China: the marginalized narrative of the June Fourth Movement – what occurred during the spring and summer of 1989 was in fact “two movements”

Note: We are republishing this article, written by Ji Han (吉汉) and published 28 May 2019 by Initium Media (Hong Kong) because we believe it provides some interesting insights into what happened in China in 1989. Of particular interest is what it describes taking place within the Chinese working class at the time. However, we do not agree with the pessimism about today’s situation expressed towards the end. 

China is already feeling the impact of the world crisis of capitalism and this will inevitably regenerate the class struggle, which in turn will impact on the students and intellectuals. Testimony to this is the fact that students and intellectuals have been the most sensitive to class antagonism in recent years, and anti-capitalist sentiment is widespread among the young workers and students. Class struggle is definitely on the agenda in China today.

There are two common, historic narratives about the June Fourth Movement. The most mainstream version, of course, is to understand the movement under the framework of “democracy vs. authoritarianism”. “Democracy”, under this narrative, usually refers to the liberal meaning of the term. In the ‘80s, the CPC (Communist Party of China) gradually abandoned the traditional language of “class struggle” and started walking the pragmatic path of focusing on economic development. Market reforms accompanied relaxation in the field of thought and speech. This ethos of western liberalism started to become popularised among the youth and intellectuals on the mainland. The more they understood about liberal democracy, the more it became an expectation.

However, what disappointed the intellectuals and students was that the development of the CPC’s political reforms and political liberalisation lagged far behind its economic reforms towards marketisation. Also, there had been several set-backs – the most obvious being the repression of 1983’s “removing mental pollution” campaign, and the suppression of a wave of university student movements in which the main demands were “open democratic elections”. This suppression directly led to the resignation of the liberal leader Hu Yaobang, who was the then-CPC general secretary. In this narrative, the young students and intellectuals who were influenced by western liberalism finally, and completely, erupted into action when Hu Yaobang died. They walked onto the streets in hopes of accelerating and pushing the political liberalisation process that had previously been constantly interrupted, so that the political and economic reforms would develop together.

Another narrative of the June Fourth Movement is to understand it under the framework of “socialism vs capitalism”. This version, despite being far behind the first in terms of wider public consensus, is pretty popular with some leftist communities – such as a section of Maoist lefts in the Chinese mainland and anti-Stalinist lefts in the West. In this narrative, a series of marketisation measures in the 1980s turned China from a socialist command economy to a capitalist market economy. This reform process brought serious inflation and the rapid enlargement of the wealth gap, caused a lot of problems with corruption, and reduced the living standards of the urban population. Unlike “democracy vs. authoritarianism”, the “socialism vs. capitalism” narrative considers the true reason that the students, workers, and citizens were dissatisfied was all the economic chaos. This dissatisfaction came together in an explosion of anger towards the corrupt bureaucrats.

Tiananmen two narratives 2 Image PixabayNeither of the two main narratives about June Fourth (democracy vs authoritarianism and capitalism vs socialism) sufficiently explain the dynamics of the movement / Image: Pixabay

From the point of view of this narrative, the June Fourth Movement was an anti-marketization, anti-capitalism movement triggered by economic demands. Its core demands were not democracy, but the negation of a series of hardships that the marketisation reforms and capitalist transformation had brought. Slogans like “anti-corruption”, “anti-bureaucratic-opportunists”, “control the inflation” could be seen everywhere in the demonstrations and gatherings of the spring and summer of 1989, and were also the core demands that the student representatives were making towards the government bureaucrats. Students, citizens and workers were hoping the authorities could solve the problems of corruption, guan-dao (官倒: bureaucrats utilizing political power for scalping in the market, hence bureaucratic-opportunists), the enlargement of the wealth gap, and inflation. This hope does not mean the people involved in the movement all supported the political reforms, the core demand of which was “democracy”. The implied assumption of this narrative is that – if the target against which the movement protested was the Deng Xiaoping era’s economic reforms, which brought a period of chaos – then participants must have entertained some nostalgia for the Mao’s era, before the reforms.

