Tiananmen Square Protests: Timeline, Massacre and Aftermath

Tiananmen Square Protests: Timeline, Massacre and Aftermath


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The Tiananmen Square protests were student-led demonstrations calling for democracy, free speech and a free press in China. They were halted in a bloody crackdown, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, by the Chinese government on June 4 and 5, 1989.

Pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square following the death of Hu Yaobang. Hu, a former Communist Party leader, had worked to introduce democratic reform in China. In mourning Hu, the students called for a more open, democratic government. Eventually thousands of people joined the students in Tiananmen Square, with the protest’s numbers increasing to the tens of thousands by mid-May.

READ MORE: Communism Timeline

At issue was a frustration with the limits on political freedom in the country—given its one-party form of government, with the Communist Party holding sway—and ongoing economic troubles. Although China’s government had instituted a number of reforms in the 1980s that established a limited form of capitalism in the country, the poor and working-class Chinese still faced significant challenges, including lack of jobs and increased poverty.

The students also argued that China’s educational system did not adequately prepare them for an economic system with elements of free-market capitalism.

Some leaders within China’s government were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, while others saw them as a political threat.

Martial Law Declared

On May 13, a number of the student protesters initiated a hunger strike, which inspired other similar strikes and protests across China. As the movement grew, the Chinese government became increasingly uncomfortable with the protests, particularly as they disrupted a visit by Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union on May 15.

A welcome ceremony for Gorbachev originally scheduled for Tiananmen Square was instead held at the airport, although otherwise his visit passed without incident. Even so, feeling the demonstrations needed to be curtailed, the Chinese government declared martial law on May 20 and 250,000 troops entered Beijing.

By the end of May more than one million protesters had gathered in Tiananmen Square. They held daily marches and vigils, and images of the events were transmitted by media organizations to audiences in the United States and Europe.

Tiananmen Square Massacre

While the initial presence of the military failed to quell the protests, the Chinese authorities decided to increase their aggression. At 1 a.m. on June 4, Chinese soldiers and police stormed Tiananmen Square, firing live rounds into the crowd.

Although thousands of protesters simply tried to escape, others fought back, stoning the attacking troops and setting fire to military vehicles. Reporters and Western diplomats there that day estimated that hundreds to thousands of protesters were killed in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and as many as 10,000 were arrested.

Leaders worldwide, including Gorbachev, condemned the military action and, less than a month later, the United States Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China, citing human rights violations.

Tiananmen Square Tank Man

The image of an unidentified man standing alone in defiance and blocking a column of Chinese tanks on June 5 remains a lasting one for much of the world of the events. He is now renowned as the “Tiananmen Square Tank Man.”

READ MORE: Who Was the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square?

Tiananmen Square History

While the events of 1989 now dominate global coverage of Tiananmen Square, the site has long been an important crossroads within the city of Beijing. It was named for the nearby Tiananmen, or “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” and marks the entrance to the so-called Forbidden City. The location took on added significance as China shifted from an emperor-led political culture to one that was governed by the Communist Party.

The Qing dynasty was the last dynastic power to rule China. It governed the country from the middle of the 1600s until 1912.

The Xinhai Revolution of 1911-1912 resulted in the overthrow of the Qings and led to the establishment of the Republic of China. The early years of the Republic were marked by political turmoil, however, and the country fell under Japanese rule during the lead-up to World War II.

During the Japanese occupation, some 20 million Chinese were killed.

National Day

As Japan faded in the aftermath of Second World War, China entered a period of civil war. At the end of the civil war, in 1949, the Communist Party had gained control of most of mainland China. They established the People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong.

A celebration to honor the occasion was held in Tiananmen Square on October 1, 1949. More than one million Chinese people attended. This celebration came to be known as National Day, and it is still observed annually on that date, with the largest events set in the square.

Mao Zedong, considered the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, is interred at Tiananmen Square, in a mausoleum on the plaza.

Tiananmen Square Censorship

Today the June 4 and 5 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre continue to resonate worldwide. In 1999, the U.S. National Security Archive released Tiananmen Square, 1989: The Declassified History. The document includes U.S. State Department files related to the protests and subsequent military crackdown.

It wasn’t until 2006 that Yu Dongyue, a journalist arrested for throwing paint at a portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square during the protests, was released from prison.

On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, the Chinese government prohibited journalists from entering Tiananmen Square and blocked access to foreign news sites and social media. Still, thousands attended a memorial vigil in honor of the anniversary in Hong Kong. Ahead of the 30 anniversary of the event, in 2019, New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report detailing reported arrests in China of those associated with the protests.

The 1989 events at Tiananmen Square have also been highly censored on China’s tightly-controlled internet. According to a survey released in 2019 by the University of Toronto and the University of Hong Kong, more than 3,200 words referencing the massacre had been censored.

Sources

Tiananmen Square. Beijing-Visitor.com.
Tiananmen Square, 1989. Department of State: Office of the Historian.
Human Rights Activism in Post-Tiananmen China, Human Rights Watch
Timeline: Tiananmen protests. BBC.com.
Tiananmen Square Fast Facts. CNN.com.


Timeline: The Tiananmen protests

In the spring of 1989, more than one million Chinese students and workers occupied Beijing's Tiananmen Square and began the largest political protest in communist China's history. Six weeks of protests ended with the Beijing massacre of 3-4 June.

Here the BBC charts the events that led to the deadly crackdown - using archive audio and video from the time.

Former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, a leading reformist, dies of a heart attack aged 73. Mourners begin to gather in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. They are expressing their sadness, but also their dissatisfaction with the pace of reform in China.

Numbers in Beijing swell into thousands in the following days, and demonstrations spread to cities and universities nationwide.

Students, workers and officials shout slogans calling for greater freedom and democracy and an end to what they called dictatorship - others complain about inflation, salaries and housing.

Tens of thousands of students gather outside the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square as Mr Hu's memorial service is held.

Their actions come in spite of an earlier warning by the city government that protesters risk severe punishment.

They deliver a petition of demands and insist on a meeting with Li Peng - which is rejected.

The state-run newspaper, the People's Daily, publishes an important editorial entitled 'The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil', accusing the protesters of rejecting the Communist Party.

The article closely mirrors views expressed by Deng Xiaoping, China's unofficial leader. It further fuels public anger.

Tens of thousands of Chinese students in at least five cities stage the biggest pro-democracy demonstrations of their kind since the communists came to power 40 years ago.

The action coincides with the 70th anniversary of the 4 May movement, an intellectual movement that wanted a stronger China.

But at a meeting with Asian bankers, Zhao Ziyang, the official head of the Communist Party, says the protests will gradually subside.

Ahead of a visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, hundreds of students begin an indefinite hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, pressing for political reforms.

They blame their extreme action on the government's failure to respond to their requests for dialogue. The move draws broad public support.

Mikhail Gorbachev arrives in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years. His visit is intended to put a formal end to years of hostility between the two communist nations.

The large protests force the cancellation of plans to welcome him in Tiananmen Square - a huge embarrassment for the government.

Zhao Ziyang visits students on Tiananmen Square, and makes a final, unsuccessful appeal for a compromise.

Mr Zhao is accompanied by Li Peng, his hard-line rival, and Wen Jiabao, China's current premier.

Mr Zhao, who wanted China to introduce far-reaching political reforms, reportedly told the crowd: "We have come too late." It was to be one of his last political acts.

Martial law is declared in several districts in Beijing and troops move towards the city centre.

A huge number of civilians block their convoys, setting up barricades on streets. The soldiers have been ordered not to fire on civilians.

Over the next week, the demonstrations continue with almost no visible security presence - there is a jubilant atmosphere in Tiananmen Square.

However, at government headquarters, China's leaders plan a new offensive to end the demonstrations and end the chaos in China's capital.

Communist Party elders approve the decision to put down the "counter-revolutionary riot" by force.

Troops open fire on protesters in Tiananmen Square

In the evening, thousands of PLA soldiers begin moving towards the centre of Beijing. People flood onto the streets to try to block them, setting up barricades along routes into Tiananmen Square.

As the army tries to break through in armoured personnel carriers, some troops open fire with guns loaded with live ammunition, killing and injuring many unarmed citizens.

Tiananmen Square is cleared after a night of the worst bloodshed ever seen in Beijing under communist rule.

As the new day begins, the capital is in a state of shock. Thousands of angry and curious residents crowd up to lines of soldiers blocking the north-east entrance. The soldiers open fire again.

There is sporadic gunfire throughout the day.

The government hails the military intervention as a great victory. An editorial is published saying the army would severely and mercilessly punish "lawless people who plan riots and disturb social order".

But Peking Radio's English language service, in an act of defiance, says thousands of innocent civilians were killed. The government-run radio calls the act a gross violation of human rights and a barbarous suppression of the people.

Afterwards the authorities claim no-one was shot dead in the square itself. There is still debate about exactly how many people were killed. Some say a few hundred, others say a few thousand.

A lone protester blocks the route of tanks heading to Tiananmen Square

The army now has complete control of Beijing - but it is yet to witness a staggering act of defiance.

To this day, the fate remains unknown of the unarmed man who blocked a column of tanks as they moved along Chang'an Avenue towards Tiananmen Square.

Deng Xiaoping appears in public

China's de facto leader Deng Xiaoping appears for the first time since the brutal crackdown.

In a speech to military officers he praises their efforts, and blames the turmoil on counter-revolutionaries who wanted nothing less than to overthrow communism.


Q&A: Witnessing the Aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

Twenty-five years ago today, China's Tiananmen Square protests ended in a massacre. The first demonstrators – students and hunger-strikers – were joined by workers and people from all walks of life until they filled the vast square, and the protests spread across hundreds of Chinese cities. In late May, 1989, after the government declared martial law and ordered the military to use deadly force, some protesters in Beijing attacked army convoys and burned vehicles as the military moved through the city. On June 3 and June 4, the Chinese military horrified the world by opening fire on the unarmed civilians. After the massacre, the government arrested thousands of people on &ldquocounter-revolution&rdquo and other charges.

Human Rights Watch deputy executive director for external relations, Carroll Bogert, who covered the Tiananmen protests as a reporter for Newsweek, talks with Amy Braunschweiger about how China has been shaped by the horrific events of those days more than two decades ago.


