In 1989 students in Beijing sparked an upheaval that drew in millions of ordinary workers, and spread all across the country, writes Mark Goudkamp

Thirty years ago protests in Tiananmen Square shook China for six weeks. The upheaval spread far beyond students, and well outside Beijing.

Things were ripe for an explosion across China by 1989.

There was deep anger at economic reforms, with runaway inflation, skyrocketing unemployment in the State Owned Enterprises and rampant official corruption. Students saw their education system as grossly inadequate.

The death of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang on 15 April 1989 proved to be the spark. He had supported political reforms and been removed from the party leadership in 1987 after supporting an earlier student movement.

On the day of Hu’s official funeral, 150,000 people filled the square, defying the ban on protests. Three students knelt on the steps of the Great Hall of the People, trying to present a petition to the top leaders inside. They waited in vain for more than ten hours.

The regime responded with an editorial in the official mouthpiece People’s Daily that denounced the protests, carried out by an “extremely small” number of people intent on “overthrowing the proletarian dictatorship, socialism and the Communist Party”. It called on “the people” to suppress them by “every possible means”. 

This backfired badly, galvanising a wave of support for the students.

Another huge demonstration of 200,000 students filled the square, and marched around the city for 14 hours. Students shouted “long live the workers” as they passed building sites, while workers banged their lunch boxes shouting “long live the students”.

One bystander, quoted in student leader Li Lu’s Moving The Mountain, recalled, “More than a million people stood along the way, hailing the demonstrators and giving them lemonade and bread.” Li added, “No matter where I went, when people knew or guessed I was a student, they would give the V (for victory) sign and shout, ‘Long Live the Students’.”  

Some in the West have portrayed the movement as one for democracy and free market capitalism. Yet it was The Internationale that became the anthem on the barricades.

The movement grew and spread to over 400 cities across China, while protesters turned Tiananmen Square into a well-organised camp with food, first aid and protester-run checkpoints.

On 29 April, the government held a televised dialogue with the official students union. But those in the square condemned this as a sham. The Independent Students’ Union of Beijing Universities called on the government to talk with their representatives. The government replied that they wouldn’t have dialogue with an “illegitimate, unregistered group”.

However, cracks were emerging within the regime. Zhao Ziyang, Communist Party General Secretary, told a meeting of the Asian Development Bank that the students’ slogans were “by no means opposed to our basic system”. Zhao also pressured the state media to report the demonstrations more positively.

On the centenary of the May 4th Movement another huge protest of 200,000 filled the square. It was joined by many workers. Some 800 journalists approached the square from East Chang’an Avenue carrying banners: “Journalists support the students; Don’t force us to tell lies. We renounce them”; and “The April 26 editorial was not written by us”.

Workers’ participation tended to be ignored in Western reports.

But a newly formed Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation (BAWF) sought to connect with anger among workers. At their headquarters adjacent to the square, thousands of workers attended meetings about wages, workplace democracy and political representation. Grievances like inflation and shortages that were impacting on workers’ lives were raised.

Academics Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia argue that while some student leaders tended to see themselves as assisting “liberal reformers” within the Communist Party leadership, the BWAF were critical not only of the “hardliners”, but also the “reformers”. 

One of their activists wrote: “There are people who divide the government up into factions: the reform faction, conservative faction, new authoritarian faction, moderate faction. The way I see it, the Communist Party is all one faction, the ‘harm the people’ faction”.

As the movement looked to be ebbing, a group of students launched a hunger strike on 13 May, and within a short time 2000 were participating. The strike galvanised Beijing and brought the movement into sharp conflict with the regime.

The students knew that the world’s cameras would be in Beijing for Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic visit–the first by a Russian leader since the Sino-Soviet split of 1962. It was meant to be a major diplomatic coup for the regime.  Instead officials had to sneak Gorbachev into the Great Hall of the People via a side door.

Numbers swelled to a million, as workers marched into the square in organised groups from workplaces. The following day, there were two million.

