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.