At the time, you were a correspondent in Moscow. Why were you covering the events in Tiananmen Square?

I followed [Mikhail] Gorbachev to Beijing in May to cover his first-ever visit to China, then stayed to cover the protests as I had worked as a reporter in China and spoke Mandarin. Tiananmen&rsquos protests were triggered by the death of party leader Hu Yaobang, a political reformer. But Gorbachev&rsquos visit helped keep the protests alive. Political reform was happening in the Soviet Union way ahead of China, and the Tiananmen students wanted their own perestroika. They were communicating both to Gorbachev and their own leaders. It was a real human rights revolution.

Gorbachev came at an unbelievable moment in Chinese history. There were so many people in Tiananmen Square that Gorbachev couldn&rsquot get to his meeting at the Great Hall of the People, which was also on the Square. I don&rsquot think I&rsquove ever been in a larger crowd in all my life, and I covered the fall of the Soviet Union.

It must have been alarming to the Chinese government that workers were there. In Poland, the Solidarity workers movement was already a force, and later that year, they would come to power in an election. The Chinese leadership feared a Solidarity-like revolution.


What did you see covering Tiananmen?

Armies traditionally attack at dawn, so every night, in the middle of the night, Jonathan Mirsky and I would get in the Newsweek car and drive east to see where the tanks were. I remember visiting this village where an armored personnel carrier had stopped. People were climbing on it. I&rsquom not sure what the soldiers were doing, but they weren&rsquot moving. And they didn&rsquot move because they didn&rsquot want to shoot the people.

At one point, the government did call for a crackdown, and the army balked. They were local forces from around Beijing, and they wouldn&rsquot attack. So the leaders had to call on units thousands of miles from Beijing, lying to them, saying that the protesters wanted to overthrow the government.

The whole city was holding its breath, waiting. Was the government going to clear the square? If so, when? Would they negotiate a settlement? There was a struggle in the leadership for how to respond. Everyone was waiting for the response.


Did you witness the killings?

I was not in the square at the moment of violence, but I did witness the subsequent crackdown.

Newsweek, along with many other news organizations, had rented a room in the Beijing Hotel, a high-rise building that looked over Tiananmen Square, to watch the protests. After the crackdown, we couldn&rsquot get back to that hotel – authorities had cordoned off the street to mop up the blood and make sure no protesters could re-group. When the street finally opened several days later, my colleague Melinda Liu and I went back to the hotel to check out, and the hotel tried to charge us for the days we couldn&rsquot reach it. We argued about the bill, and my colleague asked for a discount as access to the hotel was dicey &ldquodue to what happened in Tiananmen Square.&rdquo In retort, the man behind the counter said, &ldquoNothing happened in Tiananmen Square.&rdquo There was a brazen quality to the lie. It was remarkable. It was an unbelievably tragic time.

After the massacre, many journalists stayed at the Jianguo Hotel. We were barely sleeping. I was working on a story, and a man came to deliver room service. He opened up the leather folder that contained the bill, and in the inside cover, written in English, it said, &ldquoThank you people.&rdquo Our eyes locked and neither of us said anything, we both knew the hotel room was bugged. It was one of those moments you don&rsquot forget in your life.


Did the government crackdown succeed? What happened to the spirit of Tiananmen?

The Chinese government made a Faustian deal with its people, saying we&rsquoll keep the economy going, your incomes will rise, your personal freedoms will rise, but not your political freedom. Today, we&rsquore seeing a real crackdown on any kinds of political organization – either on the Internet or on the ground, like that against the New Citizens Movement .

But at the same time, we see a real human rights movement in China today, including labor rights protests that the Chinese government puts down each year. We&rsquore seeing growing pressure for greater political freedom.

Chinese people want corruption to go away, they want journalists to be able to dig out information about corruption. They don&rsquot want to be beaten up by police . They want a fair day in court. They don&rsquot want to be victims of the abuse of power. We know, from global experience, that the way to prevent abusive governments is through a robust civil society movement that presses for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion – basic human rights.


What&rsquos the legacy of Tiananmen?

Tiananmen isn&rsquot the first untruth the Chinese Communist Party has staked itself on. Tiananmen isn&rsquot the only one. China hasn&rsquot taken responsibility for the Great Leap forward, and many of the wild and tyrannical actions of Mao Zedong. But none of the lies are bigger than Tiananmen, the lie that claims the students and other protesters were counter-revolutionaries who didn&rsquot love their country.

They were revolutionaries, and they loved their country. Theirs was a desire to do the best thing for China.

I was giving the speech at an American college a few years ago, and after everyone had gone and the entire room was empty – even the projectionist had left – I was approached by a young Chinese woman, who asked me, &ldquoPlease tell me what really happened in Tiananmen Square.&rdquo She was afraid to have her question overheard by the other Chinese students at that college. There&rsquos still a lot of fear surrounding Tiananmen Square.

Can you bury a lie like that forever? I genuinely don&rsquot think so. They can delay the accounting for that, but one day, China will arrive at a greater appreciation for the real truth of what happened. And one day, the Chinese government will have to acknowledge that people want self-government. The democracy movement of 1989 has been postponed, but not vanquished.


Tiananmen Square, 1989

The establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China in 1979, together with Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, inaugurated a decade of vibrant cultural exchange and expanding economic ties between the two countries. However, the Chinese Government’s violent suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, cooled U.S.-Chinese relations considerably. To the present day, the Department of State marks the anniversary of the suppression by issuing a statement calling on the Chinese Government to end harassment of those who participated in the protests and to fully account for those killed, detained, or missing.

The demonstrations began on April 15, when Chinese students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where so many student and mass demonstrations had taken place since the early 20th century, to mark the death of the popular pro-reform Chinese leader Hu Yaobang. The demonstration became a forum to protest corruption and inflation, and call for broader political and economic reforms to build on the reforms that had already transformed China considerably in the post-Mao era.

The Chinese leadership was divided on how to handle the demonstrations. As the numbers of protesters swelled to the tens of thousands, some leaders who saw the protests as a direct challenge to Communist Party rule labeled the demonstrators “counter-revolutionary” in an April 26 editorial in the government-run People’s Daily newspaper. Other officials sympathetic to the protestors’ demands for political reform favored a conciliatory approach, as represented by General Secretary of the Communist Party Zhao Ziyang’s visit with protestors on May 4 to hear and acknowledge their concerns.

Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s impending state visit on May 15 invigorated the protests. Some protestors initiated hunger strikes to increase pressure on the government. Foreign media that arrived to cover the visit turned their attention to the protests and heightened international—especially Western—awareness of the protesters and their demands. The crowds in the Square grew beyond students to include a broad segment of Chinese society, from workers to ordinary citizens from Beijing and beyond, and reportedly exceeded one million in number. Gorbachev’s visit occupied Chinese officials’ attention until his departure on May 18. On May 19, Zhao visited the protesters once more to make an emotional appeal for hunger strikes to end. The Chinese leadership imposed martial law in Beijing on May 20. The protests continued.

On the night of June 3 and 4, the People’s Liberation Army stormed the Square with tanks, crushing the protests with terrible human costs. Estimates of the numbers killed vary. The Chinese Government has asserted that injuries exceeded 3,000 and that over 200 individuals, including 36 university students, were killed that night. Western sources, however, are skeptical of the official Chinese report and most frequently cite the toll as hundreds or even thousands killed. Similar protests that had taken place in other Chinese cities were soon suppressed and their leaders imprisoned.


Tiananmen Square is cleared after a night of the worst bloodshed ever seen in Beijing under communist rule.

As the new day begins, the capital is in a state of shock. Thousands of angry and curious residents crowd up to lines of soldiers blocking the north-east entrance. The soldiers open fire again.

There is sporadic gunfire throughout the day.

The government hails the military intervention as a great victory. An editorial is published saying the army would severely and mercilessly punish "lawless people who plan riots and disturb social order".

But Peking Radio's English language service, in an act of defiance, says thousands of innocent civilians were killed. The government-run radio calls the act a gross violation of human rights and a barbarous suppression of the people.

Afterwards the authorities claim no-one was shot dead in the square itself. There is still debate about exactly how many people were killed. Some say a few hundred, others say a few thousand.


Q&A: Witnessing the Aftermath of China’s Tiananmen Square Massacre

Tiananmen Square. June 4th, 1989. © 1989 Stuart Franklin/MAGNUM

Twenty-five years ago today, China's Tiananmen Square protests ended in a massacre. The first demonstrators – students and hunger-strikers – were joined by workers and people from all walks of life until they filled the vast square, and the protests spread across hundreds of Chinese cities. In late May, 1989, after the government declared martial law and ordered the military to use deadly force, some protesters in Beijing attacked army convoys and burned vehicles as the military moved through the city. On June 3 and June 4, the Chinese military horrified the world by opening fire on the unarmed civilians. After the massacre, the government arrested thousands of people on “counter-revolution” and other charges.

Human Rights Watch deputy executive director for external relations, Carroll Bogert, who covered the Tiananmen protests as a reporter for Newsweek, talks with Amy Braunschweiger about how China has been shaped by the horrific events of those days more than two decades ago.

At the time, you were a correspondent in Moscow. Why were you covering the events in Tiananmen Square?

I followed [Mikhail] Gorbachev to Beijing in May to cover his first-ever visit to China, then stayed to cover the protests as I had worked as a reporter in China and spoke Mandarin. Tiananmen’s protests were triggered by the death of party leader Hu Yaobang, a political reformer. But Gorbachev’s visit helped keep the protests alive. Political reform was happening in the Soviet Union way ahead of China, and the Tiananmen students wanted their own perestroika. They were communicating both to Gorbachev and their own leaders. It was a real human rights revolution.

Gorbachev came at an unbelievable moment in Chinese history. There were so many people in Tiananmen Square that Gorbachev couldn’t get to his meeting at the Great Hall of the People, which was also on the Square. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a larger crowd in all my life, and I covered the fall of the Soviet Union.

It must have been alarming to the Chinese government that workers were there. In Poland, the Solidarity workers movement was already a force, and later that year, they would come to power in an election. The Chinese leadership feared a Solidarity-like revolution.