Workers brought banners from the Capital Iron and Steel Factory, Beijing Petrochemical Company, Capital Hospital, Xidan Department Store Workers, No 1 Machine Tool Factory, the People’s Bank of China, the Ministry of Railways and others. Even 1000 members of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Logistics Department were there.

In at least four other cities, students organised sympathy hunger strikes, including 30,000 camped out in central Shanghai. There were sympathy marches in dozens of cities.

Tens of thousands of students were flocking to Beijing from across China, and rail workers provided them with free travel. Li Peng complained, “There is complete chaos in Beijing. Moreover, the turmoil has spread throughout the country.”

In the early hours of 20 May the government declared martial law. Between 180,000 to 250,000 troops were brought to Beijing.

An initial attempt to occupy Tiananmen Square without the use of force failed, after thousands of people blocked troop convoys. The troops withdrew.

Following this, as two eyewitnesses wrote in Britain’s Socialist Worker, the city was “entirely in the hands of the people. Though the atmosphere is tense, there is no drunkenness, no looting and no violence”.

Workers across Beijing built barricades at major intersections leading to Tiananmen Square.

“The barricade won’t stop tanks”, the eyewitnesses wrote. “The idea is to halt and slow up moving troops to allow people to argue with the soldiers and turn them back. The barricades are to stand in front of, not behind…

“People talk of five million people, over half the entire population, out on the streets yesterday. Most of them are workers.”

On the barricades, and in the square itself, women came to the fore as organisers and leaders. One eyewitness estimated the crowds were 40 per cent female. There was a huge sense of comradeship, with the police and the state seemingly absent.

The Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation now became increasingly pivotal. Its membership grew, and it took a high profile in organising the resistance to martial law.

Some students recognised the strategic importance of workers. Student Siu Chong told reporters, “Only if the workers stop steel production and the power stations and the railways can we bring these people down. There are not enough soldiers to keep the vital industries running. The workers have the power, let the workers have their say.”

However, the majority of student leaders rejected the BAWF’s call for a general strike. Many of them still hoped to win support from “reformers” inside the Communist Party, and feared that involving workers would lead the regime to crack down.

Not until the end of May did the students even allow BAWF into the square to protect them. And only after military action was underway did students run to the workers’ headquarters asking them to call a general strike. It was too late.

On 29 May students erected the “Goddess of Democracy” statue in the square, and a new hunger strike began. But the state was preparing to crush them.

From around 10pm on 3 June, tanks, armoured cars and troop carriers burst through the barricades, firing into the crowds that came out to oppose them. It was the working class people living in the densely populated blocks leading to the square who bore the brunt of the army’s advance. Although they had few arms, workers tried to oppose the troops with whatever they had. Numerous burnt-out tanks showed the extent of the resistance.

When the soldiers reached Tiananmen Square, there were still crowds of student protesters. They agreed to withdraw, but the army fired on them as they left.

There were credible reports of large numbers of troops deserting, and of deserting units being killed by other troops.

Across China sympathy demonstrations exploded. Huge crowds occupied city centres, called for strikes, and fought the police and army. Over 180 towns and cities saw disturbances serious enough to report to Beijing. And in Hong Kong a million people, a sixth of the population, marched in protest.

Savage repression followed, with 30,000 people arrested by the end of the year, and several thousand killed. Many were publicly executed.

Seven of the government’s 21 most wanted student leaders were smuggled out of China. Leaders of the Beijing Autonomous Workers Union managed to evade capture for several weeks.

The repression came down hardest on workers who had fought back against the army—execution, long prison terms, and beatings under interrogation.

In the 30 years since China’s economy has grown enormously, but also produced astounding levels of inequality and corruption, breeding deep wells of discontent.

There have been small outbursts of workers’ struggle, such as the strike wave of 2009-12. Last year dozens of student activists supported striking workers at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen, only to face harsh penalties.

With the largest working class in the world, and an economy that is beginning to slow, the potential for a new movement to emerge that challenges China’s rulers remains.

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