June 4, 1989 is an anniversary the Chinese government wants its people to forget.
Sparked by the mid-April death of Hu Yaobang, a former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, students started gathering in Tiananmen Square in the days that followed. Hu was seen as a reformer by students and soft on “bourgeois liberalism” by party leaders, threatened by his call for term limits.
The student protests set in motion another force the regime truly feared, China’s working class — which is why Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader after Mao’s death in 1976, was willing to use deadly force to stop the struggle in its tracks. This fear is still apparent today, as the Chinese state has gone to — and continues to go to — great lengths to erase this history from memory.
The expansion of higher education in the 1980s was a necessary component of China’s plan to advance its economy. But an unwanted side effect of higher rates of education is that people may start to independently act on the ideas they develop.
The first marches in Tiananmen by students in mid-April 1989 only numbered in the hundreds. Demands quickly expanded from clearing the name of Hu, to an anti-government corruption campaign, to the freedom to speak out and publicly protest. Students on each campus organized committees of five to seven people to represent their schools, which linked up to form a citywide structure. Posters appeared in the capital stating that the wrong person had died, an obvious reference to the eighty-four-year-old Deng.
George Katsiaficas, the author of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, gives a flavor of what students organized:
With Hu Yaobang’s funeral scheduled for April 22, government leaders wanted Tiananmen Square kept clear, and they thought it would be a simple matter to do so. They planned to close the square before the funeral, but autonomously organized students outsmarted them. On the night of April 21, about sixty thousand students gathered… and marched in [to Tiananmen square] singing the Internationale and chanting, “Long Live Freedom!” and “Down with Dictatorship!”
Protest numbers swelled to hundreds of thousands by late April, bolstered by arrogant public condemnations and threats by government officials. Students organized a protest on the seventieth anniversary of the May 4 movement. On May 13, a student hunger strike was called. On May 17, a million people protested in Beijing, during a visit from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev no less — which was doubtlessly embarrassing as Gorbachev’s trip signified the beginning of an end to a thirty-year-old Sino-Soviet split.
Michael Fathers and Andrew Higgins described the scene in Tiananmen: The Rape of Peking:
Shaven-headed Buddhist monks paraded in yellow robes. Schoolchildren thrust tiny fists into the air, led by their teachers in chants of ‘long live democracy, down with corruption.’ Workers arrived from Beijing Brewery, the Capital Iron and Steel Works and the Beijing Jeep Corporation… Of all the slogans, placards and flags on view in and around Tiananmen Square, the most worrying for the leadership was surely the long red banner carried by short-haired men in uniforms. “The People’s Liberation Army,” it announced in gold letters.
The efforts of the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Union prefigured struggles by workers decades later, affected by the hastened economic changes that took place in post-1989 China. Demands around working conditions and pay, the corruption of political officials, and most importantly a willingness to take collective action are all hallmarks of more contemporary working-class struggles in China.
As their grievances were focused through a lens of an ostensibly socialist society, their words bit sharply, a reflection of the gap between lived experiences and their supposed rights as workers.
Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xioxia quoted one of their leaflets, which read, “we have calculated carefully, based upon Marx’s Capital, the rate of exploitation of workers. We discovered that the ‘servants of the people’ swallow all the surplus value produced by the people’s blood and sweat.” A later flier stated, “fellow workers, tyranny is not frightening, what is frightening [to the tyrants] is a general rebellion under tyranny.” In a society that elevated workers’ rights rhetorically, the task of pointing out this contradiction was easy.
With workers and some soldiers openly marching in the streets alongside students, the government’s concerns about its survival were realized. Marshall law was declared on the evening of May 19, and soldiers were brought in.
One such soldier was Chen Guang. He grew up in Henan province and had joined the military a year prior at sixteen, lying about his age so he could pursue his true interest in studying art at the university level. Chen was sent to the capital with an eventual 250,000 other troops, many of whom were farm kids who had never been to the capital before.
Interviewed by Louisa Lim for her book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Chen recalled, “we weren’t scared, we thought it would be fun, we felt that going to Beijing would be more fun than doing drills at base.”
Students and Beijing residents resisted the advance of the soldiers. Methods ranged from appealing to them on the basis that they are called the People’s Liberation Army, and therefore should not be used to repress the people, to clogging the streets and making them unpassable.
Chen remembers that “the students were very friendly, with bright smiles. Their spirit was welcoming …. All at once you felt like you hadn’t understood this society. Does China really have that many corrupt people? Is there so much injustice? You suddenly started to think about these problems. Before that you didn’t have that kind of consciousness. Though you couldn’t talk to the students, their words had an effect on your mind.”