What did you see covering Tiananmen?

Armies traditionally attack at dawn, so every night, in the middle of the night, Jonathan Mirsky and I would get in the Newsweek car and drive east to see where the tanks were. I remember visiting this village where an armored personnel carrier had stopped. People were climbing on it. I’m not sure what the soldiers were doing, but they weren’t moving. And they didn’t move because they didn’t want to shoot the people.

At one point, the government did call for a crackdown, and the army balked. They were local forces from around Beijing, and they wouldn’t attack. So the leaders had to call on units thousands of miles from Beijing, lying to them, saying that the protesters wanted to overthrow the government.

The whole city was holding its breath, waiting. Was the government going to clear the square? If so, when? Would they negotiate a settlement? There was a struggle in the leadership for how to respond. Everyone was waiting for the response.

Did you witness the killings?

I was not in the square at the moment of violence, but I did witness the subsequent crackdown.

Newsweek, along with many other news organizations, had rented a room in the Beijing Hotel, a high-rise building that looked over Tiananmen Square, to watch the protests. After the crackdown, we couldn’t get back to that hotel – authorities had cordoned off the street to mop up the blood and make sure no protesters could regroup. When the street finally opened several days later, my colleague Melinda Liu and I went back to the hotel to check out, and the hotel tried to charge us for the days we couldn’t reach it. We argued about the bill, and my colleague asked for a discount as access to the hotel was dicey “due to what happened in Tiananmen Square.” In retort, the man behind the counter said, “Nothing happened in Tiananmen Square.” There was a brazen quality to the lie. It was remarkable. It was an unbelievably tragic time.

After the massacre, many journalists stayed at the Jianguo Hotel. We were barely sleeping. I was working on a story, and a man came to deliver room service. He opened up the leather folder that contained the bill, and in the inside cover, written in English, it said, “Thank you people.” Our eyes locked and neither of us said anything, we both knew the hotel room was bugged. It was one of those moments you don’t forget in your life.

Did the government crackdown succeed? What happened to the spirit of Tiananmen?

The Chinese government made a Faustian deal with its people, saying we’ll keep the economy going, your incomes will rise, your personal freedoms will rise, but not your political freedom. Today, we’re seeing a real crackdown on any kinds of political organization – either on the Internet or on the ground, like that against the New Citizens Movement.

But at the same time, we see a real human rights movement in China today, including labor rights protests that the Chinese government puts down each year. We’re seeing growing pressure for greater political freedom.

Chinese people want corruption to go away, they want journalists to be able to dig out information about corruption. They don’t want to be beaten up by police. They want a fair day in court. They don’t want to be victims of the abuse of power. We know, from global experience, that the way to prevent abusive governments is through a robust civil society movement that presses for freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion – basic human rights.

What’s the legacy of Tiananmen?

Tiananmen isn’t the first untruth the Chinese Communist Party has staked itself on. Tiananmen isn’t the only one. China hasn’t taken responsibility for the Great Leap forward, and many of the wild and tyrannical actions of Mao Zedong. But none of the lies are bigger than Tiananmen, the lie that claims the students and other protesters were counter-revolutionaries who didn’t love their country.

They were revolutionaries, and they loved their country. Theirs was a desire to do the best thing for China.

I was giving the speech at an American college a few years ago, and after everyone had gone and the entire room was empty – even the projectionist had left – I was approached by a young Chinese woman, who asked me, “Please tell me what really happened in Tiananmen Square.” She was afraid to have her question overheard by the other Chinese students at that college. There’s still a lot of fear surrounding Tiananmen Square.

Can you bury a lie like that forever? I genuinely don’t think so. They can delay the accounting for that but, one day, China will arrive at a greater appreciation for the real truth of what happened. And one day, the Chinese government will have to acknowledge that people want self-government. The democracy movement of 1989 has been postponed, but not vanquished.


The Rise and Fall of Socialist Democracy

In fact, if we want to trace examples of student-worker solidarity in China before 1989, we don’t have to go as far back as 1919. As Joel Andreas shows in a forthcoming book, in 1966 and 1967, the early years of the Cultural Revolution, the links forged between students and workers were critical for the development of the rebel movement. Workers visited universities to learn how students conducted debates and organized themselves, and students went into factories and helped workers form their own rebel organizations and articulate demands.

Over the twenty-three years between 1966 and 1989, this sense of student-worker solidarity disappeared. To understand why, we have to examine the history of these two decades.

Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 because he thought that many bureaucrats within the party (the so-called “capitalist roaders”) were so infected by bureaucratism that they were de facto trying to institute a form of bureaucratic capitalism. By mobilizing mass movements from below, Mao hoped to eradicate the “capitalist roaders” and at the same time concentrate power. As Andreas argues, Mao believed the point of the mass movements was to “reform the party, not overthrow the party.” What was problematic for Mao was not the party apparatus itself, but certain cadre within the party. Therefore the party would return to normal functioning once the “capitalist roaders,” like a tumor, were removed. This is why Mao repeatedly claimed that the majority of party cadre were good and the “capitalist roaders” were a minority.

But what Mao didn’t anticipate was that once he called upon the masses to “educate themselves” and “liberate themselves,” the mass rebel movements would grow and radicalize out of his control, transcending the limits imposed by his agenda. Mao had intended to open only a tiny crack for the masses, but this crack unexpectedly widened, unleashing massive radical momentum among workers and students, which, for a period of time, appeared to be on course to bring down the entire facade.

As Wu Yiching shows, just after Mao called upon workers to self-organize in late 1966, contract and informal workers — who were “second-class citizens” in urban factories — started to form their own organizations. These organizations didn’t target the “capitalist roaders” as Mao intended, but attacked China’s unjust and discriminatory two-tier labor system. These movements were attacked as “economistic” and demobilized by Mao and other Cultural Revolution leaders.

After the Shanghai People’s Commune (SPC) was established in January 1967, which Mao hailed as an inspiring example of the masses seizing power from the party cadre, some radical organizations of rebel workers developed a quite distinct understanding of the SPC. For these radical workers, the “Revolutionary Committees” established in the name of “seizing mass power” were actually controlled by the military and served as an instrument for Mao and the party to repress the rebel movement and restore status quo. These radical organizations hoped to establish a genuine system of workers’ self-management akin to the Paris Commune, and engaged in armed struggle with the “Revolutionary Committees” for months.

At the same time, many workers and students extended and deepened Mao’s critique of bureaucratism and “capitalist roaders,” arriving at political conclusions much more radical and profound than Mao’s. For these workers and students, Mao’s observations of bureaucratism were astute but his diagnosis was wrong. Bureaucratism was not a result of individual bureaucrats, but of the one-party dictatorial regime, which was inherently capitalist. For these workers, the only way to abolish bureaucratism was to abolish one-party rule and establish workers’ self-control in its stead. These arguments were made most elaborately by a radical workers’ organization called the Alliance of Proletarian Revolutionaries in Hunan Province. These ideals conveyed a conception of socialist democracy akin to Marx’s own understanding.

Mao and other Cultural Revolution leaders were deeply unsettled by these movements, which transcended Mao’s own agenda, clearly challenging the authority of the leaders and calling for systematic change and institutionalized socialist democracy. Starting from 1968, Mao called on the military to intervene en masse, launching a dramatic wave of repression against rebel workers. According to Walder’s calculation, the overwhelming majority of causalities during the Cultural Revolution were committed by the CCP and the military repressing rebel workers after 1968. This remains to this day the bloodiest and most massive state repression in the history of the People’s Republic of China. In some cities, rebel workers’ organizations fought civil wars with the military and were brutally repressed. In the meantime, Mao and the party leadership launched attacks on the workers’ articulation of their socialist democratic vision, accusing it of being anarchist and Trotskyist.

In sum, the mass movement initiated by Mao himself evolved independently into a socialist democratic movement, which threatened Mao and was subsequently repressed by him. In Wu Yiching’s words, the Cultural Revolution devoured its own children. The repression between 1968 and 1971 had a profound impact. On the one hand, the segments of rebel workers who were most militant, radical, and organized were physically decimated. On the other hand, Mao’s complete about-face left many workers and students disillusioned they felt betrayed by Mao and believed that other Cultural Revolution leaders such as Jiang Qing (Mao’s wife) and Chen Boda had been opportunistically using and manipulating the mass movement in their rise to power.

In 1974, the “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” campaign unexpectedly provided a platform for disgruntled rebels to voice their frustration with the 1968–1971 repression wave. This awkward top-down campaign, which targeted two completely unrelated individuals, was launched by the Cultural Revolution leaders to assist their factional fight within the party. But rebel workers had an altogether different source of resentment towards Lin Biao, Mao’s heir apparent before he died after a failed coup attempt in 1971. In 1968–1971, as a leader of the military, Lin played a major role in repressing the rebels. Therefore, many rebels participated in the “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” campaign, using Lin as a target to criticize the period of repression and call for a return of the mass rebel movement of 1966–1967. The most well-argued and influential criticisms along these lines were made in a series of big-character posters issued under the name “Li-Yi-Zhe,” which referred to three co-authors who actively participated in the 1966–1967 rebel movement and were later punished harshly.

To the rebels’ disappointment, Li-Yi-Zhe’s call was not received well by Mao, with other Cultural Revolution leaders calling for a ban on these posters. The rebels’ discontent with Mao and Cultural Revolution leaders led to the April 5 Movement in 1976. During this movement, tens of thousands gathered in the Tiananmen Square, apparently mourning the recent death of premier Zhou Enlai but actually expressing discontent with the Cultural Revolution leaders. Slogans and banners like “Down with Emperor Dowager Ci Xi” and “Down with Indira Gandhi” appeared everywhere in the Square, all referring to Jiang Qing. Moreover, slogans like “Down with the First Emperor of Qin Dynasty” also appeared, referring to Mao himself.

The April 5 Movement in 1976 further energized broad discontent with Mao and the Cultural Revolution leaders. This popular sentiment provided support for part of the party leadership to strip the Cultural Revolution leaders of power in a palace coup after Mao’s death in the same year. In turn, the downfall of the Cultural Revolution leaders ignited hope and optimism among repressed rebels. They hoped the party could right the wrongs inflicted on them during the 1968–1971 repression and open up space for bottom-up mass movements again. At the same time, between 1976 and 1978, the rebels’ hopes were inflated by Deng Xiaoping, who was engaged in fierce factional struggles with other party leaders and expressed some pro-democracy views in order to consolidate his popular support.

