinese model’ is so popular with the capitalist multinationals.
Today, the 1980s appears almost as a ‘golden era’ of relative openness and public debate. “China has become like an airtight iron chamber”, declared a petition from the ‘Tiananmen Mothers’ campaign group, parents and relatives of youth who were killed on the night of 3-4 June. This year, given the added weight of the 20th anniversary, but also the devastating effects of the worldwide capitalist crisis, the Chinese regime is especially nervous. 80,000 people or more are set to join protest rallies in Hong Kong on 4 June. On the mainland, no such protests will be tolerated of course. Already ‘security’ is being beefed up with a fresh clampdown on pan-democrat activists but also against left-wing and socialist critics of the government. For all these reasons it is vital that the real lessons of ‘6/4’ are rescued from beneath the mountain of disinformation, lies and misunderstandings, to be debated and studied by a new generation looking for a way to change the political and economic system.
Origins of the 1989 movement
Student activists in Beijing had been planning to take to the streets for the 70th anniversary of the ‘May 4th movement’ of 1919, aiming to sustain these protests until the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for his historic visit to China on 15 May 1989. Gorbachev was widely seen as a ‘democratiser’ within the communist (in reality Stalinist) bloc. The students had a long list of grievances, but the central issue was the fear that the ‘democratisation’ process they had believed would accompany ‘market reforms’, a process seemingly thriving in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, was now going backwards in China. The news of Hu Yaobang’s death therefore led the student activists to fast-forward their plans, according to the tradition of “mourning the dead to criticise the living”.
Hu had been ousted as party leader in January 1987, accused of ‘softness’ in the face of student pro-democracy demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing in December 1986. The ‘hard-liners’ within the ruling bureaucracy, who feared political instability and a challenge from the masses above all else, forced the ‘paramount leader’ Deng to sacrifice his ally Hu, who like Deng was a pioneer of the pro-capitalist ‘reforms’ adopted since 1978. His dismissal did not however signal a decisive change of course. Hu was succeeded by Zhao Ziyang, an even more openly pro-capitalist ‘reformer’. But Hu’s fall from grace reinforced the fears within the pan-democratic camp and among the radical students that ‘political reform’ was being sidelined. From this they concluded, “something must be done” to tip the scales back the other way. Hu in many ways resembled Dub?ek, the leader of Czechoslovakia who stood for “socialism with a human face”, whose brief tenure ended with the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1968. Hu had argued for a Chinese military withdrawal from Tibet for example, but also enraged the ‘hard-line’ faction when he announced in 1984 “Marx and Lenin can’t solve our problems”.
At the same time the government’s radical market policies had introduced sweeping changes into Chinese society, setting warning lights flashing in many areas. Tibet had erupted in the most serious rioting and street protests for 30 years in March 1989. This movement was put down by the then party boss in Tibet, Hu Jintao, with the same ruthless methods that were later used in Beijing. Inflation at over 31 percent, was at its highest level since the 1949 revolution. Over a million factories closed in 1989 as a result of the regime’s austerity measures. On the day of Hu’s funeral (22 April) unemployed youth and rural migrants in Xian and Changsha clashed with police.
For a whole year the top levels of government had been locked in an increasingly rancorous debate over price reforms, with Zhao, initially supported by Deng, pushing for full price liberalisation. At that stage there existed a twin-system of state regulated prices and market prices, which provided lucrative opportunities for a section of the bureaucracy to enrich themselves, pilfering goods from the state sector and selling them into the market sector. As Beijing academic and representative of the ‘new left’ Wang Hui explains, “In 1988 alone, the differences between the two levels of prices in the two systems (that is ‘rent’) reached almost 357 billion yuan, amounting to almost 30 percent of the national income that year.” [Wang Hui, China’s New Order, 2006]
Zhao’s proposed reforms were presented as a way to eliminate such speculation but in reality meant higher prices and greater burdens for the working class and the poor. Political ‘gridlock’ at the top – reflecting mass pressure – led to the withdrawal of the price reforms. This plan would be pushed through three months after the massacre, in September 1989, with the threat of mass protests having been removed.