Both narratives are questionable. In the “democracy vs. authorianism” narrative, the protagonists of the movement were almost always students and intellectuals, omitting the citizens and workers who were also actively participating and played roles in the movement. Whether we are talking about the casualties of the evening of 3 June and the early morning of 4 June, or the degree of suppression from the authorities after the movement, the price that workers and citizens paid was far higher than that of the intellectuals and students. This situation was similar to the 1980 South Korean Gwangju Movement. And in the “democracy vs authoritarianism” narrative, the workers and the citizens are almost completely overlooked.

The “socialism vs. capitalism” narrative, although it mentions the roles that the workers and the citizens played, is completely unable to explain the most fundamental fact about this movement: the demand for “democracy” undoubtedly was the core theme, which is not what can be surmised from from the focus on “anti-capitalism” and “anti-marketization reforms”. In addition, although the discontent towards marketization was indeed an important factor that stimulated workers and citizens to engage in the movement, there was almost no nostalgia about Mao’s era or Mao himself. In other words, many people who engaged in the movement clearly felt discontented with the aftermath that marketization brought. However, what they hoped for was not just simply to go back to the era prior to the marketization, and they were not merely hoping for the authorities to solve specific economic issues. Instead, they were using a new political perspective to propose an alternative solution that rejected both the socialist command economy and the marketization reforms.

To achieve a deeper understanding of the June Fourth movement, we need to break with both of these commonplace narratives. In this article, we focus on the participation of both workers and citizens, also admitting that “democracy” was indeed the core demand of the movement. Most importantly, the democracy that the workers and the citizens understood was quite different from the democratic ideal that the students and intellectuals embraced.

The workers’ movements in ‘89

The intensity of the authorities’ suppression of the workers was far greater than their suppression of the students – this fact was recorded by historian Maurice Meisner’s research and Wu Renhua’s ‘The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square’, as well as the witness of June Fourth whom I interviewed.

Research by scholars Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia (龚小夏), published in 1993, used the “Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation” (北京工人自治联合会 – trans, BWAF in short) as a starting point, and carefully outlined the process by which the workers and the citizens engaged in June Fourth. After the passing of Hu Yaobang on 15 April 1989, university students started to set up mourning places for Hu Yaobang in their institutions. At the same time, workers and citizens started gathering around Tiananmen Square’s Monument to the People's Heroes, exchanging their views on the situation. Within the next few days, the number of workers and citizens gathered around increased up to dozens. After the “Xinhua Gate Incident”, a few workers who were outraged by the police’s brutal treatment of the students decided to form an organization. This became the predecessor of the BWAF. That is to say, the foundation of the BWAF was a few days earlier than that of the “Beijing Students' Autonomous Federation” (BSAF in short).

Tiananmen two narratives Image PixabayThe workers' role in June Fourth has generally been downplayed, along with the more severe repression they faced afterwards / Image: Pixabay

However, the “BWAF” was merely an unofficial organization composed of some dozens of people. It did not have public activities, nor a formalized organizational structure; even its members were not familiar with each other. In April, the pace of the movement was clearly set by the students. From the 17 April Tiananmen Square Demonstration, to the 22 April “Xinhua Gate Incident”, the demonstration on the day of Hu Yaobang’s funeral, to the 27 April protest against the 26 April editorial of People’s Daily (‘We Must Take a Clear-Cut Stand against Disturbances’) by a 100,000 people, and finally to the demonstration on 4 May, which was on an even-grander scale, the participants were principally students.

Nevertheless, after 4 May, the tide of student campaigns ebbed, with most of the students not knowing where to go, and even doubting a further escalation of the movement. Many students ended their strikes. In this difficult situation, as the movement faced a stalemate, sections of the radical students started plotting a hunger strike in the hope of maintaining passionate participation and pushing the movement towards a new climax. In this sense, the students participating in the hunger strike indeed accomplished their goal. On 13 May, the first hundreds of students started their hunger strike. The number of people participating in the demonstration on Tiananmen Square reached as many as 300,000: the highest since the whole movement started.