The rebels’ optimism culminated in the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement. As Meisner points out, most of the participants in this movement were not intellectuals, but rebels who were active in 1966–1967 and later repressed. They formed political organizations, organized public debates, distributed their own publications, and posted big-character posters. The influence of the movement quickly spread from Beijing to other major cities. The movement discourse revived the socialist democratic vision first articulated in 1966–1967, and focused criticism on one-party rule, which the rebels saw as the source of bureaucratism. For the participants, the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement picked up where the Cultural Revolution rebel movement left off. It was the second socialist democratic movement, after the first in 1966–1967.

Just as the 1966–1967 movement terrified Mao, the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement terrified Deng. In a manner similar to Mao, Deng accused the participants in the 1979 movement of being “anarchists” and launched harsh repression. This wave of repression heightened political disillusionment among the masses. Thereafter, socialist democratic discourse almost completely disappeared from the public. This also meant the marginalization of class politics as a whole — after all, socialist democratic discourse was premised on class politics.

This fundamental shift was entirely consistent with Deng’s wholesale promotion of policy pragmatism and retreat from the discourse of class struggle. As socialist democratic activists, most of whom were workers, were silenced, public political discussion was increasingly monopolized by liberal-minded intellectuals and university students, and discussion about democracy was increasingly de-classed and cast in a liberal framework. In the late 1980s, both sides in the “democracy or authoritarianism” debate acknowledged the legitimacy of the marketization reforms and didn’t consider its effects on workers. Anita Chan’s research shows that “if one sifts carefully through the writings of Chinese intellectuals of all persuasions [in the late 1980s], one is hard pressed to find any mention of working class grievances.”

Many commentators have romanticized China’s 1980s as a decade of freedom, hope, pluralism, and idealism. However, a balanced assessment of the decade requires one to consider not only what was present during the decade, but also what was absent. Much of what those commentators love about the decade — the burgeoning influence of Western liberalism, the increased freedom of speech and expression, and the vitality of intellectual groups — was accompanied by the retreat of the working class from politics and the vanishing of socialist democratic ideals, which resulted from repression in the wake of the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement. In a sense, the “liberty” of 1980s China was born in the shadow of repression.

Any discussion of “liberty” has to face the question: liberty for whom? The benefits of political liberalization in 1980s China — ranging from the space to air a wider range of political views, to pluralization of intellectual life, to diversification of lifestyles — were reaped almost exclusively by intellectuals and university students. In order to consolidate support and gain legitimacy for marketization, Deng greatly improved the material well-being and social status of intellectuals, and made the higher education system much more elitist. Consequently, the participation of intellectuals and students in political discussion helped reinforce their elitist self-identity. The Chinese documentary River Elegy, extremely influential and widely viewed in the late 1980s, exemplified such elitist liberalism.

In the meantime, what kind of “liberty” did the urban working class enjoy? What affected urban workers’ life most during the 1980s was probably not the liberalization of prices, but the substantial expansion of managers’ power over the operation of state-owned factories at workers’ expense. Managers gained almost unopposed power to allocate the means of production as they please, resulting in much strengthened one-man rule in urban workplaces and de facto private ownership.

As workers’ congresses were deactivated, workers lost their limited power over decision-making in factories and directly experienced “bureaucratic dictatorship” at the point of production. With workers feeling oppressed, mistreated, stripped of their dignity, and faced with increasing power inequalities, managers had no choice but to resort to material incentives and bonuses to achieve labor discipline. The rise of workers’ living standards in the mid-1980s was thus a result of the systematic weakening of their power in the workplace. And in the late 1980s, as workers’ material gains were eaten away by inflation, their discontent grew.

The entire 1980s, then, witnessed a widening gap between intellectuals and university students, on the one hand, and workers on the other. What produced this gap was the repression of the two socialist democratic movements — the first under Mao Zedong, the second under Deng Xiaoping — and the resulting retreat of class discourse from politics. In 1989, workers’ accumulated grievances finally translated into large-scale actions, as workers rediscovered the socialist democratic discourse that had appeared in 1966 and 1979. But the growing gap between students and workers meant that students neither understood nor cared about workers’ socialist democratic ideals.


Tiananmen Square: 30 years since democracy protests squashed

Over seven weeks in 1989, student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square became China's greatest political upheaval since the end of the Cultural Revolution more than a decade earlier.

Corruption among the elite was a key complaint, but the protesters were also calling for a more open and fair society, one that would require the ruling Communist Party to relinquish control over many aspects of life, including education, employment and even the size of families.

Next week marks the 30th anniversary of the bloody crackdown that ended the protest. The government has never given a clear account of how many were killed and has squelched discussion of the events in the years since.

A timeline of the events that led to the military intervention on the night of June 3-4, 1989, and the aftermath:

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES

A Chinese man stands alone to block a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. The Chinese government crushed a student-led demonstration for democratic reform and against government corruption, killing hundreds, or perhaps thousands of demonstrators in the strongest anti-government protest since the 1949 revolution. Ironically, the name Tiananmen means "Gate of Heavenly Peace". (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

APRIL 15: HU YAOBANG'S DEATH IGNITES DEMONSTRATIONS

A leading liberal voice in the ruling Communist Party, Hu Yaobang had been deposed as general secretary by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1987. Deng held Hu responsible for campus demonstrations calling for political reforms. His death from a heart attack in 1989 attracted mourners to Tiananmen Square. They called for continuing his reformist legacy and opposing corruption, nepotism and a decline in living conditions. The number of protesters swelled into the thousands in the days afterward, and spread to cities and college campuses outside Beijing, deeply alarming Deng, Hu's successor Zhao Ziyang, and other party leaders.

Tens of thousands of students and citizens crowd at the Martyr's Monument at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, April 21, 1989. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Enthusiastic demonstrators are cheered by bystanders as they arrive at Tiananmen Square to show support for the student hunger strike, Thursday, May 18, 1989, Beijing, China. Students are striking for government reforms. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Protesters from all walks of life and all age groups march for democracy in the streets of Beijing near Tiananmen Square, May 23, 1989. (AP Photo/Jim Palmer)

More than seven thousand students from local colleges and universities march to Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 4, 1989, to demonstrate for government reform. (AP Photo/Mikami)

Beijing youths ride atop a car as they parade to Tiananmen Square for a freedom rally, Wednesday, May 17, 1989 in Beijing. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

APRIL 25: EDITORIAL REVIVES PROTESTS

The protests had begun to wane after 10 days but were re-energized by an editorial read out on state television on April 25 and published in the official People's Daily newspaper the next day. Titled "The Necessity for a Clear Stand Against Turmoil," it described the protests as a "well-planned plot" to overturn Communist rule. The tone of the editorial raised the strong possibility that participants could be arrested and tried on national security charges. Following its publication, protests broke out in cities around China. The text appeared to closely follow the 84-year-old Deng's views on the protests, as chronicled in The Tiananmen Papers, a 2001 book edited by American scholars Andrew Nathan and Perry Link and believed to be based on documents sourced from government archives.

Protesters occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square work on the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, May 30, 1989. The makeshift statue, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, was destroyed, and hundreds of people killed, when Chinese soldiers overran the square in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A young Chinese girl dances on Tiananmen Square about June 1, 1989, as pro-democracy protesters continued to occupy the square. Hundreds were killed a few days later in violent clashes between the demonstrators and government troops. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A striking Beijing University student is given first aid by medics at a field hospital in Tiananmen Square at Beijing, Wednesday, May 17, 1989, the fourth day of their hunger strike for democracy. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Unidentified Beijing youths chant as they drive to Tiananmen Square to lend their enthusiastic support to striking university students, Friday, May 19, 1989, Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

This is a May 27, 1989 photo of student leader Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square Beijing calling for a city wide march. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

Pro Democracy demonstrators carry portraits of former Chinese rulers Mao Tse-Tung and Chou En-Lai as they march to join student strikers at Tiananmen Square, May 18, 1989, Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

A young unidentified couple, two out of thousands of university students who are holding Tiananmen Square occupied for nine days, pass the time with a lively dance on Monday morning, May 22, 1989 in Beijing, China. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

A Beijing University student sounds off during a rally in Tiananmen Square, Thursday, May 25, 1989 in Beijing. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing)

MAY 13: STUDENT HUNGER STRIKES

Frustrated by government indifference to their demands and the potential consequences of the April editorial, student leaders launched a hunger strike to demand substantive dialogue with the nation's leaders and recognition of their movement as patriotic and democratic. The strike drew attention from noted intellectuals including Dai Qing, who praised the students' ideals, but called on them to have patience and to abandon Tiananmen Square temporarily to allow a groundbreaking visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to proceed smoothly. The students rejected the suggestion, and a formal welcoming ceremony for Gorbachev was canceled in what was seen as a huge loss of face for the government. On May 18, student leaders were finally granted a meeting with Premier Li Peng and other party officials, but the session was contentious and no commitment was given on meeting their two demands.