Stalinist system in crisis
In his gripping firsthand account of the movement in Beijing, ‘Eyewitness in China’, the then 27-year old Trotskyist Stephen Jolly from Australia wrote: “I felt as if I was at the centre of the world”. It was clear that the outcome of the struggle in China would have colossal effects internationally, as important in its way as the industrial and financial crisis of capitalism that is now unfolding around us. Wang Hui argues that, “The events in Beijing of that year triggered the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and inaugurated the political and economic structure by which neo-liberalism came to dominate the globe.”
The heroic defiance of the Chinese workers and youth, followed by the sadistic crushing of this movement, undoubtedly accelerated and compounded the crisis within other Stalinist one-party states, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. These societies were already wracked by crisis. The rapid industrialisation achieved in their early years, based on the enormous advantages of central planning and state ownership, had given way to economic stagnation due to the suffocating role of the ruling bureaucracy. This was inevitable without the active and democratic involvement of the working class in the running of society and the economy – i.e. genuine socialism.
This deepening economic crisis, combined with the repressive nature of Stalinism and the bureaucracy’s increasing attacks on workers’ rights and social protection, produced among some layers a growing antipathy towards ‘socialism’ in whose name these regimes purported to rule. This was especially pronounced among the intelligentsia and within the bureaucracy itself. In China’s case, the chaotic results of the so-called Cultural Revolution 1966-76, during which intellectuals especially were scapegoated as “bad elements” by Maoist propagandists, had made a significant layer of intellectuals hostile to ‘communism’.
Throughout the Stalinist world, with the regimes in China, Hungary and Yugoslavia to the fore, sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy began to look towards capitalism for a lifeline, to safeguard their own power and privileges. Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, with the defeat of the Maoist ‘Gang of Four’, marked a decisive turn in China, not as a fully-developed plan to restore capitalism, but initially as a ‘pragmatic’ attempt to combine some features of capitalism – higher management ‘incentives’, less protection for workers, more openings for private wealth and investment – with a bureaucratically planned economy. In the course of the 1980s, however, a more conscious pro-capitalist wing emerged within the Chinese regime, with Deng and Zhao as its principle figures.
The economic changes wrought by this shift at the top were dramatic. Firstly, all agriculture was privatised 1979-83, with the destruction of collective farming rather than its reorganisation along democratic lines, which we genuine Marxists would advocate. This would later create a huge ‘black hole’ of underfunded rural healthcare and education (these services had been dependent on the collective farms for support). The regime launched its ‘coastal strategy’ at the same time, ceding greater powers to the eastern provinces and encouraging their integration into the world market, particularly through the capitalists of the Chinese diaspora. The special economic zones, run on capitalist lines, were set up in a few areas but then extended. Other ‘reforms’ undermined the job security and benefit entitlements of state sector workers, while state propaganda increasingly lauded social inequality as a spur to ‘economic development’, and lambasted ‘pampered’ workers. A contract labour ‘reform’ introduced in 1986 abolished the permanent employment system in the state-owned enterprises. These changes did not amount to the restoration of capitalism, but were nevertheless a substantial erosion of the planned economic foundations and the position of the working class.
The Maoist writer Minqi Li, a participant in 1989 (although he confesses he was then a ‘neo-liberal democrat’) describes the period from 1985 onwards as follows: “The official television programmes, newspapers, and magazines now positively portrayed a materially prosperous western capitalism and highly dynamic East Asian capitalist ‘dragons’. Only China and other socialist states appeared to have lagged behind… The dominant image of capitalism had turned from one of sweatshop 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 1990s that the Chinese working class would again learn from their own experience what capitalism was to mean in real life.” [Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, 2008].
How to characterise the 1989 movement?
Today, compounded by the regime’s block on free information and discussion, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion about the Tiananmen events. Some apologists for the Chinese regime describe 1989 as a “colour revolution”, placing it on a par with the upheavals in Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004. By this, they wish to dismiss the movement as pro-Western – the protesters mere ‘puppets’ of foreign imperialism. This idea is echoed by sections of the neo-Maoist movement in China, who base this solely on the openly capitalist position of some leaders of the 1989 movement today, rather than what these same individuals said and did at the time. Significantly, however, even some of today’s Maoist youth have begun to reject such arguments and now describe Tiananmen as a “genuine people’s movement”. This is a welcome step.
