Jun 10, 2019
Translated from Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the French revolutionary workers’ group of that name.
Thirty years ago, in 1989, Deng Xiaoping, head of the Chinese state, sent the army to clear Tiananmen Square in Beijing, on the night of June 3rd to 4th. 100,000 students had occupied the square since mid-April of that year. This massacre put an end to a two-month political standoff by a movement which demanded “a fifth modernization,” by which they meant a multiparty democracy.
For ten years, Mao Tse-tung’s successor Deng Xiaoping led a policy of opening the Chinese economy to the capitalist market. He opened special Economic Zones to attract western industrialists, encouraged personal enrichment and fostered the development of a Chinese capitalist class under the aegis of the state. Economic liberalization accelerated the widening of the social gulf between the newly rich and the immense mass of poor people in the country.
These reforms, the so-called “Four Modernizations,” were carried out under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, without any loosening of the political regime. Corruption, speculation and inflation took off.
In 1949, Mao succeeded in reunifying China against the pillage of the imperialist powers by harnessing the revolt of the peasant masses. But his Communist Party was communist in name only; it was, above all, a nationalist party.
Deng’s reforms did not have unanimous support within the Chinese Communist Party. Some leaders feared they might provoke social revolts and destabilize the country. Deng maneuvered between currents. As a concession to the conservatives, he fired reform-minded Prime Minister Hu Yaobang in 1987. It was Hu’s death in April of 1989 that touched off the student revolt. Students in Beijing called for reforms, in particular for democracy and the freedom to have multiple political parties. Their professors demanded salary increases. On April 21st, 100,000 students occupied Tiananmen Square, which was quickly blockaded by police. Giant political posters were thrown up in the Square and on high school and college campuses in Beijing and other cities, flourishing with slogans hostile to Deng.
The revolt barely touched the workers, much less the peasants – but it was popular nonetheless. 1989 was the same year that Russia and the Eastern Bloc shook under the impact of Gorbachev and Perestroika. This spurred the revolt in China. Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing in May brought with it a horde of journalists, giving the revolt international visibility.
After several weeks of hesitation, Deng Xiaoping decided to send the army against the students in Tiananmen Square, who had gone on hunger strike. The troops stationed near Beijing were thought to be unreliable, so 22 regiments were mobilized to encircle the capital.
The massacre, with students crushed under tanks, had a big impact in the West. The image of a lone man blocking a column of tanks circulated around the world. The regime claimed 600 had died; the Chinese Red Cross estimated 2,500. The leaders of the great powers may have lightly denounced the method used, but the massacre did not slow trade with China.
China’s political stability over the thirty years that followed Tiananmen, the absence of social unrest in spite of the obvious exploitation of the workers, goes far in explaining why China became the workshop to the big western conglomerates. General Wei Feng, China’s defense minister, acknowledged as much in Singapore recently. Asking himself why the world reproached China for “not having acted correctly in that event,” he concluded “thanks to the measures taken at the time ... China has enjoyed stability and development.” A cynical truth.
In China, the regime has done everything it can to erase the 1989 revolt from the collective consciousness. Those survivors of the massacre not able to flee the country, were condemned to long prison terms. Ex-detainees and family members who try to keep the memory alive are hounded. One of the leaders of 1989, Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, died in prison in 2017. State repression and control of the population seems to have increased under current president Xi Jinping.
This has led some commentators to say that revolt is no longer possible in China. One French journalist explained that the Chinese “had renounced freedoms in exchange for an improvement in their living standards.” What scorn! If many students in 1989 took places within the ruling apparatus, others – lawyers, historians, journalists – have worked alongside China’s interior migrants or persecuted minority populations, despite grave risks.
As for workers, who in China are counted in the hundreds of millions, they fight. They fight locally: to be paid their wages, they fight factory closings, they fight the bosses’ corruption. It’s precisely because they represent an immense collective force that the regime and its western accomplices fear their potential for revolt. Exploitation and the crisis of capitalism will provoke the Chinese working class in the end, in spite of dictatorship.