In this May 30, 1989 file photo, the portrait of Mao Zedong faces off a statue dubbed "The Goddess of Democracy" by students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, who modeled it after the Statue of Liberty, during the student protest on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The legacy of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square looms larger in Hong Kong than in mainland China, where the Communist Party has virtually erased all public mention of it. In this former British colony, hundreds of thousands attend candlelight vigils each anniversary to commemorate the grim end to the Beijing movement that was vanquished before many of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong's streets were even born. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A man who identified himself as a former political prisoner relates his experiences to striking students in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on May 28, 1989. Students have held the square in a democracy demonstration for more than two weeks. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A young woman is caught between civilians and Chinese soldiers, who were trying to remove her from an assembly near the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, June 3, 1989. Pro-democracy protesters had been occupying Tiananmen Square for weeks. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

An unidentified student demonstrator offers food to Peoples' Liberation Army troops in Feng Tai near Beijing, Sunday, May 21, 1989. Their convoy was stopped by roadblocks as they were en route to the capital. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

Beijing university students wave fists and flags as five Chinese military helicopters buzz Tiananmen Square at dawn, May 21, 1989. Students have occupied the square for more than a week resulting in the declaration of martial law by Chinese authorities. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

PLA soldiers locked in arms try to march past a human blockade of students outside of the Great Hall of People in this June 3, 1989 photo. Soldiers were reported to resort to teargas and ammunition. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing)

MAY 18: LEADERS AGREE TO DECLARE MARTIAL LAW

With the tone inside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound turning increasingly combative, Deng and other leaders met to agree on declaring martial law. Finding himself isolated and undermined, Zhao determined he could no longer back the party's position and drafted a letter of resignation. With no sign of compromise from either the government or the students, Zhao visited the square to address the students at 4 a.m. on May 19, accompanied by Li Peng. With a grim-faced future premier Wen Jiabao standing behind him, Zhao told the students," We have come too late." He urged them to end their hunger strike and assured them that their concerns would be addressed eventually. Zhao then took sick leave and disappeared from public life, soon to be replaced by former Shanghai party head Jiang Zemin. Beijing citizens meanwhile defiantly stood up to block the first martial law troops and students began arriving in Beijing from across the country as the protests spread to an estimated 400 other cities.

A student pro-democracy protester flashes victory signs to the crowd as People's Liberation Army troops withdraw on the west side of the Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square on Saturday, June 3, 1989 in Beijing. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

A woman soldier sings among pro-democracy protesters occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square, about June 2, 1989. Police and military would occasionally mix with protesters in an attempt to keep the demonstration peaceful. In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, soldiers overran the square, leaving hundreds dead overnight. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

Bicycle commuters, sparse in numbers, pass through a tunnel as above on the overpass military tanks are positioned in Beijing, China, two days after the Tiananmen Square massacre,on Tuesday morning, June 6, 1989. The slogan on the wall at left reads, "Strike down martial law." (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

An anti-government protester in Beijing holds a rifle in a bus window, June 3, 1989. Pro-democracy protesters had been occupying Tiananmen Square for weeks hundreds died that night and the following morning in clashes with Chinese troops. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

In this photo taken on June 5, 1989 and made available for the first time by the AP on Thursday June 4, 2009, three unidentified men flee the scene, as a Chinese man, background left, stands alone to block a line of approaching tanks, background right, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The man in the background stood his ground and blocked the column of tanks when they came closer, an image captured on film by numerous other photographers and one that ultimately became a widely reproduced symbol of events there. The photograph was taken by then-AP reporter Terril Jones and came to light after online discussions of the incident coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. (AP Photo/Terril Jones)

In this early June 4, 1989 file photo, civilians with rocks stand on a government armored vehicle near Chang'an Boulevard in Beijing as violence escalated between pro-democracy protesters and Chinese troops, leaving hundreds dead overnight. The legacy of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square looms larger in Hong Kong than in mainland China, where the Communist Party has virtually erased all public mention of it. In this former British colony, hundreds of thousands attend candlelight vigils each anniversary to commemorate the grim end to the Beijing movement that was vanquished before many of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong's streets were even born. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A student protester puts barricades in the path of an already burning armored personnel carrier that rammed through student lines during an army attack on anti-government demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, early June 4, 1989. A government soldier who escaped the armored vehicle was killed by demonstrators. Pro-democracy protesters occupied the square for seven weeks hundreds died in the early hours of June 4, 1989 when troops shot their way through Beijing's streets to retake the square. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

JUNE 3-4: TROOPS MOVE TO CLEAR SQUARE

Having decided that armed force was needed to end the protests and uphold Communist rule, the leadership ordered in the army, a move that would send in an estimated 180,000 troops and armed police. The commander of the 38th army, who was entrusted with the task, refused to follow orders and checked himself into a hospital. Soldiers faced resistance from Beijing residents, especially in the western neighborhoods of Muxidi and Xidan. Troops on the ground and in tanks and armored vehicles fired into crowds as they pushed toward the square through makeshift barricades. Trucks, buses and military vehicles were set on fire and some troops killed citizens as they vented their rage. As troops closed the cordon around Tiananmen Square, a cohort of student die-hards refused to leave until persuaded to by other leaders, including Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian. City hospitals filled up with the dead and wounded. Hundreds, possibly thousands, were believed killed in Beijing and other cities during the night and in the ensuing roundup of those accused of related crimes. There has never been an official accounting of the casualties.

Chinese troops and tanks gather in Beijing, June 5, 1989, one day after the military crackdown that ended a seven week pro-democracy demonstration on Tiananmen Square. Hundreds were killed in the early morning hours of June 4. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

A man tries to pull a Chinese soldier away from his comrades as thousands of Beijing's citizens turned out to block thousands of troops on their way towards Tiananmen Square early Saturday morning, June 3, 1989. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT A rickshaw driver fiercely peddles the wounded people, with the help of bystanders, to a nearby hospital Sunday, June 4, 1989. PLA soldiers again fired hundreds of rounds towards angry crowds gathered outside Tiananmen Square at noon. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing)

A crowd of Chinese opens hole to give a busload of foreign tourists a view of a dead body Monday morning, June 5, 1989, of victim of the first night of violence as People's Liberation Army troops shot their way into Tiananmen Square to crush pro-democracy protests. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT The driver of an armoured personnel carrier that rammed through student lines, injuring many, lies dead after being beaten by students who set his vehicle on fire during an army attack on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, June 4, 1989. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT The bodies of dead civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in this June 4, 1989 file photo. A leading pro-Beijing lawmaker in Hong Kong insisted that Chinese troops did not massacre people during the bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, in Beijing, local media reported Wednesday, May 16, 2007. (AP Photo)

THE AFTERMATH

The army's crackdown was widely condemned in the West, as well as in Hong Kong, then a British colony, where supporters organized missions to bring those wanted by authorities to safety. On June 13, Beijing police issued a most-wanted notice for 21 student leaders, 14 of whom were arrested. No. 1 on the list was 20-year-old Wang Dan, who was subsequently given a four-year prison sentence but released early. By 1992, most of China's overseas relationships had been restored and Deng used his remaining personal influence to relaunch economic reforms that ushered in a new era of growth while the party ruthlessly enforced its monopoly on political power. The protests, first labeled a "counterrevolutionary riot," are now merely referred to as "political turmoil," when they are referred to at all, as the party tries to suppress all memory of them having occurred. The government has never expressed regret over the killings and rejected all calls for an investigation, leaving the protests an open wound in Chinese history.

Text from the AP news story, A look at key events in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, by Christopher Bodeen.


How a peaceful protest at Tiananmen Square turned into a massacre

Three decades after the historic pro-democracy rally in Beijing, China continues to stifle its commemoration.

Its name means “gate of heavenly peace,” but in 1989 the iconic gate at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square overlooked a scene that was anything but peaceful. Earlier that year, the square had been the site of non-violent pro-democracy protests. But on June 3 and 4, it became a scene of chaos and devastation as the Chinese military mowed down an unknown number of civilians. In the 30 years since the historic protests, China has rarely acknowledged them—and has never apologized for the massacre.

The protest movement began after the death of Hu Yaobang, a Communist Party leader who worked to liberalize Chinese politics, but was ousted from the party in part for his sympathy with pro-democracy students. In the wake of his death from a heart attack, mourning students poured into Tiananmen Square in late April. They began to demand democratic reforms, including an end to press censorship and restrictions on freedom of assembly.

Over the next few weeks, the square drew millions of protestors. In response to their ballooning numbers, China imposed martial law in late May and ousted Western reporters. Then, on the night of June 3, the People’s Liberation Army moved in with orders to clear the square.

The next day, 200,000 troops and more than 100 tanks converged on Tiananmen Square and opened fire. Soldiers used bayonets, clubs, and rifles loaded with expanding bullets. Although students and residents resisted, they were overwhelmed. (Hear from two photojournalists who are still haunted by the massacre.)

The Western world learned of the massacre from smuggled images and secret reports. Among them were videos and photos of Tank Man, an unidentified Chinese man who managed momentarily to stop a convoy of tanks leaving the square on June 5. He is thought to be one of multiple people who attempted to block the tanks. Although his image has become a symbol of resistance, his fate remains unknown.

The extent of the massacre is also unknown. The Chinese government stated that 200 civilians were killed student leaders claim up to 3,400 deaths. In 2017, the United Kingdom released a secret diplomatic cable in which a U.K. diplomat relayed a leaked death count—of at least 10,000— from China’s main administrative body. Some 1,600 people were arrested it would take 27 years for Miao Deshun, thought to be the final prisoner, to walk free in 2016.

An accurate death toll may never come to light. The Chinese government has rarely acknowledged the events when it does, it is only to defend its actions. Although Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall was added to a list of Chinese architectural sites slated for official preservation, the historic events that took place there are not widely known in China.

A Hong Kong museum devoted to the massacre has been repeatedly closed and sabotaged many of its Chinese visitors arrive knowing nothing about the protests. Those who do sometimes refuse to believe the truth, writes The Atlantic’s Ryan Krull. “Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge the events of June 4, 1989, has created a vacuum into which misinformation, ignorance, and revisionism have been allowed to flow.” Meanwhile, China actively censors most online mentions of the incident, and only Hong Kong and Macau have been allowed to commemorate it publicly.

The pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square presented a brief window of hope that China might embrace a more democratic system. “There was a euphoric sense that after decades of tyranny, the Chinese people had found the courage to take full control of their lives and attempt to change the fate of their nation,” recalled London-based Chinese novelist Ma Jian, who attended the protests. “Every person in that crowd was later a victim of the massacre, whether they lost their life on June 4 or survived—their ideals shattered and their soul scarred by fear.”

Now, 31 years after the protests and massacre, China has banned a commemoration vigil in Hong Kong that has taken place since the 1990s. Although the official reason for the ban was to quell the further spread of COVID-19, pro-democracy activists see it as another attempt to quash peaceful protest as China tightens its grip on Hong Kong. Thousands attended the vigil anyway, as the BBC reports. Three decades after Tiananmen Square, commemorating what happened there has become its own form of protest.