Like most truly mass movements, the Tiananmen movement was an extremely complex and diverse one. This was inevitable, particularly under conditions of one-party dictatorship and the complete absence of independent organisations of the working class and other oppressed layers. Emerging from the dark night of authoritarian rule, the constituent parts of this movement spanned the entire political rainbow. Among some layers there were indeed illusions in Western-style bourgeois democracy and even more so in the ‘Taiwan model’, but this was just one of many strands within the movement – influential, but not decisive. Others sought a ‘renewal of socialism’ with some – but by no means all – looking towards Gorbachev for inspiration. Especially among workers there was already an extremely wary attitude towards the ‘market reforms’ and a will to defend state-owned property, the biggest gain from the 1949 revolution. The common denominator in the movement was a growing rejection of the existing government even if there was little clarity over what should replace it.
There is no question that the initial impetus for the movement came from a layer of intellectuals and their student supporters that today would be described as ‘neo-liberal’ (this term was not used then). They were close to the Zhao wing of the regime and their political outlook embraced not just civil liberties, a free press and freedom of assembly (aims that we socialists fully endorse) but also, to differing degrees, support for the capitalist ‘free market’. At that time, however, they would not have expressed this in such strident terms as some of them have done since. Most of the leaders of the student movement did not want to topple the government, but only achieve a shift at the top in favour of Zhao and the ‘reform’ wing. This is shown by one of their central demands: for China’s (actually toothless) National People’s Congress to convene and censure or remove the ‘hard-line’ members of the government. “Our purpose was to make the government listen to us and talk to us,” said the student leader Wuerkaixi in retrospect, “that was our only real demand”.
However, once the psychological barrier had been broken – of daring to confront the dictatorship openly on the streets – the student protests acted like a gigantic magnet for all the accumulated social discontent in society. In this way the floodgates were thrust open to social forces that did not fully share the interests and aims of the original student leaders. Even within the ranks of the students there was a division between the older and generally more privileged pro-Zhao layer and a younger, more radical majority, who regarded Zhao as fundamentally no different from the rest of the top bureaucrats. This was reflected in the mass hatred towards the “princely party”– the sons and daughters of top officials who had become or were becoming capitalists through exploiting their connections. The offspring of both Deng and Zhao were notorious ‘princelings’, duly denounced by millions of demonstrators: “Chairman Mao sent his son to fight [in Korea]. Lin Biao sent his son to make a coup. Deng Xiaoping sent his son to organise donations, and Zhao Ziyang sent his son to sell televisions at a profit,” was one popular chant.
Maoist ideas emerged as a significant but also contradictory trend within the mass movement. Many demonstrations outside Beijing, especially in industrial cities, carried Mao’s portrait, counterposing the allegedly uncorrupt lifestyle of the bureaucracy in Mao’s day with the ‘millionaire lifestyle’ they were increasingly attaining under Deng. This was less common in the Beijing demonstrations, where many student activists were wary of Mao, who they regarded as even more authoritarian than his successors. But even in Beijing, the students’ hunger strike, which began on 12 May, drew heavily on the slogans and campaign style of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This was also an extremely contentious episode, opposed outright as “too radical” by some of the liberal intellectuals in the movement. Yet the hunger strike in Tiananmen Square proved to be a pivotal event, the point when other layers and especially the working class came ‘off the fence’ and into the fray.
The entrance of the broad masses into the movement changed its character and propelled it in another direction: from a protest movement seeking to strengthen one wing of the bureaucracy, into an increasingly open challenge to the bureaucracy as a whole. Furthermore, the Tiananmen movement – perhaps uniquely in the Stalinist bloc at that time – developed in an increasingly anti-capitalist, anti-‘market reform’ direction. As Wang Hui, who was part of the last group of students to leave the Square on 4 June, told the New York Times (15 October 2006), this was a “broad social movement” that grew out of “the distress caused by the shock therapy of market reforms”.
A political revolution – to safeguard the priceless social conquest of a state-owned economy, but place it under a new regime of democratic workers’ control and management – was within reach in 1989. The critical ingredient that was lacking was a genuine Marxist party, rooted among workers as well as students, which could have emerged from underground conditions to fructify the mass movement with a clear programme and correct tactics. Such a force could have given a conscious expression to the unconscious processes among the masses in the direction of a socialist alternative to capitalism and Stalinism.
This article is the begining of a series of articles marking the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests. In future articles we will look at the role of workers in the 1989 movement, the movement’s programme, and how the struggle for democratic rights can be won in China.
By Vincent Kolo