10 years on: assessing Tiananmen today

This article tries to answer to the following important questions about the Tiananmen Square movement: What was the character of the movement of April - June 1989? What were the programmes and policies of the main tendencies? Could the disaster of the capitalist path have been averted in any other way than the way chosen by Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and the leadership at that time?

The Tiananmen events of ten years ago are the subject of serious consideration inside China today.

It seems that the majority of people generally accept the official stance that the protests had to be suppressed. If not, the argument goes, China would have experienced a similar collapse to the USSR and much of Eastern Europe. Stability and economic growth, which returned to China shortly after 1989, have enabled the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to maintain their rule and raise the living standards of the majority.

It is true that had China taken the path of Eastern Europe or the USSR, towards the restoration of capitalism under the cloak of a multi-party system and "parliamentary democracy", things would be worse than today. Chinese society would have been thrown backwards by decades.

There are three central questions that Chinese students and workers looking back to the Tiananmen events need to ask:

  1. What was the character of the movement of April - June 1989?
  2. What were the programmes and policies of the main tendencies?
  3. Could the disaster of the capitalist path have been averted in any other way than the way chosen by Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng and the leadership at that time?

On the character of the occupation of Tiananmen Square 1989

The protests in Tiananmen were primarily focused on demands against corruption, greed, nepotism and arbitrary bureaucratic rule. When students occupied the square, they created a focal point for the urban workers to vent discontent on these issues, which were also their primary concerns.

Inflation was rising fast and undermining rises in living standards. Increasing inequality since 1979 was in obvious contradiction to the official adherence to the Communist worldview, and in sharp contrast to the super egalitarianism of the late years under Mao Zedong. All these issues sparked the anger of the street protests and the occupation of the Square. At no stage did the protests generalise anti-Communist slogans or demands. This is not to say that pro-capitalist forces were not present.

Official historiography in 1990, presented an image of capitalist corporations like Stone, working in co-operation with right wing members of the Party like Zhao Ziyang, to guide student leaders into foolish acts which risked destabilising China and bringing "Great Chaos', such as we later saw in the USSR.

This however is only one side of the story. Leon Trotsky said that revolution is the forcible entry of the masses into governing their own destiny, in this sense Tiananmen was undoubtedly a revolutionary rising, but a half completed, incoherent, disorganised and compromising leadership can shipwreck the greatest of revolutionary opportunities.

The Students

The students in China are a tiny elite section of the urban population, huddled 4-8 to a room in campuses, they have traditionally reflected societal crises before any other section of the population.

Many of the student leaders on Tiananmen were pro-capitalist, wrongly believing that Capitalism and democracy are inextricably connected. Most of the famous leaders became openly pro-American after they fled China. During the protests they sought compromise and co-operation with the CCP leadership and had illusions in the ability of the "reform" section of the leadership headed by disgraced leader Zhao Ziyang to bring "democratisation".

Zhao Ziyang was removed from office after warning the students of the impending armed suppression of the occupation. However by no means were all the students in favour of "capitalist democracy".

On Tiananmen Square in the days before the Army cleared it using tanks and rifle fire, many students wanted the leadership removed. They condemned the student leaders for driving the workers away from the square, for rejecting calls by the workers for a General Strike and offers of arms which came from workers' delegations from the munitions factories.

The First Attempt to Crush the Revolt

On May 20th 1989, when the Army was sent into Beijing to clear the square, the student leaders exposed their utter bankruptcy. It fell to the newly formed Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation to organise barricades of buses, trucks, and cars to block the Army's paths of entry into the city centre. The working masses of Beijing surrounded the Army trucks, and discussed for hours with the soldiers and officers. Through this fraternisation the Soldiers joined the revolt, and the entire apparatus of the CCP leadership was suspended in mid air without a force able to crush the protests. The lower layers of the bureaucracy, office workers, Communist Party members sickened by corruption, police officers, and now the soldiers had joined the revolt. But a revolutionary situation requires clear direction and focus if the initiative is not to be lost and swing back to the rulers.

The Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation

To their great credit the workers' leadership that did emerge, in the form of the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation (BAWF) had a revolutionary proletarian instinct as to the direction that had to be taken. It is barely reported in the Chinese or Western press even today, that it was this force that was the primary reason why the military to intervened so heavy-handedly on June 4th 1989.

The BWAF saw the working class as "the most advanced class" having a "special role" to "correctly" lead the democratic patriotic movement. The Federation's structure had "no leadership posts only a hierarchy of committees and methods of electing and recalling members." "The leadership were not interested in wielding power and were very clear [that] nobody had to be any more powerful than anyone else."

The anti-elitism of the workers extended their conception of political enemies to include opposition to Zhao Ziyang and the reform factions of the party who they considered all to be part of one faction the "harm the people faction".
They viewed the Deng years as years of the victimisation of the working class.