Tiananmen Square Protests: Timeline, Massacre and Aftermath - HISTORY

This lecture was delivered by Peter Symonds at the Socialist Equality Party (US) Summer School on July 25, 2019. Symonds is a member of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site and national WSWS editor of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia).

The eruption of mass protests in China from April 1989 onwards, culminating in the brutal military crackdown in the days and weeks after the night of June 3–4, was a crucial historical turning point in China and a key element of the crisis of Stalinism that was underway internationally.

What is referred to as the “Tiananmen Square massacre” was not limited to Beijing and its iconic central square, nor was it primarily aimed against students. It was, above all, directed at suppressing a revolt by the working class against the social consequences of the pro-market policies of the Chinese Communist Party under Deng Xiaoping that were destroying the gains of the Chinese revolution.

The bloody crackdown was to open the door for a vast acceleration of the processes of capitalist restoration, which produced both staggering levels of economic growth, as foreign capital flooded in, but, at the same time, the extreme sharpening of internal social tensions and external geopolitical rivalries, in which China is currently embroiled.

It is necessary to outline, even if only briefly, the course of events that took place 30 years ago. This is not just a question of reviving memories or filling in the gaps for those who were not even alive at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, the scope and revolutionary character of the struggles of workers and youth, which were without precedent since the 1949 Chinese revolution, is more apparent. The CCP regime was shaken to the core and has lived in fear ever since of another convulsive social upheaval.

In 1989, the failure of the pro-market restructuring initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 to bring about political reform, as initially promised, had generated widespread disillusionment among intellectuals and students. Protests had been planned in advance to mark the 70th anniversary of the landmark May 4 movement in 1919, in which student demonstrations against the ceding of Chinese territory to Japan, under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, exploded into a far broader movement for democratic rights.

Plans were changed, however, when Hu Yaobang, former CCP general secretary, died on April 15, 1989. He was regarded as a political reformer and had been blamed for previous student protests in 1986–87. He was accused of permitting “bourgeois liberalisation” and removed as party head, amid fears in the Stalinist apparatus that the student protests would ignite broader social unrest in the working class, as had erupted in Poland in the Solidarity strikes of 1980–81.

The protests to mark the death of Hu Yaobang rapidly expanded into a nation-wide protest movement. Not only did the students call for an explanation for Hu’s ousting, but began to raise other demands: to reveal the incomes of top leaders and their families freedom of the press increased education funding an end to restrictions on demonstrations and democratic elections to replace “bad” government officials. What particularly concerned the Stalinist apparatus was the formation of an Autonomous Federation of Beijing University Students and a Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation.

On April 22, 100,000 people assembled in Tiananmen Square, and one million took to the streets for Hu’s funeral—most of them workers. On that day, the workers’ federation distributed leaflets, condemning the wealth of Deng Xiaoping’s family, the privileges of the bureaucracy and the “shortcomings” of market reform. In particular, they demanded the stabilisation of prices because inflation was running at nearly 30 percent.

On May 4, the numbers in Tiananmen Square swelled to 300,000, with a quarter of a million Beijing workers joining the 60,000 students. Significant rallies and marches occurred in 51 other cities, including Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Changsha and Xian.

The CCP leadership was divided over how to respond. Hu’s replacement as party head, Zhao Ziyang, was reluctant to use force to suppress the protests, preferring to seek dialogue with student leaders. The hard-line faction represented by Premier Li Peng and backed by Deng, pressed for police-state measures to prevent the movement from expanding. Zhao’s efforts to conciliate student leaders, however, were rapidly overtaken by events.

On May 13, just prior to the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev, for the first state visit by a Soviet leader in decades, a group of students marched into Tiananmen Square and initiated a hunger strike until their demands were met. The hunger strike rapidly expanded into an occupation as students, workers and other citizens flooded into the huge square. Many had illusions in Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost or “openness.” The occupation was a major embarrassment to the CCP leaders, who had planned to stage the official welcome in the square and had to switch venues at the last moment.

On May 15, half a million workers and students rallied in Tiananmen Square, despite Zhao’s public pleas not to obstruct the historic Sino-Soviet summit. On May 17, two million people marched in Beijing, many under the banners of their workplace. Eighteen provinces reported large-scale protests. On May 18, in the provincial capital of Hebei, for instance, 150,000 people took to the streets. In Shanghai, 100,000 workers, teachers, government officials, students and scientists turned out.

As one academic has noted:

The significance of the massive demonstrations of mid-May was not simply the enormous numbers of participants but their social composition. Students, along with intellectuals and journalists, now had been joined by groups of Party cadres, government office workers, school teachers, peasants who had marched in from Beijing’s rural suburbs, and, most significantly, hundreds of thousands of factory workers… a month after the first students protests, virtually all urban social and occupational groups were represented among those who marched in opposition to the government. All proudly hoisted their own banners identifying their institutions and work units… It was as if the entire city had spontaneously risen up in defiance of the regime of Deng Xiaoping. [The Deng Xiaoping Era, Maurice Meissner, p.428]

While the CCP bureaucracy could consider meeting some of the student leaders’ demands, any compromise with the working class was out of the question. Their demands for fixing prices, guaranteeing jobs and maintaining social services cut directly across the agenda of capitalist restoration. Moreover, their hostility was to the entire bureaucratic apparatus and the wealth and privileges accumulated by CCP leaders and their family members.

At Deng’s instigation, the Stalinist regime acted. Zhao was sidelined then placed under house arrest. Li Peng announced the imposition of martial law on May 20. However, far from being intimidated, more than a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square the following day and again on May 23. When the army arrived on May 23, thousands of workers and students appealed to the soldiers not to turn their weapons against the people. Many of the troops were moved to tears and even drove their trucks away. The next day, the army divisions from the Beijing region were ordered to pull out, to prevent the soldiers from joining the workers.

Deng was compelled to bring in troops from remote provinces for the bloody crackdown on June 3–4. In the intervening two weeks, the crisis of political leadership among the protesters was evident. The student leaders were divided, with the more conservative layers declaring an end to the occupation of Tiananmen Square, while more radical elements, many of whom had travelled to Beijing from other cities, vowed to stay. Large sections of the working class expressed their determination to defend the students and keep the protests going. Barricades were established in working class suburbs and flying squads on motor bikes coordinated efforts.

The membership of the Workers Autonomous Federation swelled to 20,000. With the authorities in Beijing paralysed, workers started to take matters into their own hands, performing basic functions such as directing traffic. Production ground to a halt as workers participated in the demonstrations. On May 25, one million people held another massive protest in Beijing.

A Federation statement issued the next day declared:

We [the working class] are the rightful masters of this nation. We must be heard in national affairs. We absolutely must not allow this small band of degenerate scum of the nation… to usurp our name and suppress the students, murder democracy and trample human rights.

There was no shortage of courage as the troops moved towards Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, but the major battles took place in the working-class suburbs of Beijing. Only relatively small numbers remained in the square itself. One eyewitness stated, “Armoured vehicles ran over roadblocks, knocked over cars and buses. The unarmed people had only bricks… What they got in return was bullets, a hail of bullets from machine guns and semi-automatics.” [cited in Meissner, p.458]

The whole city of Beijing seemed in a state of outrage and extreme agitation. On the side-streets off Changan Avenue, thousands of us rhythmically shouted in the intervals between gunfire: “You animals!” “Li Peng—fascist!” and “Go on strike!” But the troops shot back, killing those who were not swift enough to squat down or move away or who simply took no heed of bullets. People were constantly falling to the ground and being taken to a nearby hospital, but the mood of indignation completely overwhelmed any feelings of fear. [cited in Meissner, p.460]

Incensed by the killing of unarmed civilians, workers armed with whatever was at hand attacked the military convoys, setting fire to trucks and armoured vehicles. As news of the massacre spread to other parts of the country, protests and strikes erupted, to which the regime responded with mass arrests. While student leaders received relatively light treatment, the full force of the state was brought down on the working class. The regime staged public executions of workers to strike fear into the population.

Determination and raw courage were not lacking, but political leadership was. In the midst of the most acute crisis of the CCP regime since 1949, and an uprising of the working class of an insurrectionary character, there was no revolutionary party and no revolutionary leadership to direct this mass movement. No matter how radical their outlook, the leaders thrown up spontaneously by the movement sought to pressure the regime for reforms, not to overthrow it.

The ICFI responds

In the midst of these momentous events, the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) issued two statements: “Victory to the Political Revolution in China!” on June 8, and “Stop Stalinist Terror against Chinese Workers” on June 22. It not only denounced the Stalinist brutality, but provided a clear analysis of the events, drew the necessary lessons and put forward a political perspective on which the working class could fight the degenerate Maoist bureaucracy in Beijing.

Recognising that the gains of the Chinese revolution had not, at that stage, been completely destroyed, and that China remained what the Trotskyist movement had characterised as a deformed workers’ state, the ICFI called, in its first statement, for a political revolution, to oust the CCP regime, defend and extend the property relations established after the 1949 revolution, and build a genuine workers’ state as part of the struggle for socialism internationally.

Four days after the massacre, the first IC statement declared:

Regardless of the immediate outcome of the present stage of the crisis, the massacre in Tiananmen Square has not ended the political revolution in China. Rather, having now been baptised in blood, the revolution will enter a new and more politically-conscious level of development. The naive illusions that the Stalinist regime could be reformed under the pressure of mass protests have been shattered. The tragic events of the past week have powerfully vindicated the emphasis placed by the Fourth International upon the necessity of the revolutionary overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy by the working class. [Fourth International, Volume 16, Nos 1–2, January–June 1989, p.2]

The statement exposed the hypocritical crocodile tears of imperialist leaders, who were rubbing their hands over the opportunities for foreign capital, and also the lies of the Stalinist regime, which to this day continues to brand the protest movement as counter-revolutionary. While the Western media focussed on the student protests in Tiananmen Square, the ICFI quickly recognised that it was the working class that was the chief target of the regime.

