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John Passant

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June 2014



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Tiananmen Square: lessons for the future for the Chinese working class

Students in Tiananmen Square, 1989 (Pic: Zheng Lianjie)

Twenty five years ago, late in the evening of 3 June and into the morning of 4 June, Chinese tanks and troops stormed Tiananmen Square, killing thousands of occupiers. The demonstrators only crime had been to campaign for democracy.

The death of Hu Yaobang sparked the revolt. Hu was a reforming leader who lost power in 1987 for being “too soft” on student demonstrators.

150,000 students went to his funeral demanding his posthumous rehabilitation. The calls widened to include demands for democracy and an end to corruption.

The movement grew rapidly and after a period of unrest throughout the country students and workers occupied Tiananmen Square. The Square became a focus for the democratic and working class movements in China.

The movement was not just a student one. John Gittings is a China expert and wrote for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. He described the ferment in the month before the massacre this way:

Beijing in May 1989 was a city transformed. In the streets there was a sense of comradeship mixed with excitement that so many people – workers and ordinary citizens – had found their voices. The [government] seemed paralysed and the streets belonged to the masses.

After a month of unrest, the Government on 19 May tried to reassert order. Prime Minister Li Peng declared martial law and ordered troops into Beijing to clear the protesters. He failed.

70,000 workers in the city’s Capital Iron and Steel works went on strike. The Underground workers cut the power off and halted the progress of troops into Beijing.

Workers and students built barricades around the city. The barricades were designed not to stop the soldiers but to slow their progress. This meant ordinary Chinese people could argue with the soldiers and get them to join the revolt.

Many soldiers did join the workers and students. Beijing was on the brink of revolution. One eyewitness at the time described how “for 48 hours now the city of Beijing has been entirely in the hands of the people.”

5 million people were on the streets of the capital. They were in charge. Everywhere people sang the Internationale as a symbol of their commitment to a better world and to mock the false socialism of their rulers.

Workers began to organise a general strike. Student leaders argued against it, saying it was not in “the national interest.”

The students won the argument, and there was no general strike. The moment of insurrection was lost. The hard-liners in the Government seized their chance.

Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng sacked Zhao Ziyang, who sided with the demonstrators. They then ordered the brutal attack on the demonstrators in Tienanmen Square.

The hard-liners knew that the democracy movement was a challenge to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and like all dictators they responded with guns.

The vast majority of those killed were not the students occupying the square, but workers. The army shot its way through the barricades, and then fired at random into working class estates. By the time the army got to Tiananmen Square, most of the killing had already been done.

John Gittings described the scene in the Square:

The tactics were brutally simple. Armoured personnel carriers formed the spearhead while soldiers on foot shot to kill from both sides.

Repression defeated the revolt. But force cannot keep the Chinese people in servitude forever.

The 1989 democracy movement arose out of the very success of the Communist Party’s economic reforms. It is the continuing massive growth of the Chinese economy and with it the Chinese working class which ensures that in the future there will be new and stronger democratic challenges to the rule of the Communist Party.

To paraphrase Marx, the Chinese Communist Party is creating its own gravedigger – the Chinese working class.

The changes to Chinese society have been monumental.

When Mao won power in 1949, China was a peasant country. The working class was small, and played no part as a class in the Chinese Communist Party’s victory. The revolution was nationalist, not socialist.

The essence of Mao’s economic policies was to replicate Stalin and use the state in an attempt to industrialise the country. Under this state capitalism the state is the collective embodiment of capital, extracting surplus from the working class, and dragging the country up by its bootlaces in the crude accumulation of capital.

Historically it appears state capitalism can be quite successful – for a while. Stalin’s version turned peasant Russia into a military superpower. But state capitalism outgrows itself, and the ruling “communist” elite, recognising the economic stagnation their model eventually produces, begin to look for new ways of growing.

Thus under Deng Xiaoping the Chinese Government moved away from Mao’s Stalinist state capitalism to a guided market economy. The consequence has been a massive restructuring of Chinese society.