The beginning of the hunger strike was a significant turning point for the direction of this movement. The enthusiasm of most of the students, despite being re-ignited for a short time, inevitably continued to fade. After 13 May, student participation was constantly dropping. More and more people started to retreat from the square. However, the students’ hunger strike motivated the involvement of the workers and citizens. The passion of the normal workers was not just shown in the number of participants, but also in that the workers started spontaneously organizing their own demonstrations, and making their own banners and slogans. Workers gradually became the driving force of the movement. What stimulated the workers to become involved in the movement on a large scale was both the simple sympathy towards those students on hunger strike – “xin-teng” (trans.: 心疼, the pain in the heart) – and moral indignation towards the government, which remained unmoved by the students on strike. A Beijing worker who participated in the movement merely thought that “the government bullying the students like this had gone too far”. As the number of workers participating rapidly grew, the “BWAF” started publicly operating and recruiting members widely.

What motivated the workers to participate in the movement more was the issue of the martial law on 20 May. When the army drove into the city in full strength, numerous workers and citizens spontaneously stopped it from entering the city along its outskirts. They formed human shields, and piled up barricades to stop the military advancing further. They offered food and supplies to the soldiers, building friendship and trust with them. With moving empathy and reason, they persuaded the soldiers to drop their weapons. In other words, at the beginning of the imposition of martial law, when the danger of the situation increased greatly, the ones who dared to oppose and communicate with the strongest national organ of violence were not the students, but the workers. And the workers indeed obtained a temporary success: the army was halted.

Historian Wu Renhua also recalled in ‘The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square’:

“In the Democracy Movement of ‘89, those who had the most moral courage, and sacrificed the most were not the students nor the intellectuals, but the worker brothers and citizens of Beijing city. To guard the Tiananmen Square, to protect the students who were petitioning peacefully on the Tiananmen Square, it was they who were blocking the martial force, which was armed to the teeth. They bathed in blood and disregarded their personal safety.”

In the words of German Communist movement leader Rosa Luxemburg, the fighting consciousness of the working class is raised in the process of struggle. The June Fourth Movement also confirms this point. In the process of blocking the army, the workers gradually realized the huge power within their spontaneous organizing and actions. This was a form of self-emancipation never seen before. An enormous wave of “self-organizing” began. According to the numbers that Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia offer, starting in mid-May, BWAF membership began to rapidly increase, and by the beginning of June, it had reached 20,000. Simultaneously, other kinds of workers’ organizations started to emerge like bamboo shoots after the rain.

The development of the organization brought with it a radicalization of its actions. Workers started organizing various “pickets”, “dare-to-die corps”, and other militia-like organizations with arms, in order to observe and report back on the army’s movements. While maintaining security in the city, they didn’t offer an excuse for military suppression. Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia’s essay also points this out. One of the participants that I interviewed recalled that, a week after the workers started to block military vehicles, just in the Yuetan and Ganjiakou areas on the north side of the extension line west of Chang'an Street (that is, the north side of Muxidi and the Military Museum), there were dozens of workers’ pickets. The workers had three or four shifts to observe the situation in the communities and streets and maintain order. According to another participant in the movement, Beijing by that time had almost become a city under the workers’ and citizen’s spontaneous management. This is reminiscent of the self-armed organizations that the Russian working class founded in the time between the February and October Revolutions in 1917.

At the same time, workers started to construct forts and barricades in more streets. Many factory workers began to organize strikes and work slow-downs in an organized manner. Li Peng’s diary of June Fourth, compiled by Bao Pu, also displays that, until the end of May, that there had been news that 100,000 workers of the Capital Steel Works (CSW) were preparing a strike. This shocked the CPC’s higher officials. If the CSW workers were to come out on strike, there could be a large-scale strike wave in the whole city. Also, by then, the BWAF had proposed the slogan: “preparing for a general strike”. Clearly, many workers were dedicating their efforts to establishing connections between factories, preparing for a general strike.