In fact, the mass killings of the past week are the political culmination of a decade during which the Beijing Stalinists have worked systematically to restore capitalism to China and reintegrate its economy into the structure of world imperialism. The main purpose of the terror unleashed by the Beijing regime is to intimidate the Chinese masses and crush all opposition to its deliberate liquidation of the social conquests of the Chinese Revolution. [ibid, p.1]

The consequences of a decisive defeat of the Chinese proletariat by the Stalinist regime — and this has by no means been achieved — would be the complete liquidation of all the remaining social conquests of the Chinese Revolution and the unrestricted reorganization of the economy on new capitalist foundations. [ibid, p.3]

The ICFI’s timely response stemmed directly from the political struggle that it had waged against the renegades of the Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain, and the subsequent development of its International Perspectives document published in August 1988. The WRP had adapted to the very political forces that the ICFI had been founded in 1953 to fight against: Pabloite opportunism, which abandoned the struggle for the political independence of the working class and sought to subordinate the working class to Social Democracy, the trade unions, bourgeois nationalism and, in particular, Stalinism.

The editorial of the January–June issue of the Fourth International, published in the immediate wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, entitled “Trotskyism and the Chinese Revolution,” provided a balance sheet of the ICFI’s struggle against the adaptation of Pablo and Mandel, as well as of the WRP renegades, to Maoism.

The Open Letter written by James Cannon in 1953, which marked the founding of the ICFI, condemned the adaptation of Pablo and Mandel to the Maoist regime in China and their refusal to defend the Chinese Trotskyists, who had been rounded up en masse in 1952 amid sharpening social tensions. Pablo deliberately blocked efforts to publicise the repression of the Chinese Trotskyists and to mobilise support in the international working class. He contemptuously declared: “Compared to the achievement of the revolution of Mao Zedong, the arrest of a few hundred Trotskyists is insignificant.”

In the Open Letter, Cannon wrote:

Particularly revolting is the slanderous misrepresentation Pablo has fostered of the political position of the Chinese section of the Fourth International. They are pictured by the Pablo faction as “sectarians,” as “fugitives from a revolution.” Contrary to the impression deliberately created by the Pablo faction, the Chinese Trotskyists acted as genuine representatives of the Chinese proletariat. Through no fault of their own they have been singled out as victims of the Mao regime… But Pablo’s line of conciliationism towards Stalinism leads him inexorably to touch up the Mao regime couleur de rose while putting grey tints on the firm principled stand of our Chinese comrades.

The WRP leadership opposed the SWP’s reunification with the Pabloites in 1963, but its attitude to Stalinism increasingly resembled that of the Pabloites. From the 1960s, Michael Banda, former national secretary of the WRP, had been praising Maoism—hailing Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard movement and acclaiming Mao’s guerrilla tactics. As the Fourth International editorial stated, the failure of Healy to fight out and clarify Banda’s Maoist proclivities was to have fatal political consequences, as the WRP leadership adapted to Stalinism. In the wake of the split, all factions of the renegades shamelessly promoted the Gorbachev leadership, which was the spearhead of capitalist restoration.

In opposition to those such as Michael Banda who declared the gains of the Russian and Chinese revolutions were irreversible, the ICFI, in its 1988 perspectives document, warned that the Maoist regime in China was rapidly proceeding to dismantle the nationalised property relations established in the wake of the 1949 revolution. It stated:

Throughout Eastern Europe and in China, Vietnam and Laos, the bureaucracies are moving, even more rapidly than in the USSR, to the integration of their national economies into the structure of world capitalism. This process is most advanced in China. The corpse of Mao may still be embalmed for public display, but his legacy is already in an advanced stage of putrefaction. His successors have moved to dismantle whatever existed of the planned economy. Virtually all land collectivized after 1949 has been returned to private ownership, and, under the banner of the government-inspired slogan, “To get rich is glorious,” capitalist relations are flourishing in the countryside.

Just nine months later, the Tiananmen Square massacre was to confirm the counter-revolutionary character of Maoism. The ICFI was the only political party to warn of the dangers and advance a clear Trotskyist perspective for the Chinese working class.

The Fourth International editorial explained:

The two tendencies which opposed each other in the 1985–86 split, today find themselves on the opposite sides of the barricades in the Chinese events. The proletarian internationalist tendency represented by the International Committee defends the struggle of the Chinese workers and students in the name of international socialism and the political revolution. The petty-bourgeois nationalist tendency, represented by the renegade leadership of the WRP, above all, Healy, Banda and Slaughter, solidarizes itself, in one form or another, with the Stalinists.

The Chinese Revolution

Critical to the establishment of a revolutionary party in China as a section of the Fourth International is an understanding of the strategic experiences of the working class in the 20th century, not only in China, but internationally. The IC statement of June 8, 1989 provided a concise summary of the crucial issues in the struggle for genuine Marxism, that is, of Trotskyism in China, against Maoism. It made clear that Maoism was not a revolutionary alternative to Soviet Stalinism, but the Chinese variant, rooted in the same reactionary nationalist program of “Socialism in One Country.”

The evolution of the Beijing regime is a crushing historical indictment of all the petty-bourgeois tendencies which have claimed over the last 40 years that Maoism is not merely a progressive variant of Stalinism, but even a genuine revolutionary ideology that has surpassed the outmoded “orthodox” Marxism of Trotsky and the Fourth International. According to the Pabloites, the most persistent exponents of this view, Maoism demonstrated that the achievement of socialism did not depend upon the construction of an international proletarian party based on the perspective of world socialist revolution. Rather, parties based predominantly on the peasantry or other non-proletarian forces could come to power and then, within the framework of a national economy, carry out the socialist transformation of society. This process did not require—indeed, it precluded—the independent political mobilization of the working class and the creation of its own organs of power…

This argument was, in reality, nothing more than a sophisticated apology for Stalinism in general and the policies of Mao Zedong in particular. It served to legitimize the abandonment of the Chinese proletariat by the Stalinists in the aftermath of the decapitation of the Communist Party, at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek in 1927. From this defeat, which was the product of Stalin’s policy of collaboration with the Chinese bourgeoisie, Mao drew the “lesson” that it was futile to base the development of the revolutionary party on the urban proletariat. Rather, the Communist Party had to base itself on another social force, the peasantry.

The 1949 Chinese revolution was part of the wave of revolutionary struggles in the advanced capitalist countries, as well as in countries of a belated capitalist development, like China, that emerged following World War II. The overthrow of the reactionary and crisis-ridden Kuomintang regime was an enormous blow against imperialism, which had kept the country divided and mired in squalor and backwardness. It expressed the aspirations of the overwhelming majority of the population for economic security, basic democratic and social rights, and a decent standard of living after decades of political upheaval and war.

However, the course of the revolution and the subsequent evolution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), proclaimed by Mao Zedong in 1949, was distorted and deformed by Stalinism, which dominated the CCP in the wake of Stalin’s betrayal of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925–27. Stalin subordinated the very young CCP to the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang, resulting in crushing blows to the Chinese Communists and working class in April 1927, and again in May 1927. CCP leaders and members who supported Trotsky’s analysis of Stalin’s betrayal, based on the Theory of Permanent Revolution, were expelled.

Trotsky warned in 1932 about the CCP’s turn to the peasantry and the potential dangers facing the working class as its peasant armies entered the towns and cities. After the end of World War II and the defeat of Japanese imperialism, the Maoist leadership, following the line dictated by Moscow to Stalinist parties internationally, initially sought to continue the war-time alliance with imperialism and to form a coalition government with Chang Kai-shek. It only belatedly called for the overthrow of the Kuomintang in October 1947. The CCP made no attempt to mobilise the working class, and defended private property as it entered the cities, as part of Mao’s perspective of a “New Democracy” and an alliance with sections of the petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie.

In his writings, Chinese Trotskyist Peng Shuzhi underscored the hostility of the new CCP regime to the working class, noting that strikes by workers over wages and oppressive conditions were met with brutal repression. To cite one of his examples:

At the Ching Hsing coal mines in Hopeh Province, when the workers revolted against the cruelty and arrogance of the Soviet advisers and specialists [in May 1950], the CCP sent a large number of troops to suppress the revolt. There were more than 200 dead or wounded workers and more than a thousand were expelled and exiled to Manchuria or Siberia. [The Chinese Communist Party in Power, Peng Shuzhi, p.132]

The Maoist regime only turned to the broad expropriation of private property and centralised planning, along the bureaucratic lines of the Soviet Union, as a result of the economic crisis produced by the Korean War and the internal sabotage by bourgeois layers, who saw the prospect of “liberation” by US imperialism. It was also in the midst of the Korean War and the growing restiveness of the working class that the CCP rounded up and jailed all of the Chinese Trotskyists and their families, in December 1952.

While the economic steps taken by the CCP initially led to a revival of the war-ravaged economy, its national autarkic perspective of “socialism in one country” inevitably led to worsening economic and social turmoil, and crises for which the CCP bureaucracy had no solution. The result was bitter internal factional warfare and abrupt twists and turns. Mao’s utopian schemes for a socialist society, which underpinned his “Great Leap Forward,” ended in economic catastrophe and mass starvation. His factional opponents, led by Liu Shaoqi, followed the Soviet model of bureaucratic planning with its emphasis on heavy industry, but this provided no alternative. The economic crisis greatly worsened by the 1961–63 split with the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of Soviet aid and advisers, leaving China completely isolated.

Much of the Maoist mythology that various neo-Maoist tendencies draw on today, derive from Mao’s so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was neither great, proletarian nor revolutionary. It took an entirely reactionary attitude to culture—denouncing and destroying past cultural developments—replacing it with Stalinist banalities. In reality, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a last, desperate bid to oust his rivals, whom he branded as “capitalist roaders.” It rapidly spun out of control, leading to confused and convulsive social struggles that threatened the very existence of the regime. When workers in Shanghai took Mao’s edict, “Bombard the Headquarters,” literally and engaged in mass strikes, forming the independent Shanghai People’s Commune in 1967, Mao brought in the military.

The IC statement commented:

The attitude of the Maoist leadership to this eruption of working-class struggle exposed their fraudulent claims about the “proletarian” character of the Cultural Revolution. The bureaucrats denounced the striking workers for succumbing to “economism,” and the chief of the Cultural Revolution Group, Mao’s main mouthpiece during this period, issued a stern warning to the Shanghai proletariat, declaring, “As workers, their main job is to work. Joining in the Revolution is only secondary. They must therefore go back to work.”

