Twenty Years on from Tiananmen Square Massacre

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, or as the Chinese refer to it the June 4th Movement (六四运动).

The popular narrative is a simple one, a brutal Communist Dictatorship cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrators, and it is taken for granted that the protesters were all demanding a Western-style, consumer-capitalist democracy.

The truth is rather more complicated. The 1980s saw economic and social stagnation, and a moral and intellectual exhaustion after the tumult of the Mao era. It is necessary to understand that the political context of that time was one of general disorientation, and far from there being political repression of intellectuals in the 1980s leading up to Tiananmen Square, there was a close symbiosis between Communist Party reformers and academia, with reform ideas being sounded out in the universities and then adopted as government policy.

Generally there was an empiricist mindset, expressed by first party secretary, Zhao Ziyang, who said “the river should be crossed one step at a time”, but there was almost no discussion on what was on the other side of the river. The 1980s were also characterised by a flowering renaissance of cultural, literary and artistic creativity, but rather shallow political and social analysis. Indeed, market reforms were being introduced piecemeal in an adventurist way, without being incorporated into an explicit government plan: the aim of a “socialist market economy” was not adopted until the 1992 Fourteenth Congress of the CCP.

Impatience with this state of affairs was growing among many intellectuals, both in Academia and the CCP, with a predisposition to accept the neo-liberal equation between political and economic liberty. An example of this trend today is Zhang Weiying, a right-wing economist who praises liberal democracy as a mechanism for removing constraints on the freedom of businesses, following Hayekian concepts that the anonymous decisions of the “economically rational man” working selfishly and unconstrained by the state will lead to the greatest social benefit.

But the reform process was on an inherently unstable social trajectory, because political liberalism would hit the buffers of the entrenched political interests of the CCP, and indeed the widespread ideological acceptance that CCP rule is a necessary aspect of maintaining national unity and independence; at the same time economic liberalism would clash with the economic and social interests of the working class, (and to a much lesser degree the peasantry) who benefitted from the full employment, price regulation and social benefits of the “iron rice bowl”

The June 4th Movement was a spontaneous eruption of all the competing tensions, starting with students and intellectuals using a memorial march for CCP General Secretary Hu Yaobang on 15th April as a pretext for a pro-democracy protest. It must be understood that the dominant strand of these pro-democracy protesters was actually demanding not free multi-party elections, but an acceleration of privatisation and deregulation; for which Western democracy had become identified among the intellectual class.

It also has to be said that the vast majority of China’s population, the rural peasantry, were at this time benefitting from the economic reforms, following the decollectivisation of agriculture from 1979 to 1981, that saw sharply rising living standards – so the June 4th movement, was an overwhelmingly urban movement, and insofar as it represented a political challenge to the CCP, one which probably could not have united the nation even if it had itself been ideologically united.

At the time of the protests in 1989, the CCP were already introducing economic reforms to the manufacturing and urban economy. Zhao Ziyang was for the second time bringing in adventurist price reforms that deregulated the cost of basic necessities, at the same time as getting workers to sign agreements that cut their wages, and factories were laying off workers. So the economic reforms were experienced as a direct attack on the working class.

Another thing that needs to be understood is the long standing tradition in Chinese culture of mass participation in direct democracy, dating back to Imperial times, where people demonstrate to lobby bureaucrats and officials. This remained a vibrant aspect of Chinese life even through the Mao era, and today there are demonstrations and lobbies all across China every day, often very large. The protesters twenty years ago did not share the view of Western commentators that they were challenging the authority of the CCP, as protests were not unusual, even though this one was on an unprecedented scale.

So when the pro-democracy protests on 17th April culminated in defiance to the government, and Beijing students occupying Tiananmen Square, this became the catalyst for a huge explosion of working class protest. Left intellectual Wang Hui argues that the working class majority in these protests were not “pro-democracy” but anti-capitalist. They wanted an end to the price reforms, an end to growing inequality and the conspicuous wealth of the new entrepreneurs, they wanted to defend the social safety net of the Iron rice-bowl, and they wanted to defend full employment.

Paradoxically therefore the June 4th Movement expressed polar opposites of political objectives, and the working class were demanding the cessation of the process that the students were arguing should accelerate.

