Twenty-five years on: What will another Tian’anmen Square uprising look like?

Twenty-five years ago, on 4th June 1989, the Tian’anmen square movement was brutally smashed by the rifles and tanks of the Chinese troops. It was a heroic movement of the Chinese people in a struggle against the bureaucracy in general, and more specifically against the lack of democracy, corruption, and the negative impact of the market economic reforms.

Having been started on 15th April by hundreds of students in Beijing in memory of the death of Hu Yaobang, the former CPC General Secretary and a liberal reformer, the movement later spread to wider layers of the population and to dozens of cities all over China. The oppression under the regime led to the hunger strike of students which drew in millions of sympathising citizens – workers, intellectuals, civil servants etc. They put forward more concrete demands in the movement, and bravely made the troops to temporarily withdraw.

However, the movement failed, not only because of the brutal oppression on the part of the regime, but also because of its own weaknesses. As we have pointed out in previous articles, one major weakness of the movement is that the working class did not participate in the movement independently, let alone lead the movement. They only joined in support of the students when they went on hunger strike and against the military oppression when the news came out that the troops would come into Beijing. Although the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation was established on 19th May, it was a loose organisation without solid foundations in the working class at the time (although it had huge potential if the movement had not been smashed by the regime).

cromacom-tiananmen flag waverLed by the students and intellectuals, the movement limited itself mainly to democratic demands, including reassessing Hu Yaobang, publishing information on the incomes of state leaders and their families, media freedom, freedom to protest, increasing funding for education and wage increases for intellectuals. With the joining in of Beijing citizens, the demand of anti-corruption and anti-bureaucracy was added. But it was not explained how this should be achieved, apart from hoping for the government to solve the problem itself. cromacom-pla in beijing 1989As there was little sign of the regime’s willingness to compromise, the Beijing Independent Student Union, Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation and Hunger Strike Council later changed the demand to “National People’s Council to hold interim assembly and recall Li Peng and Yang Shangkun”, as well as for anti-martial law demands.

sixfoureightynine-beijing civilians mount tankOverall, it was a confused movement with different groups coming onto the stage putting forward even contradictory demands. Students, intellectuals, workers, civil servants, journalists all came onto the streets at certain points. People were angry about the economic and political situation then, especially towards corruption and the increasing wealth gap, but did not know exactly how to make a change and in which direction to go.

Background of the movement

The confused nature of the movement is a reflection of the stage of development of China at that time. In 1989, after a decade of pro-capitalist reforms, China had reached a crossroad.

Economically, a series of initial reforms which started in 1984, including the double-track pricing system, decentralisation of fiscal responsibility to local government and reform of state owned enterprises, had achieved good economic figures, but had also brought massive inflation and economic instability which were affecting people’s everyday lives. Since January 1987, CPI [Consumer Price Index] had been increasing by more than 5% for 26 consecutive months, reaching 28.4% in February 1989. The plan to introduce price reforms led to panic buying. The inflation caused the fall of living standards for the majority of people. In 1988, the average wage increased by 19.7%, but the cost of living increased by 20.7%. (China Economic Yearbook, 1988)


Meanwhile, the economic reforms had also brought large-scale corruption. The double-track pricing system enabled the officials or people with connections to get materials at plan price and sell them at market prices, and thus make huge profits from this. It is estimated that in 1988, the overall difference between market prices and plan prices amounted to 356.9 billion Yuan, equivalent to 30% of GDP, most of which went from the state pockets into private pockets. The State Council alone set up 700 companies in a short period of time to participate in this large-scale primitive accumulation of capital. (Wang, 2011)

The reform of state owned enterprises gave more power to the factory directors, as well as enabling the use of material incentives to “improve workers’ enthusiasm to work”. This actually worsened labour relations. According to a survey carried out by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions among 450,000 workers in 1986, 38.56% thought the relationship between workers and the cadres had worsened, 31.58% thought it had remained the same, and only 26.37% thought it had improved.

The problem then could be solved in two ways: either to go further down the path of capitalist restoration (which could only temporarily solve the problem), or to go back to planning the economy but this time under genuine workers’ control. What we have to remember is that after the Cultural Revolution, most workers who had risen up against the bureaucracy had been put in prison. And the majority of people had become politically apathetic after years of disoriented mass movements and lack of improvements in living standards. After coming to power, Deng was working on so-called “democratic” construction through legalisation, although in reality the regime gave people little freedom to protest and demonstrate, and deleted the right to strike from the 1982 constitution. “Socialism” and “class struggle” were no longer attractive and were consciously played down by the bureaucracy, which prepared the way for democracy and liberalism to gradually gain dominance as ideals, especially among the students and intellectuals.

Students, who were the main body of the movement from the beginning, remained reluctant to get the working class involved. On the one hand, they thought that putting forward workers’ demands would make the movement no longer a “pure” student movement, and therefore more likely to be smashed by the regime. On the other hand, the university students back then were part of the elite of society, and had a tendency to look down upon the workers.