While Mao and his faction denounced the “capitalist roaders” and proclaimed their adherence to socialism, they could offer no alternative. Mao’s fantasy of a self-sufficient China had proven to be a disaster. Incapable of resolving the immense economic and social problems wracking the country, and facing a military confrontation with the Soviet Union, the CCP bureaucracy forged an anti-Soviet alliance with US imperialism, which laid the basis for China’s integration into global capitalism. While Deng Xiaoping is credited with initiating market reforms, Mao’s rapprochement with US President Richard Nixon in 1972 was the essential political and diplomatic pre-condition for foreign investment and increased trade with the West.

The turn to imperialism and the capitalist market, however, resolved nothing. Deng Xiaoping, who had been ostracised during the Cultural Revolution as the “No 2 capitalist roader,” was rehabilitated, and after Mao’s death in 1976 emerged as the dominant figure in the Stalinist bureaucracy. From 1978 on, Deng initiated his sweeping “reform and opening” agenda: establishing four special economic zones for foreign investors, dismantling the communes in the countryside, removing restrictions on private enterprise and increasingly allowing the market to set prices. The result was a vast expansion of private enterprise, especially in the countryside the rapid rise of social inequality, looting and corruption by CCP bureaucrats growing joblessness and soaring inflation. It was this social powder keg that exploded in 1989, triggered by student protests over democratic rights.

The Tiananmen Square massacre was a critical experience for the working class in China and internationally, and for the Fourth International. The events in China were completely bound up with the crisis of Stalinism internationally, and were a harbinger of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the rapid collapse of the Eastern European regimes, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The ICFI and its sections intervened aggressively in the protests and demonstrations that took place internationally, before and after the massacre, distributing copies of the ICFI statement, calling for political revolution in China and seeking to clarify the issues among Chinese students and residents. Superficially, it might have appeared that any prospect of political revolution had ended when the tanks rolled into Beijing, but, in reality, the CCP regime was mired in deep crisis, divided as to how to proceed and facing a hostile population.

The immediate result was to strengthen the hand of Li Peng and his supporters, such as Chen Yun, who favoured more limited reforms, a reining in of the market and a slower pace of growth. The debate in Beijing was bound up with the developments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which, this faction insisted, remained the model for China. While Li Peng and Chen Yun represented layers of the CCP bureaucracy, whose privileges were bound up with state-owned enterprises and centralised planning, they were also deeply fearful of a renewed uprising of the working class and blamed the “reform and opening” policies for the Tiananmen Square protests.

Deng, however, insisted that such an approach would result in economic stagnation, and that a dramatic acceleration of market reform was needed. High growth rates were necessary to avoid mass unemployment and prevent social unrest. It is no accident that Deng’s southern tour in 1992, which laid the basis for his renewed ascendency, took place just days after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Deng had won the support of top military figures, who had witnessed the devastation of Iraq in the first Gulf War by American weaponry, and looked to Deng to provide the money and arms to modernise the Peoples Liberation Army. More importantly, his rivals had no alternative economic perspective to offer—a reflection of the utter bankruptcy of the Maoist perspective of “Socialism in One Country.”

China, 30 years on

Thirty years on, the CCP has overcome none of the underlying economic contradictions or geo-political dilemmas. And social tensions, kept in check by a vastly expanded police state apparatus, have only become more acute.

An extraordinary economic expansion has taken place. Between 1992 and 2010, the Chinese economy grew 11-fold. In 1995, according to Wikipedia, China was the eighth largest economy in the world, and by 2011, it had overtaken Japan to become the second largest. These growth rates depended, firstly, on the gains of the 1949 revolution—the creation of an educated and skilled workforce, basic industries and infrastructure—and secondly, on China’s place in the world economy as the pre-eminent cheap-labour platform. After 1992, foreign investment, along with foreign technology and expertise, flooded into the country.

The various commentators, including the pseudo-left organisations, who characterise China as “imperialist,” seize on the economic indices of growth, trade and investment torn out of their international and historical context. It is now becoming increasingly evident that the further economic expansion of China is running up against the long-established imperialist order dominated by the United States.

The US and other imperialist powers were happy to reap the profits of cheap Chinese labour, as long as China’s economic expansion did not challenge their economic and geo-political interests. Under Obama and now Trump, US imperialism is determined to use the full force of its economic muscle and military might to prevent China challenging American hegemony. The constant refrain from the United States is that China must abide by the “international rules-based system”—that is, the existing world imperialist order, where Washington sets the rules.

Amid the accelerating plunge towards war, the CCP is organically incapable of making any appeal to the only social force capable of preventing conflict—the working class, in China and internationally. The Stalinist bureaucracy is far more terrified of a mass movement of workers than the threat of imperialism. Well aware that it is sitting on top of a social time bomb, it spends more on internal security than it does on the military.

The staggering growth of social inequality in China has proceeded hand-in-hand with the looting and privatisation of state-owned enterprises, the demolition of cradle-to-grave welfare benefits and the colossal accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny group of the super-rich. To be among the top 100 on the Forbes Rich List for China, in 2019, required at least $US2.6 billion. Top of the list was Jack Ma, executive director of the Alibaba Group, with a net worth of $38 billion, up $3.4 billion from 2018. The top five richest individuals in China had a combined net worth of $155.9 billion. It is this layer that the CCP represents and with whom it has the closest ties. A number are members of the Communist Party and hold positions on top political advisory bodies.

By contrast, the minimum wage for a worker in China is around $370 a month or $4,440 annually. This, however, obscures the situation facing large sections of the working class, especially the tens of millions of internal migrants from rural areas, who lack basic social rights. Underpayment and non-payment of wages is widespread. Conditions in the factories are oppressive, and often unhealthy and dangerous. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions is quite literally the arm of the CCP bureaucracy in workplaces, suppressing opposition, protests and strikes.

The return of the capitalist market and gross exploitation has also led to a return of the social ills that were largely wiped out after the 1949 revolution—child labour, forced labour, prostitution and drug abuse.

To cite just a few indices:

  • The Global Slavery Index estimates that, on any given day in 2016, there were over 3.8 million people living in conditions of modern slavery in China, a prevalence of 2.8 victims for every thousand people in the country. [Global Slavery Index]
  • No one knows the precise number of sex workers in China… In 2013, the United Nations estimated there were four to six million, citing police sources. The consensus is that there are between four and 10 million sex workers in China. [South China Morning Post, 2018]
  • A 2017 report from China’s National Narcotics Control Commission estimated there were 2.51 million drug users in China, as of late 2016, a year-over-year increase of nearly 7 percent. [Time magazine, 2019]

What then are the political tasks that confront the ICFI today?

Clearly the establishment, or, rather, re-establishment of a section of the Fourth International in China is a key strategic task. The Chinese working class is the largest in the world, according to one estimate numbering 400 million, making it larger than the population of most countries in the world. Moreover, China has been vastly transformed since 1949, and even 1989—it is no longer predominantly a peasant or rural society, but an urban society. The majority of the population live in urban areas, many in huge cities that have either vastly expanded, or did not exist before.

In addition, as the 2016 IC statement on the building of an international anti-war movement made clear, China is a central target of the war plans of US imperialism, as it desperately seeks to maintain its hegemony. An international struggle of the working class against the drive to war must necessarily encompass workers in China.

The working class in China, as internationally, is and will increasingly be part of the resurgence of the class struggle around the world. The very limited figures available indicate rising levels of workers’ strikes and protests. The fact that a layer of students from elite universities have turned to these struggles, and been detained for their involvement, is a sign that the struggles will take on a political character.

The clearest indication of the extreme social and political tensions inside China is the extraordinary power that has been concentrated in the hands of President Xi Jinping—now president for life. As the ICFI declared in its perspective in March last year, Xi is a Bonapartist with Chinese characteristics, mediating between rival factions of the CCP bureaucracy and, above all, strengthening its vast police state apparatus to suppress all criticism and opposition.

To this day, the Stalinist regime has resisted all calls to revise, in any way, its assessment of the events of June 1989, or to politically rehabilitate its victims. On the death on July 22 of Li Peng, who declared martial law 30 years ago, the official state-owned Xinhua newsagency declared: “Comrade Li Peng took a firm position and together with the majority of comrades in the Politburo adopted resolute measures to halt the turmoil and quell the counterrevolutionary rebellion.”

This amounts to a warning that the troops can be called out again, against the working class. It is not a sign of strength, but of great weakness, and will lend to the class struggle a particularly explosive character.

As the outcome of the 1989 protests makes clear, our tasks are, above all, to clarify the theoretical and political perspective that must guide a movement of the working class. It is necessary to examine and differentiate the program of Trotskyism, based on socialist internationalism, from the many and various critiques of capitalist restoration in China, which are all grounded, in one way or another, on Chinese nationalism. That task is made more difficult due to the lack of first hand materials, which is compounded by the regime’s all-pervasive censorship. Moreover, all of these oppositional political currents—the New Left, the neo-Maoists—are very heterogeneous.

Central to clarifying Chinese students, workers and intellectuals are the questions of history—the key strategic experiences of the international working class, of which the revolutions in China are a crucial component. From the discussions we have had with Chinese students in Australia, it appears that very little or nothing is known about Leon Trotsky and Stalin’s betrayal of the 1925–27 Chinese Revolution. Any knowledge of the 1949 Revolution and subsequent developments, such as the Cultural Revolution, is refracted through the propaganda and lies of the Stalinist regime.

We do know that a layer of youth, intellectuals and workers have turned to Maoism, and its banal “revolutionary” slogans, for answers. Capitalist restoration in China, however, was not a break from Maoism. It flowed organically out of the dead-end of “socialism in one country.” Maoism, or Chinese Stalinism, was characterised by its hostility to the independent mobilisation of the working class, its emphasis on subjective will, and above all its putrid nationalism. It is diametrically opposed to genuine Marxism, that is, the perspective of socialist internationalism, which alone was upheld by the Trotskyist movement, including the Chinese Trotskyists.

We can be confident that there will be Chinese workers and youth seeking the political means for fighting the CCP regime in Beijing, and the capitalist system that it defends, and who will turn, for the necessary internationalist perspective, to the International Committee.



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