Actions like self-arming, self-organizing and initiating strikes had a different meaning to demonstrations, protests and occupations. The latter were mainly about “self-expression”. Yet the workers’ actions were essentially about “self-empowerment”: taking over the power to control production and manage society. The radicalism of these actions far surpassed that of demonstrations, protests and occupations. This was the situation as the movement developed towards the end of May and early June. The student’s movement fell into a stalemate, the level of participation fell, and infighting was constant; while the workers’ movement grew, with the constant development of self-organization, self-mobilization and daily increasing radicalism.

We cannot be certain as to why the authorities were determined to violently clear out the square at the beginning of June. It is probable that the authorities were panicked, not by the declining and failing student movement, but the fast-developing, constantly radicalizing workers’ movement, which was self-arming, self-managing, and preparing for a general strike. Many operations on the day of the clearance and afterwards also show that the level of suppression (in terms of the number and length of sentences) faced by the workers was far harsher than the suppression of students. This fact is recorded, not only in historian Maurice Meisner’s research and Wu Renhua’s ‘The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square’, but is also proven by the participant of June Fourth whom I interviewed.

The two democratic visions of the intellectuals and the workers

Tiananmen student Image 蔡淑芳sfchoi8964The students and intellectuals had a very different idea of 'democracy' than the workers / Image: 蔡淑芳sfchoi8964

As we have said, the worker’s conception of democracy was unique and different from that of the students.

Just over a month since the beginning of the campaign, the media's attention was mainly on students and intellectuals. This, to some degree, is because the students and intellectuals were more adept at expressing themselves, using complex language, and interacting with the media. Relative to the students, the workers’ voices have been muffled. And, as this article has discussed, the workers’ pursuit of democratic rights was not expressed in their words, but in their actions. The process of using actions to fight for one’s rights itself manifests the aspirations of the workers: it is a radical democratic vision in itself.

In addition, although the workers who participated in the movement generally spoke and wrote less than the students did, if we examine what the workers said closely, we find that their vision for democracy is distinct from that of the students.

From the analysis of Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia of BWAF posters, the worker’s first concerns, of course, concerned everyday economic issues: inflation and the wealth gap. These issues that arose from the marketization reforms were clearly extremely unpopular with the urban workers. However, the workers did not talk about the economy purely in economic terms, but they developed political interpretations of the economic issues, and upon this foundation established their view of democracy. From the workers’ point of view, whether it was inflation or the wealth gap, the fundamental cause of the problem was bureaucracy. Words such as “Stalinistic autocratic bureaucracy” repeatedly appeared on the posters of the BWAF.

From the BWAF’s point of view, the reason for inflation was that the bureaucrats intentionally priced the commodities high to skim a profit off the top. Therefore, the fundamental solution for the problem of inflation and the wealth gap was to overthrow the bureaucracy and place the production and distribution process in the hands of the workers. This democratic discourse of anti-bureaucracy makes me think of the Worker Rebels (工人造反派, Gong Ren Zao Fan Pai, meaning ‘oppositionist/rebel; as opposed to ‘royalist’ supporters of the people in power in the Cultural Revolution) from 1966-1967.

The damaging effects of the bureaucracy didn’t come from the lack of freedom of speech and suffrage in political life, but from lack of the rights in the workplaces. The ultimate embodiment of “autocracy” was the Manager Accountability System in companies. A BWAF member in Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia’s interview said:

“In workshops, is it the workers who take charge, or the chief (导, literally meaning leader, hired either by private enterprise or state owned properties) who takes charge? We chatted about this afterwards. In a factory, the manager is the dictator, what he says is what he says. If you observe this state from a factory's point of view, you will find out it’s actually the same thing: monocracy. Our goal is not outlandish, we only hope that workers can have their own independent organizations.”