Because of these circumstances, the student movement in 1989 was able to spread to other layers of society, whereas the student movements in previous years had failed. But it was carried out in a confusing way – the idea being that “socialism” seems unable to solve the problem, maybe we should try something else like liberalism.

25 years of economic miracle, same problems

The failure of the Tian’anmen Square Movement caused huge demoralisation among the youth and workers, which temporarily cleared all the political obstacles for China to march towards capitalism.

From 1992, after a couple of years of stabilisation, China began to build the so-called “Socialist Market Economy”, through the reform of the finance/fiscal/price system to replace the planned economy with the market economy, the reform of social security and the employment system to form the labour market, and the development of the private sector. Between 1997 to early 2000, China smashed the State-Owned Enterprises planned system through massive lay-offs. The remaining SOEs from now on would act as capitalist companies, albeit state capitalist. By joining the WTO in 2001, China was integrated into world capitalism.

The development in the past 25 years has been seen as China’s economic miracle. China has become the world’s largest manufacturer, and the second largest economy with its GDP increased almost tenfold. But despite all the “miracles” capitalism has brought, the problems, which the Chinese people were fighting against in 1989, have not been solved and have even become worse.

Corruption, despite the government’s campaigns to fight against it (Jiang’s “Three Emphases” Education campaign, Hu’s campaign to Maintain the Advanced Nature of Communist Party Members), has never been eliminated, but rather has flourished. Families of the top leaders have accumulated huge wealth, which can be seen from the New York Times’ exposure about Wen Jiabao’s £1.68 billion family wealth and various “big tigers” caught in the current anti-corruption campaigns. Local government officials, doctors, academics, and all those who have power are all enmeshed in the web of corruption.

Inflation has now come back after the implementation of a RMB¥4 trillion stimulus package in 2009. The CPI increased by 5.9% in 2010, 90% of which was contributed by food and housing prices. Although the growth of the CPI slowed down subsequently according to official figures, this goes against the daily experience of most Chinese families. According to a recent survey by Shanghai Jiaotong University, 58% of people think the pressure on everyday life comes from inflated prices, and 41.1% think it comes from low family incomes.

The wealth gap has never stopped widening. The GINI index [the standard economic measure of income inequality where zero expresses perfect equality and 1 expresses maximal inequality] increased from 0.324 to 0.412 in 2000. The National Statistics Bureau stopped publishing this figure for a decade. In 2012, it published the GINI index for the past ten years. It reached the highest 0.491 in 2008, and gradually fell to 0.474 in 2012. However, the reliability of the official figure is being questioned. For instance, for 2011 the official figure is 0.481, while the UN figure is 0.55. China has gone from one of the most equal countries in the world to being one of the most unequal countries, which proves that Deng’s “let some people get rich first, others will be brought along” is a complete lie. A 2011 survey from China’s South Western University of Finance and Economics found that in 1995 and 2002 China's top 10% of households respectively controlled 30% and 41% of wealth, but by 2011 the top 10% controlled 86% of household wealth and accounted for 56% of household income.

The growth of capitalism in China has not vanquished the economic instability but has actually built it up on a higher stage. The massive overproduction (exacerbated by the global economic crisis), the government debt problem, and the housing bubble put the Chinese economy in a precarious situation. Li Keqiang on the one hand insisted that the stimulus plan will exacerbate these problems, while on the other hand he still implemented the so-called micro-stimulus in order to prevent the economy from collapsing immediately. All the measures to prevent crisis now will only build for a crisis on a larger scale in the future.

Lack of democracy is still the case. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of protest and demonstration only exist on paper. In reality, censorship has never been stricter. Online anti-government and anti-party comments are deleted, and websites banned. Sensitive words, for example the name of the leadership and the Tian’anmen Square Protest, are filtered – all the search engines do not come up with any results for these words. People who have conducted some anti-government and anti-party behaviour will be invited to “drink tea” with the police. Mass incidents always see a huge police presence, and usually result in detainment of the organisers and even the participants. According to China Labour Bulletin, the proportion of strikes in the first quarter of 2014 that have attracted a police presence was 45%, up from 11% only one year ago. Left-wing and right-wing groups are always under surveillance.

What will another Tian’anmen Square Movement look like?

Although the old problems remain, many conditions have changed, which will shape “the next Tian’anmen Square Movement” into a very different form.

The attractiveness of capitalism has been undermined, as the restoration of capitalism has not solved the old problems, and led to new problems, such as environment and food safety. There is anger among all layers of society, even certain capitalists who are worried about the safety of their wealth. Ironically, the contradiction between people’s growing material needs and the backward social productive forces, which was used as the justification for the “Socialist Market Economy”, has now evolved into a new one, the contradiction between people’s growing material needs and the advanced social productive forces. The growing class contradictions domestically and the most severe capitalist crisis worldwide, have led a few people to start questioning capitalism, and looking back to socialism.