But orders came down to clear the square with force, and from the evening of June 3 through the morning of June 4, the square was vacated of protesters by armed soldiers. Chen was overwhelmed with anxiety which made him unable to hold his rifle steady, so he was given a camera to document events instead. He recalled initially witnessing things from too far away, and didn’t fully understand what was happening until later in the day.
Lim’s book vividly describes how the unit that Chen belonged to was tasked with restoring “the square to normality by expunging any trace of what had happened. All the possessions left behind by fleeing students were to be heaped into big piles and burned: battered bicycles, bags of belongings, tents, banners, and the crumpled papers of their speeches. By then it was raining, and rivulets of black water from the sooty piles ran across the square, darkening its surface. These were the scenes that Chen Guang captured with his camera. Some of the negatives he kept; others he hid, propelled by some instinct he could not explain.”
It is unknown how many were killed in the repression — estimates range from three hundred to a thousand. It took fifteen years before Chen confronted what he had participated in; he has worked through it by painting about it in secret. In the days before the twenty-fifth anniversary, he held a performance in his studio in May 2014. The government discovered the event, and Chen was punished by having his art seized and spending thirty-eight days in detention.
The 1989 protests were not limited to Beijing, also taking place in dozens of other cities. Outside of the capital, there were hundreds of deaths in Chengdu when police violently repressed protesters. The fear from Deng’s regime of an escalating student and worker uprising were well-founded, but where their collective struggle could have eventually gone will remain unknown.
On the Left, some still defend the repressive actions as both overstated in Western media and a necessary response to a counterrevolutionary threat. Liberation News recently reposted an article by Brian Becker from five years ago entitled “Tiananmen: The Massacre that Wasn’t.” The article asserts that the “goal of the US government was to carry out regime change in China and overthrow the Communist Party of China …. If counter-revolution were to succeed in China the consequences would be catastrophic for the Chinese people and for China …. In the confrontation between world imperialism and the Peoples Republic of China, progressive people should know where they stand — it is not on the sidelines.”
This sort of binary thinking, where the only choices are to either support China or the United States, provides neither useful analysis nor a way forward for activists.
Political cover for the Chinese state is particularly ironic for leftists to provide, as one of Deng’s most well-known quotes is, “to get rich is glorious.” This mistake has its origin in viewing the October 1949 revolution, and everything that followed, as bringing about a socialist society in China. While the forced removal of colonial powers followed by the expulsion of the gangster Chiang Kai-shek was something that should be absolutely supported and cheered, this should not be confused with the establishment of new economic order where farmers and workers were collectively and democratically running Chinese society for their own interests.
A ruling-class minority continued to exist and thrive under Mao. They economically exploited the vast majority of the population and politically repressed any dissent.
We can both condemn the repression of June 4 and recognize the support that protests received from the Western powers via media outlets as rife with hypocrisy. Just thirty years prior, the United States government was coordinating the violent repression of a section of its own population during the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War struggle — to say nothing of how its own armed forces have murdered others in countless countries, or that it has rarely met a repressive regime it was not willing to finance towards its own foreign policy aims.
President Xi Jinping’s continued repression of the Uyghurs and his multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative demonstrate China’s current priorities as continued repression of minorities at home, and the expansion of economic powers abroad — a familiar playbook close to home. China’s ruling class should not be seen as a progressive force internally, providing an alternative model for economic development, or a counterweight to US military aggression internationally.
Many Western thinkers believed that China’s economic success would not get far without adopting a more liberal, democratic political framework. The regime has succeeded in this regard mainly by trading off overall raised living standards and general opportunity for greater political freedom. This model presupposes continued growth, which is untenable in the long term, and may bring their overall method into question and possible failure.
Parallel to the recent widening of interest in socialist politics and activism here in the United States, the resurgence of an interest in Marxism as an activist philosophy among Chinese students shows the way forward. Students who are members of Marxist Student Association at Beijing University have been involved in organizing and supporting workplace struggles, such as those at Jasic Technology, a company with factories near Shenzhen. Twenty-one student activists have been detained in just the last few weeks, a testament to the threat this solidarity poses.
As Sara Nelson, the leader of the Association of Flight Attendants who helped end Trump’s government shutdown, told a crowd at a recent Democratic Socialists of America event in Chicago, “Our lives and our well-being are completely tied together with workers in Mexico and Canada, China and Germany.” This sentiment is a welcome alternative to the otherwise left-wing union leaders and politicians who have accepted the nationalistic logic of Trump’s trade wars. A better future will be born through alliances between students and workers, within China and across borders.