The other factor, is that in 1989 the rule of the CCP was actually very secure. The power of the party rested not only on its 70 million members, but they had mass support from the recently enriched peasantry, and the Peoples Liberation Army and Peoples Armed Police, also have strong links with the countryside. The Tiananmen Square protests were allowed to continue due to power struggles within the higher levels of the party, with different factions seeking to use the situation for their advantage. Zhao Ziyang expressed support for the protests, by which he meant he supported the pro-democracy, pro-economic liberalisation wing of the protests, and he prolonged the situation seeking to use this to strengthen his hand within the Politburo. Others in the party (the so-called “conservatives”) supported the socialist aspirations of the working class protesters; and nifty footwork by Deng allowed him to use the crisis to consolidate his power further, by playing both ends against the middle, and once his manoevering was complete using shock and awe repression to close the uncertainty down.

Indeed the splits went even into the army, and when repression came, the garrison of the Beijing area were not used, as they supported the pro-working class, anti-market aspect of the protests; so the 27th and 28th armies of the PLA were brought in from outside.

The bloody repression of 1989 was a terrible atrocity, and also led to a wave of political oppositionists going into exile abroad, and many also being sentenced to administrative exile in rural areas of the PRC. But the repression was actually relatively short lived, certainly compared to the anti-rightist purges by Deng in the 1950s. Although there was some continued circumspection, academic criticism continued within China, and the main consequence was intellectual disorientation rather than actual prohibition or censorship. The pro-democracy liberals bounced back quite quickly.

However, the suppression of the 4th June Movement was a lasting defeat for the working class in China, which has experienced in many areas a catastrophic decline in wealth, security, employment and housing.

12 comments on “Twenty Years on from Tiananmen Square Massacre

  1. Incidently, two SW members, D*ve Sellars and J*lia Richmond, happened to be in beijing during the protests and gave eye witness reports to Socialist Worker, that were often perceptive, and stressed the working class nature of the protests, and for example the fact that the protesters were always singing both ‘La Marseillaise’ and the Internationale over and over again.

  2. bloated plutocrat on said:

    Andy, I think the unanimous view of less starry eyed observers than the SW pair was that the singing of the “Internationale” was ironic. The alternative view would be that the demonstrators were motivated by revolutionary socialist views, which your piece correctly points out was not the case.

  3. #2 Not at all.

    The majority of the workng class protesters were there to defend the social gains of the revolution, the “iron rice bowl” from that assault by Zhao Ziyang’s price reforms.

    As such, singing the Internationale is perfectly consistent with the view that most protesters wanted to preserve the historic socialist traditions of the CCP against market reform.

  4. bloated plutocrat on said:

    So what kind of determinism explains the countless references in contemporary accounts of students singing the “Internationale”? The motivation was much more mundane – to counter the state propaganda that the students were bent on subversion and anarchy by stressing symbols and songs approved by the regime, like the “Internationale” and the national anthem. Demonstrating workers would have been far more likely to employ the many slogans and songs of the Maoist era if egalitarianism was their concern.

  5. #4

    Are the two mutually inconsistent?

    Certainy the argument that singing the Internationale is “ironic” which is what you originally said at #2 is inconsistent with what you are now saying they were singing it to stress that they were not actually oppositional to CCP rule.

    In any event, this is a distraction, that doesn’t fundamentally obscure the fact that there were two different trajectiries in an essentially confused and spontaneous set of protests, none of which offered a fundamental challenge to the rule of the CCP, but did represent polarised attitudues to the reforms.

    Whether the Internationale was to demonstrate loyalty to the regime, or to the social gains of the past, we can never at this stage know.

  6. chjh on said:

    I remember singing The internationale with Chinese students on the support demos in London. It wasn’t ironic at all – people sang it because the words expressed what they felt, which was the necessity of rising up against an oppressive government. The students also sang the Chinese national anthem, with a particular emphasis on the line Arise! Arise! Arise! in between the first and second verses.

    My guess, and the impression of comrades who were there, was that the same was true in Beijing and elsewhere – it was an expression of rage and defiance, which was why both students and workers sang it.

    Andy’s right about the movement not being ideologically united, but by the same token, the pro-Western thinktanks were far less important in the movement than they were in the Western press. One early mass meeting in Tiananmen Square debated and voted down demands for more privatisation, because of concerns about how it was affecting bother workers and peasants.