That is to say, the participating workers were undoubtedly struggling for democracy, but first-and-foremost a workplace democracy, the democracy of workers’ rights. The narrative of democracy for the BWAF was intertwined with criticism of the official union system (the All-China Federation of Trade Unions). It felt the official union did not truly represent the workers, and believed the workers should have the right to organize independent unions, supervise the managers of companies, and engage in collective negotiations. From the BWAF’s point of view, this “Workers’ Autonomous Federation” formation provided a chance to encourage more workers to form autonomous organizations to unite and to fight against the bureaucrats. This far surpassed the opposition to marketization reforms, and directly hit at the political foundation of these reforms: the bureaucratic dictatorship.

Whether it was the experience of a “managerial dictatorship” in the workplace in daily life or a feeling of impotence at the national level of economic transformation, workers were more convinced that “bureaucratic dictatorship” was the source of the problem. The few workers who participated in the June Fourth Movement themselves also expressed that, from their point of view, the economic policies by the end of 1980s went through several somersaults and were often self-contradictory; sometimes they were too loose and caused large scale inflation, and other times they were over-deflationary and making companies shut down, thus causing workers to lose their jobs. Those who suffered were always the workers. Those self-contradictory policies, on the one hand, demonstrated that the bureaucrats who were in charge at national level were impotent, while on the other hand those who followed the stream and carried out the reforms did so to serve their own interests, and disregarded the interests of the workers. The many workers that Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia interviewed also expressed a similar view.

Therefore, “democracy” as defined by the workers, meant overthrowing the bureaucracy, and replacing it with self-management by the working class. And the first step in accomplishing this aim was to struggle for workplace democracy and the establishment of workers’ self-organization.

This democratic scheme had a class nature. It was founded upon the initiative of the working class. This is really what “socialist democracy” is. This democratic scheme was a lot different from the way the students and intellectuals viewed democracy. In the discourse of the latter, “democracy” is composed of a series of universal, liberal values. Although the students also demanded serious corruption investigations, and to clear out guandao, this demand referred to abstract democratic rights and freedoms. It is quite unlike the workers, who thought that democracy should be built in the workplace and through the process of working.

In the eyes of the workers, democracy and marketization reforms were diametrically opposed to each other. Marketization reforms made the bureaucrats, who had great power already, more unscrupulous. The marketization reforms and bureaucratic dictatorship complimented each other, and hence they had to be simultaneously overthrown. However, in the eyes of the students, democracy and marketization reforms were companions, and the problems of corruption and guandao, which appeared from the marketization reforms, were not only the result of incomplete reforms but also a reflection of the fact that democratic reforms could not follow the marketization reforms. Therefore, the cure that the students prescribed was to make the marketization reforms and political reforms parallel. In fact, in the student movement wave, which is also known as “the preview of the June Fourth movement”, “continuing promotion of economic liberalization” was listed as one of the core demands.

The difference between the democracy that the workers wanted and the democracy that the students wanted is that the former was based on class, while the latter disregarded the existence of class divisions in society. The former referred to workplace democracy first, the latter was about abstract individual freedoms. The former was a democracy that rejected marketization reforms, the latter embraced marketization reforms. Also, by this meaning, we can say that what the workers pursued was “socialist democracy”, and what the students pursued was “liberal democracy”.

The impossible cross-class alliance

We may say that what happened in 1989 was not one single movement, but two movements. The students’ and workers’ movements, although occurring at the same time and having points of connection and interactions, never reached a convergence.

The workers and students had different ways of participating in the June Fourth Movement, and had very distinct views of what “democracy” was. Therefore, it is not hard to understand why there was such a huge gap between them.

This gap is first embodied in the exclusion of the workers from engaging in the movement. The students thought this movement should belong completely to themselves and tried their utmost to maintain its “purity”. Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia pointed out that, before the end of May, students rejected workers’ organizations trying to enter Tiananmen Square. Students did not even want to communicate with the workers’ organizations, especially disfavouring construction workers’ organizations (the construction workers were mainly peasants from Beijing’s outskirts at the time). Meisner’s research also indicates that, in several big demonstrations that the students organized, they joined hands and formed a picket on the sides of the road to prevent citizens from “mixing” into the demonstration. There have been participants who say that, when the students were allocating the supply materials from Hong Kong or from aboard, they made a specific effort not to let these materials fall into the hands of the workers.