University students are losing their elite status. On the one hand, the expansion of university enrolment has produced the largest ever number of university graduates. In 1990, there were 613,600 university graduates. This year, there will be around 7 million students graduating from university. On the other hand, China’s capitalism does not need that many highly educated workers, as China’s capital mainly relies on international monopoly capital for technology, and tries to cut the cost of research and investment. Last year was the hardest year ever for university students to find a job. And a survey shows that in 2012 the salary of more than 69% of university graduates is fewer than 2000 Yuan, less than the average monthly income of migrant workers.

A new generation of students is now looking to Marxist ideas, studying real Marxism, and the history of the Russian and Chinese revolutions. The students are also looking to the working class, to the former SOE workers, and they also work in the factories during vacations, thereby the discussions taking place among the students spill over into the working class. Although there has not been any major student movement since 1989, and despite the fact that the events of 1989 are banned from discussion, the students still remember 1919 and 1989, in which they took the lead. And workers today very often say that if the students were to take a lead now, they would all follow!

The most important change is the change in the class balance of forces. The rapid development of China’s capitalism has seen the formation of the bourgeoisie, but also the formation of its grave-diggers, the largest working class in the world. In 2012, China had 0.6 billion non-agricultural workers. According to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2002, about 80% of these non-agricultural workers consisted of proletarianised wage workers.

The increasing strength of the Chinese working class lies not just in numbers, but also in consciousness. The number of workers’ struggles has been increasing year after year. According to the China Labour Bulletin, up to mid-April, the number of strikes and protests has increased by 1/3 over the same period last year. This is partly because of the closure of factories caused by the global economic crisis, and partly because of the increasing demands of the workers. Workers are not only passively fighting to get their salaries back, but are also demanding real, democratic trade unions, the repayment of social insurance, and the increase of wages to above the minimum wage.

asm-strike copyASM strike

The growth of the strength of the Chinese working class is well demonstrated in two of the recent strikes. Last October, 5000 workers in Shenzhen ASM electronic company went on strike for 22 days. During the strike, the workers displayed very high levels of organisation. They put forward demands based on the experience of the Yantian Dock Workers’ strike, set up a strike fund, organised picket lines, protected the core leaders by electing several layers of representatives, linked to other factories under the same company and even organised an essay/poem competition. This April, the workers in Yue Yuen factory organised the largest strike in recent Chinese history with 60,000 workers participating. The demand to repay social insurance, which the company never paid in full or even did not pay by cheating, is of great significance. As the first generation of migrant workers are entering retirement age, this will become one of the most important demands in the coming struggles.

yueyen-strikeYue Yuen StrikeRecent strikes have seen a heavier police presence and harder police interventions than previously. For example, the Yue Yuen strike was ended by the police going into the workshops with police dogs to force workers back to work. During this process, the workers have lost their illusions in the government, and come to the conclusion that they can only rely on themselves and need to unite with other workers. Most active workers in the strikes were sacked, which means they will go to other factories with their experience and consciousness.

labor-chare-gdpLabour share of GDP - Click to enlarge

The Chinese working class is finding its way to fight for its rights under the brutal dictatorship, and is constantly building up its strength. Despite all the good wishes of the government and the liberals, there is very little room for concessions. Since 2008, whilst being hit by the crisis, the bourgeoisie still has had to increase the income of the workers, because of the struggle and the shrinking working age labour force (see the labour income share of GDP figure). However, this concession is still not enough. The latest migrant workers survey shows that in 2013 for the 268.94 million migrant workers in China the average monthly expenditure increased 21.7% whereas the average monthly salary only increased 13.9%. Significantly, Guangdong, the province which is facing the majority of the workers’ struggles, is trying to establish a legalised wage bargaining system in order to put the workers’ movement under control. However, this is facing huge opposition from the bourgeoisie. Bosses’ unions and famous capitalists from Hong Kong have been writing letters to government departments and officials and publishing articles in the newspapers criticising such a move.

With the likely slowdown of the Chinese economy, the class struggle will be intensified. The working class, which has already started moving ahead of all other layers of society, will be the most resolute and strongest class to lead the struggle. If there is another Tian’anmen Square movement, irrespective of who starts it, there is no doubt that the working class will be the main force dominating the movement in the fight against the bourgeoisie and their representatives in the government.

Feng Congde, one of the leaders of the 1989 movement, once concluded that that movement lacked a solid ideology, had neither programme nor blueprints, and therefore was unable to guide the anger that had accumulated for decades to form a powerful force. 25 years later, with the growth of the Chinese working class and the revival of Marxism, the next Tian’anmen Square movement is much more likely to have a clear socialist banner and a solid socialist programme to guide the massive anger of the people built up under dictatorship over decades and to overthrow capitalism and shake the world! To make sure this will happen, the Chinese Marxists need to take up the huge responsibility lying on their shoulders – to overcome all the obstacles, to develop their forces, to connect to the working class, and to get prepared!

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