    Andy overestimates the stability of China in 1989, though. Price inflation in late 1988 and early 1989 was the worst since the early 1950s, and the CCP leadership was openly split about their way forward. The repression precipitated an economic crisis (between the summer of 1989 and the summer of 1990, the Chinese economy actually shrank), but there was a crisis of strategy from the mid-1980s onwards.

  7. #6

    Thanks chjh.

    I don’t dispute the instability of the Chinese economy, nor the fractured nature of the CCP leadership; but my point is that CCP rule was itself relatively stable – and the prolonged duration of the 4th June movement protests was a function of the leadership’s paralysis, and faction fighting in the politburo, rather than evidence of them represeting mass social forces seeking to replace the CCP.

  8. bloated plutocrat on said:

    Well I realise that irony is not a strong point of the far left, but the use of officially approved anthems to express opposition to the regime would seem to me to merit the epithet “ironic”. I have no doubt that both the Internationale and the national anthem were potent expressions of the need to revolt against an oppressive regime for your students, chjh, but that is all. The Internationale was popular with all demonstrators of all ideological shades and was not the anthem of some kind of proletarian socialist current as Andy wishes to claim. This is reminiscent of some of the worst Trotskyist wishful thinking of the whole 1989-90 period.

  9. Stan Smith on said:

    In none of these democracy movements in the Soviet bloc did the working people in those countries get what they wanted after they removed the Stalinist leaderships from power. Their living conditions have worsened everywhere. If this democracy or “democracy” movement had won in China, would the result be the same – ie, worsening conditions for the people there and increasing US imperialist domination over their countries?
    Those protesters in China in 1989 showed mind-boggling naivety towards US imperialism. They also held up that disgraceful vendepatria Gorbachev as one of their heroes.
    I do notice that the same media and same people who praise the Dalai Lama and call for “freedom” for Tibet also want to “remember” Tiananmen. They are no friends of China or of the working class struggle.

  10. Charlie on said:

    I agree with you Stan Smith. The USA’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID and the CIA fund the Dalai Lama and his government in exile of elite nobles who were former slave owners. You can check out the NED’s website for details of the funding of the Olympics protests. The NED only funds elites and top down democracies. They aren’t interested in real grass roots democracy. The concept of a god king now there’s an obstacle to democracy. The USA was behind the Tiananmen protests too and the CIA fed the initial fabricated death toll of 2000 to the media. The actual figure is likely to have been in the hundreds.

    The mainstream media did not cover the events of Tiananmen properly. Instead they chose their usual path of propaganda. Here are some unreported facts. The Chinese government cut a deal with the students to allow them safe passage out of Tiananmen square. A Spanish film crew filmed the last of the students to leave the square. Not one person was killed in the square itself. Tanks never ran anyone over. The battles between the people of Beijing (including unemployed workers and other locals as well as students) and the army took place in the streets around Tiananmen.

    The protesters refused to relinquish control of the streets and the army was ordered to move in. There were some eyewitnesses who stated that a few protesters were armed but I haven’t seen any evidence of this. However a battle took place in which protesters threw molotov cocktails setting fire to army vehicles and buses. You can see all the burning vehicles on the media footage but very little is shown of the protesters attacking. Some soldiers were burned alive and others were beaten to death. Violence quickly spirals out of control and innocent people were also shot. Obviously there were violent people on both sides. I wonder if the protesters had suceeded in overthrowing the governement if they would have been any better than the government. The majority of the students had returned to their Universities before the fighting began.

    I wonder if the mainstream media will ever tell the truth about what happened that day. I doubt it somehow. We don’t get aniversaries of the massacre of 7 million people in Vietnam, of the massacre of 28000 Taiwanese by their government, of the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, of the massacres of millions in the congo, not to mention Iraq, Afganistan and Pakistan. The mainstream media is too corrupt.

  11. It is quite mistaken for leftists to identify the student protesters as pro-democratic; pro-liberal,rather. Democracy means the rule of the poor and unpropertied and the way they secure this is selection by lot.The U.S. in contrast is an oligarchic despotism, not a democracy. Elementary analysis will confirm this. I recommend Cockshott’s'Towards A New Socialism’,for those seeking a fresh path that breaks with the Leninist concept of the party, which history shows results in a new bourgeoisie, as Mao predicted.