This is where the irony of the movement can be seen. The student leaders indicated that they would use their actions to “wake” the masses up, but from all the behaviour listed above, they were standoffish towards the masses, who were not only awake but actively participating in the movement. This elitist superiority complex, on the one hand, derives from a sense of being the “divine sons of heaven”, an attitude present in the elite institutions. It also flowed from classical Chinese Shidafu-esque feelings: in which the students considered themselves as the arbiters of society’s morals: bearing the burden of the entire nation’s conscience. This is the key fact that scholar Zhao Dingxin once pointed out: within the movement, the discourse the students used was a hybrid of western liberalism and Chinese traditional moralism.

Because of the students’ exclusion of the workers, many participating workers began to lose trust in the students. From the point of view of the workers, the students were too superior and did not respect them; they only talked grandiose nonsense instead of solving practical problems. The most alarming thing for the workers was that the mannerisms of the elite bureaucracy, which they so despised, started to appear amongst the students. Student organizations were filled with all kinds of titles like “chairman”, “general command”, and there were constant power struggles going on within them. Instead, the worker’s organizations such as the BWAF, whose internal structures were often collective, did not emphasize personal leadership.

What was more unacceptable for the workers was that student leaders enjoyed privileges. Back then, there was a rumour that there was a Simmons mattress in Chai Ling and Feng De-Cong’s tent. The credibility of this rumour cannot be proven now, but from this, we can see that any hint of hierarchy or bureaucratization touched a raw nerve with the workers.

Beijing students protesting the Treaty of Versailles Image public domainWhat happened in Tiananmen Square was in clear contrast with the May Fourth Movement 70 years prior, in which the students and workers fought together in solidarity. This was lacking in 1989 / Image: public domain

At the same time, the students and workers had strategic disagreements in the movement. Since the beginning, the students had pleaded to the authorities in the hope of moving them so that they would make concessions to achieve their reforms. In seeking the trust of the authorities, students specifically raised the slogan: “We Support the Communist Party” in demonstrations. Compared to this, the workers were not so mild, with the flyers of the BWAF always calling for the overthrow of the oppressors.

In May, when the Communist Party’s highest leadership had a disagreement on “how to respond to the movement”, a section of the students put their hopes in cooperating with the Moderates, led by Zhao Ziyang, and using cliquism within the party to strive for a seat at the table. This is also why the students firmly rejected a worker’s general strike and treated that as “causing trouble”. Yet, for the workers, the strategy of the students was illogical: Zhao Ziyang was a typical representative of the autocratic bureaucrats who took advantage of marketization reforms for themselves. There was no essential difference between the Moderates and the Toughs. The BWAF even pointed out that the result of cooperating with the party’s bureaucrats would be to become a tool for the bureaucrats to accomplish their own interests, just like that of Deng Xiaoping’s takeover in the 1976 “April Fifth Movement”. The BWAF felt the only hope for the movement to succeed was if the participants accumulated their strength through constant self-organizing and self-arming, for the eventual overthrow of the bureaucrats. This is also why the BWAF called for everyone to study the French Revolution, and subsequently “Capture the Bastille of the 20th Century”.

With this interpretation, we may say again, that the student and workers’ movements, although occurring at the same time and space and interacting (as in the large scale participation since the middle of May was initially to support and protect the students), never converged. Between the students and the workers there was no common trust, not enough communication, no cooperation on a strategic level, and no sense of “fighting together” in solidarity.

What happened in 1989 was in clear contrast with the May Fourth Movement 70 years prior. In the latter, after the initial wave of demonstrations, which were also mainly made up of students, many students started to propagandize, organize and provoke the citizens and workers, and eventually triggered the Shanghai workers’ general strike so that the Beijing government would compromise with the students. In the official historic narrative of the CPC, the students realized the huge political power that the workers possessed, and hence a group of students started devoting themselves to workers’ organizations, making connections with the workers and mobilizing them. They thus completely oriented towards Marxism.