The workforce in China today is over 900 million. There are hundreds of millions of workers, many of whom are concentrated in the major cities. In addition, the country now has a thriving middle class and millions of students.

Growth in China appears to be slowing.Inflation is on the rise. The dictatorship itself admits it needs at least 8 per cent growth to prevent major social unrest. Certainly many millions of workers in the cities have returned to their villages because there is no work in the cities.

China is linked to the world economy. Almost a quarter of its GDP comes from trade with other countries. After the global financial crisis that trade partially stalled, and has not returned to pre-GFC levels.

Twenty five years after the massacre, with unemployment in urban areas growing, with corruption endemic, with little faith in the dictatorship and with the Chinese working class the mainspring of China’s growth, the situation is more favourable objectively for the democracy movement now than in 1989.

For example, already this year there have been big strikes and demonstrations across the country.  They are often bought off.

Tiananmen Square was a dress rehearsal for the future. The Chinese working class has a material interest in democracy. It has the strength to overthrow the corrupt and bankrupt butchers in Beijing and their sons and daughters.

Having done that the Chinese working class will be forced to take the revolution beyond bourgeois political demands and threaten capitalism in China itself. Then and only then can we talk about genuine socialism, the self-emancipation of the working class through its own democratic organs to organise production to satisfy human need, not to make a profit.

Like all posts on this blog, comments close after 7 days. You can make a comment or see what others are saying by hitting the comments link underneath the heading.



Pingback from Tiananmen Square: lessons for the future for the Chinese working class | OzHouse
Time June 3, 2014 at 9:11 pm

[…] Jun 03 2014 by admin […]

Comment from Kay
Time June 4, 2014 at 8:45 am

An article that does not coincide with the socialist cry to destroy capitalism can be found in The Economist, June 1 2013, titled ‘Towards the end of poverty’:

It contains the following comments about China: “Its economy has been growing so fast that, even though inequality is rising fast, extreme poverty is disappearing. China pulled 680m people out of misery in 1981-2010, and reduced its extreme-poverty rate from 84% in 1980 to 10% now.” So, the story about China is essentially positive.

The article also makes the point that the UN’s goal “of halving global poverty between 1990 and 2015 was achieved five years early.” The article further claims that “Most of the credit, however, must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow—and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution.”

China has shown in the past a remarkable ability to generally progress its economy, and by extension, to progress the wealth and lifestyles of its people. No doubt there will be challenges ahead, but I am confident China can continue to rise to the challenge.

I was in China shortly before the Tiananmen massacre. At the time the world was astonished at the rapid collapse of the USSR, and the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Sadly, the Chinese government chose to clamp down in a very severe manner, and many lives were lost, rather than risk the complete disintegration of its own government and economy. Was the government right – as seen from the long term outcomes? Perhaps so, even though short-term personal preservation would have figured high in the government’s decision the clamp down so heavily. Despite my very strong commitment to democracy, and my strong support of the Tiananmen protesters at the time, it seems that for the population as a whole, they have fared better over time than the population of the former USSR.

It always amazes me that socialists still believe that their longed-for socialist revolution would produce outcomes different from those observed in the former socialist/communist countries. Now you call it “state capitalism”, but it was based on the same ‘bible’ you follow today – Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’. Why would your outcomes be different???? The greed and sloth inherent in human nature still exist.

Comment from Chris Warren
Time June 4, 2014 at 10:17 am


I was in China shortly before the Tiananmen massacre.

What was your cover story?

Comment from Kay
Time June 4, 2014 at 2:29 pm


For heavens sake – I was on a holiday plus visiting friends – March/April 1989. Happy?

Comment from paul walter
Time June 5, 2014 at 7:04 pm

I recall it brewing and remarking that the kids had better go carefully.. they had the old men feeling a bit cornered and frightened and they might “lose it” and lash out.

I had a bad feeling for days before it happened and groaned watching it.
Not because the students and other activists were wrong, they wanted the oligarchs to come good on their promises.

But they misread the gerontocracy just a little and it happened.

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