By Harry Glass (at Workers Liberty)
On 4 June 1989 the Chinese Communist Party savagely repressed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement that had grown to threaten its rule over the previous three months. The student-based protest had occupied Tiananmen Square at the heart of Beijing.
The Tiananmen movement has been remembered in 2004 as an overwhelmingly student-based protest movement, well summed up by the iconic image of students defying the tanks of the Chinese army.
But, though students took the lead in establishing the encampment in the square, it was ultimately the intervention of the working class that was of lasting significance.
At the beginning of the protests in May 1989, students did not generally seek working class support, confining the workers’ headquarters to the far side of the square until the end of the month.
But as the students were pulled towards the internal machinations of the ruling party, backing the “reformist” faction within the bureaucracy, the workers struck out on the road to independence.
One of the first signs came on 15 May, when 70,000 steelworkers at the Capital steel plant struck in solidarity with the Beijing democracy movement.
In fact, 1989 marked the rebirth of the working class as a powerful force in Chinese politics.
The Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation began organising on 17 April, before coming out publicly on 18 May.
Workers’ federations spread across many major cities, and incorporated steel workers, builders, bus drivers, machinists, railway workers and office staff.
A small core of around 150 activists managed to register 20,000 workers in those five weeks, including workers in state-run factories such as Shougang (Capital Iron and Steel) and Yanshan Petrochemicals.
They denounced the Communist regime as “this twentieth century Bastille, the last stronghold of Stalinism”.
After the declaration of martial law and the bloody massacre, the student movement went into decline. But the workers’ movement gained in strength and expanded far beyond the confines of Tiananmen Square.
Workers’ Autonomous Federations were established in Changsha and Yueyang in Hunan province, in Shanghai, Chengdu, Hangzhou and Guangzhou in the south.
The number of strikes and the dip in production figures measure the extent of workers’ involvement. Whilst the regime claimed that workers remained aloof, the workers’ organisations suffered the fiercest attacks in the press, and workers faced the severest repression in the crackdown.
Internal documents from the state-run “union” ACFTU admit that the Tiananmen protests were about working class political independence.
And 1989 was not the end of workers’ organisation and struggle.
In 1991 Liu Jingsheng and others set up the Free Labour Union of China. It was suppressed in 1992 and its founding members are still imprisoned.
In 1991 the Ministry of State Security investigated 14 underground workers’ organisations, with between 20 and 300 members, two modelled explicitly on Solidarnosc.
In 1994 Li Wenming and Guo Baosheng were detained for trying to establish an independent union and publishing “Workers’ Forum”.
In the same year Liu Nianchun helped found the “League for the Protection of the Rights of Working People” for which he was sentenced to three years re-education-through-labour after two years of “home surveillance”.
In 1998 Hunan worker Zhang Shanguang applied to the local government for permission to register a laid-off workers’ organisation, the “Association for the Protection of the Rights of Laid-Off Workers”, and was sentenced to 10 years.
In 1999 Yue Tianxiang and Guo Xinmin established the “China Workers’ Monitor” in Gansu province, for which they were sentenced to 10 and two years.
In the same year in Henan province, Xue Jifeng was arrested for organising an independent union. The government put Xue into a psychiatric hospital.
The number of disputes skyrocketed between 1992 and 1999. Official statistics showed 14 times more labour disputes by 1999 compared with 1992, from simple contractual disagreements to work stoppages and strikes.
Collective disputes also increased rapidly, involving 250,000 workers in 1998. Besides unrest over wages, disputes involved unpaid pensions to laid-off employees, poor working conditions and the fraudulent sell-off of state enterprises.
A new wave of the independent labour movement began in 2002.
More than 80,000 workers in northeastern China organised a fight back in state-owned enterprises.
Fifty thousand oilfield workers from Daqing and another 30,000 workers from the metal and other industries in Liaoyang launched street protests, road blockades, pickets, sit-ins and negotiations for over three months.
The leader of the Liaoyang protests, Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang still languish in Lingyuan Prison, a huge penal colony located close to the border with Inner Mongolia.
The Chinese working class is now an awesome force, with as many as 200 million industrial workers in what is now the world’s second largest economy.
Chinese workers still face repression, and are still tied down by Communist party rule and the ACFTU. But the memory of Tiananmen and the efforts to organise cannot be wiped away.
The massacre marked the turning point – we can only hope that Chinese workers will soon have their revenge on their oppressors.
For more information, see articles on the China Labour Bulletin website.
“We were all crying, running and crying”
This eyewitness account was published in a Taiwan newspaper at the time
I am a student in Qing Hua University. I am 20 years old. I spent last night sitting on the steps of the Monument to the Heroes of the People. I witnessed, from start to finish, the shooting and suppression by the army of students and citizens.
Many of my students have already been shot dead. My clothes are still stained with their blood.
We knew early on in the evening that the troops intended to suppress us. After a discussion we took some measures. We did our best to avoid a bloodbath.
We had 23 sub-machine guns and some incendiary bombs that we snatched from soldiers during the previous two days. The “autonomous students’ union” called a meeting and decided to return these weapons forthwith to the martial law troops, to show that we intended to promote democracy by non-violent means. We liaised with troops about this, but an officer said that he was under higher orders not to accept the weapons.
So the negotiators failed. The union told everyone in the Square that the situation was extremely grave and that they wanted students and citizens to leave the Square.
But there were still 40-50,000 students and about 100,000 citizens determined not to go.
After midnight dense lines of steel-helmeted troops ringed the Square. Despite the darkness you could clearly see the machine guns mounted on top of the History Museum.
[At about 4.30 am] A detachment of soldiers came running from the East entrance of the Great Hall of the People. They were carrying light machine guns. The machine gunners lay down on their stomachs. When all the guns were properly lined up, a great mass of soldiers, and armed police wielding electric prods, rubber truncheons and some special weapons of a sort I’d never seen before, suddenly rushed us.
The soldiers and the policemen started laying violently upon us Armoured troop carriers and an even greater number of troops joined the siege. The troop carriers formed a solid blockade except for one gap left open.
The sound of machine guns started up. Some troops were kneeling down and firing. Their bullets whizzed above our heads. The troops lying on their stomachs shot up into the students’ chests and faces. We had no choice but to retreat back up onto the Monument.
When we reached it the machine guns stopped. But the troops on the Monument beat us back down again. As soon as we had been beaten down, the machine guns started up again.
The whole square was in massive chaos. [There was nowhere to escape the gun fire.] I was running and weeping. I saw a second batch of students running off from the machine gun fire. I saw lots of people lying on their stomachs on the road that we tried to escape along.
We were all crying – running and crying. When we reached the front gate we were suddenly confronted by a batch of troops who came running towards us from the direction of the gate. They did not open fire. They beat us furiously with big wooden staves.
A large crowd of citizens came pouring out of the front gate. They clashed violently with those troops. They protected us while we escaped in the direction of Beijing railway station.
A history of struggle
The Chinese working class had a tremendous history of militant revolutionary struggle in the 1920s, before it was beaten down and slaughtered by the old bourgeois dictatorship of Chiang Kai Shek, and by the Japanese invaders after 1931.
Stalinism led the Chinese working class to one of the most terrible defeats ever experienced by the working class.
The working class was overwhelmed when Maoist peasant armies conquered the cities in the late 1940s. The Chinese working class played little role in the Maoist revolution, and no independent role at all. The working class was repressed for decades.
Since the “market reforms” of the Chinese “communist” regime, starting in the 1980s, investment and industry including vast sweatshop industries have grown. The Chinese working class is the biggest on earth. And it is beginning to fight back.
Report from Amnesty International, here