These aspects of the May Fourth movement, revealed in the CPC’s official narrative, are exactly what the June Fourth movement was deficient in.

When did the sense of solidarity between the workers and students disappear?

The whole 1980s witnessed a division between the students and intellectuals, and the working class. And this division, to a large degree, originated from the two suppressions of the socialist democratic movement, eventually leading to the language of class struggle being marginalized in politics.

We don’t actually need to go back to the distant 1919 to find examples of students and workers establishing solidarity in social movements. The new book that scholar Joel Andrea is about to publish points out that, during 1966-1967, when the Cultural Revolution had just begun, interconnections between the students and workers were very frequently established. This was the key for the movement to develop. Students went into various universities to study the experience of activism, and many students also came to factories to help workers form “rebel” organizations to express their demands.

From 1966 to 1989, just over 20 years, that sense of solidarity between the workers and students had vanished. Why was this the case? The answer to this question can only be found by reviewing the history of these two decades.

The reason Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution was that he thought the situation in the bureaucracy was so severe that many bureaucrats (the so-called “capitalist bureaucrats”) wanted to restore capitalism, hence these bureaucrats could only be eradicated from the party by a large-scale, spontaneous mass movement and by accomplishing the future concentration of Mao’s personal power within the party. It is worth noting especially that, from Mao’s point of view, the system was not the problem but a part of the people within the system. Hence, by using the power of the masses to remove these people like a tumor resection surgery, the system could still function normally. This is also why Mao repeatedly emphasized that most of the communist leaders were good, and that the capitalists were merely the minority.

But after his call for the mass movement of “educating oneself” and “liberating oneself”, the development of the mass “rebel movement” far exceeded Mao’s expectations, and began to get more and more out of his control. In other words, Mao only wanted to slightly open the lid, but the radical faction of self-organizing workers and students (especially the former) spilled out of the jar. The research of scholar Wu Yiqing indicates that, at the end of 1966, after issuing the call to encourage the masses to establish spontaneous organizations, the temporary workers (unofficial workers in the cities) started actively forming organizations such as the “National Red Labor Rebels’ Corps”. These organizations didn’t limit themselves to what Mao had expected, i.e. challenging and criticizing the so-called “capitalist bureaucrats”, but also criticized the dual employment system, which was discriminatory and unfair, and demanded that the authorities grant the “same work, same wages, same power”. This flowering of organizations and movements, which challenged systematic employment discrimination and pursued equality, was labeled “economism” and eventually suppressed.

In January 1967, the Shanghai People’s Commune was established and replaced Shanghai's former political organs. However, from the point of view of the radical worker rebel organizations such as the “Shanghai Diesel-Engine Factory Workers’ Revolutionary Rebellion Joint Command” (“Joint Command” for short), the Cultural Revolution’s leaders, led by Mao were merely utilizing the name of the “mass seizure of power”. In fact, they established the “Revolution Committee”, led by the military in Shanghai, so it was not really the workers and the masses who held political power. The “Joint Command” thought that the authorities were restoring order by force and suppressing rebel movements. The “Joint Command” hoped to form a Paris-Commune System that would genuinely be self-governed by the working class and fought, arms in hand, with the “Revolution Committee” for months.

Also, there were many worker and student “rebels” who went along with Mao’s critique of the “bureaucracy” and “capitalists”, but eventually reached more radical and profound conclusions. From these workers’ and students’ point of view, Mao had correctly appraised the situation of the bureaucracy, but his prescription was wrong: the source of bureaucracy was not to be found in specific bureaucrats but flowed from the autocratic system of single-party rule. This system in itself was capitalistic. They thought that, in order to completely eradicate bureaucracy, the single-party rule had to be abolished, and the means of production should be democratically self-managed by the real working class. The most representative narrative on this school of thought comes from the “Hunan Proletarian Revolutionary General Joint Committee”. These narratives clearly display the scheme of “socialist democracy”.