BAWF issued scathing attacks on the economic competence of the Government:

"You leaders have made a complete mess of it. You excuse yourselves by claiming that "having no experience in building socialism, we are taking a billion people across the river with us by feeling for rocks step by step.' Well you have made quite a lot of people 'feel for rocks' for quite a few decades already. How much headway have you made? What about those who followed you but did not find the rocks, did they not all drown? You officials are playing with people's lives The decade of reform has no direction and no goals. Where do you plan to lead the billion people? Is there one official who can answer that? You said that "let it be white or black a cat that catches mice is a good cat.' Well, let us ask you something. What if both white and black cats try to catch the same mouse wouldn't there be a fight? This would definitely lead to confusion and conflict, causing deepening rifts. The outcome would be that the official cat gets fatter and fatter and the people's cat gets thinner and thinner. Is this the kind of cure you prescribe for the nation?" (Chinese Sociology and Anthropology Fall 1990)

The BWAF claimed to have costed the privileges for upper officials
"Based on Marx's Capital, the rate of exploitation of workers. We discovered that the "servants of the people' swallow all the surplus value produced by the people's blood."

In the view of the BWAF, inflation was caused neither by a, "two tier price system or insufficient scope for free market activity. It is directly due to the fact that China is ruled by incompetent, corrupt and self serving dictators." (Walder Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 1992 no.29 p. 20)

BWAF blamed inflation on the corrupt trading practices of officials who through monopolising power over supplies, demanded extortionate prices to fill their own pockets. BWAF demanded price stabilisation, an end to forced sales of treasury bonds to workers, investigations of official incomes and privileges, an end to discrimination against women in hiring practices, and the right to freely change jobs.

Their view of democracy proposed that the federation would supervise the Communist Party, and the legal representatives of state and collective enterprises, as well as protect the workers in other firms. One Union activist explained their conception of democracy in terms of worker control of factory regulations and administration. "Rules should be decided upon by everybody." Independent organisation of the workers was to bring an end to one-man rule in the factory and arbitrary decisions in work units.

BWAF felt alienated "not only from the political system but to a considerable extent also from the student leaders and intellectuals." The students were criticised for the hierarchy of titles bestowed on their leaders, privileges in allocating tent sizes, and for being like "capitalists" and "stumbling into chaos over money." The union in contrast immediately counted any donations openly declared the sum and its intended use. (Activists quoted Walder p. 26)

Whilst allied with the student movement, as a result of being spurned by student activists they became openly critical of the students' methods of struggle, finding student attitudes a hindrance to the workers' cause. Thus when the union advocated a general strike for May 28th the students rebuffed it demanding the union play a supportive rather than leading role in 'their' protest. As a result, "after May 28th we didn't advocate sympathy for the students any more." (Activist quoted in Walder ibid. p. 24)

Han Dongfang and Li Jinjin two prominent activists in the Beijing workers movement co-authored, "The Joint Declaration [which] was one of the most radical and uncompromising documents of the entire 1989 pro-democracy movement. It called for a special court to be set up to try Li Peng and other 'enemies of the people' within the leadership, and it urged all officials in the Chinese People's Liberation Army to turn their guns on their oppressors. It threatened that the workers would use all peaceful means including strikes to achieve their goals, and added, "With our blood we will reconstruct the walls of the Paris Commune.'" (Black and Monroe Black Hands of Beijing p. 369)

The political radicalism of the BWAF had widespread support amongst the Beijing population. It "was unprecedented and no doubt greatly alarmed officials who favoured a violent crackdown. The military operation of 4 June, launched despite the rapidly dwindling numbers of students and citizens on the square, was probably motivated in large part by these officials' mortal fears of a workers' insurgency." (Walder pp. 27-8)

The workers' federation was the subject of the most cruel repression, they were the first on square to be quelled, all those executed were either workers, peasants or unemployed, and incarceration conditions were far worse for workers than for students.

Even after the repression in Beijing the revolt continued for some days in Shanghai, China's most important industrial city. The workers barricaded the city for a week after June 4th, returning to work after being warned by the City Government that there would be no food if this continued. Having lost Beijing, the central focus of the revolt, and without a clear strategy as to how to overthrow the ruling bureaucracy, Shanghai returned to normality.

The rise of a workers' movement in the Tiananmen protests may be seen as a precedent for future social conflict either in alliance with students and intellectuals or as an independent movement. BWAF had transformed the character of the student movement in a few weeks and after martial law was declared they were effectively challenging for state power.

"Throughout vast areas of the city the masses had taken over the governance of Beijing into their own hands. It was the kind of spontaneous urban revolution that Karl Marx had said would inaugurate a communist society. And it was precisely the kind of spontaneous mass movement that had always terrified the rulers of communist states." (Lee Feigon China Rising p. 213)

The Course Of World History Could Have Been Different

It is by no means inevitable that such a revolution, if led by the workers, would have had to end in the disaster which befell the USSR. In fact it was precisely because China was at a lower level of development that the Capitalist course had fewer proponents than in the USSR. The benefits of State Ownership of land and the commanding heights of the economy were and are still clear to see. Had the workers' movement taken a lead earlier, armed with the programme of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party, the entire course of Chinese and world history since 1989 could have been different.

The establishment of genuine Socialism, a democratically controlled economy managed by real Workers' Congresses linked together across China, would have provided a pole of attraction to the workers of the USSR and Eastern Europe. A mass Marxist tendency linked to democratic students and workers' organisations like BWAF could easily have penetrated the ranks of the Communist Party of China. Such a tendency could rapidly have won a majority of the urban masses and even within the CCP, and have led the most glorious of victories for the world working class.