These “Rebels” went beyond the remit of discussion Mao had set up to clearly challenge the authorities within the leadership of the Cultural Revolution, and called for systematic reforms and institutional democracy; hence Mao and the leaders of the Cultural Revolution felt uneasy. In this situation, starting from 1968, Mao started to allow the military to intervene and suppress the “Rebels” on a large scale. According to the research of Andrew Walder, the casualties during the Cultural Revolution mostly came from the authorities’ suppression of the “Rebel” movement. To observe from the number of casualties, this was the largest scale of suppression in the history of the People's Republic of China. In some cities, urban worker rebel organizations fought in the streets and eventually were tragically defeated. At the same time, the authorities also started to criticize the Rebel’s “socialist democracy” narratives and rebuked it as anarchism or Trotskyism.

This is a history of sorrow and pain: the mass movement initiated by Mao developed out of the trajectory that Mao himself could control, and metamorphosed into a socialist democracy movement that challenged the CPC’s authority, eventually making Mao feel threatened, and forcing him to suppress it himself. In the words of Wu Yiqing, the Cultural Revolution devoured its own child.

The suppression of 1968 to 1971 had profound repercussions. On the one hand, many “Rebel” workers and students were physically eliminated, and this part of the rebels was the most combative, the most organized, and the most radical. On the other hand, Mao’s “180-degree turn” from encouraging the “rebel” movement to suppressing it pushed many workers and students into political disillusionment and nihilism, and hence they became reluctant to participate in politics anymore. Many workers thought that Mao had betrayed them, and considered other Cultural Revolution leaders – Cheng Boda, Jiang Qing, etc. – opportunists who merely wanted to formalize their power through the movement.

The 1974 “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign surprisingly offered an opportunity for the discontent following the suppression of the 1968-1971 movement to emerge. From a contemporary point of view, the “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign comes across as very strange. Lin Biao and Confucius did not have anything in common, so why were they criticized together? The reason why the leaders of the Cultural Revolution such as Jiang Qing launched such a campaign was that they wanted to suppress the dissidents to reinforce their power within the CPC’s higher echelons.

The worker “Rebels” indeed hated Lin Biao. Before he died in the failed coup of 1971, Lin Biao’s power mainly came from the military, and he played a significant leadership role in the military suppression of the “Rebel” movements. Therefore, some “Rebel” movement participants who were active during 1966-1967, and who were later suppressed, took the chance offered by the “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign to express their discontent at the period of the suppression, and their hopes to reinitiate the 1966-1967 mass democracy movement. The most typical discourse was the Big Character Poster that appeared in Guangzhou under the pen name of “Li Yi Zhe”, whose influence spread through the whole country.

But the “Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius” campaign disappointed the “Rebels”. The call of Li Yi Zhe did not receive support from Mao himself, and some Cultural Revolution leaders even advocated banning the spread of the Big Character Poster. This made the Rebels’ dissatisfied with the Cultural Revolution leaders and even with Mao himself, which escalated further, and directly resulted in the 1976 “April Fifth Movement”.

The “April Fifth Movement” occurred around the Qingming festival, when many Beijing citizens gathered around Tiananmen Square to mourn Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, who had just passed away. But at the same time as mourning Zhou Enlai, the movement’s participants were essentially expressing their discontent towards the Cultural Revolution leaders. Tiananmen Square was full of slogans such as “Down with Empress Cixi”, “Down with Indira Gandhi”, sarcastically criticising the Cultural Revolution leaders represented by Jiang Qing. Furthermore, slogans such as “Down with Qin Emperor” referred, without a doubt, to Mao himself.

The outbreak of the “April Fifth Movement” demonstrated that the antipathy of the masses towards the Cultural Revolution leaders and Mao himself had reached a peak. With this mass antipathy as a foundation, some of the bureaucrats in the CPC were able to use a palace coup to complete the liquidation of the Cultural Revolution leaders after Mao’s death. However, the downfall of the Cultural Revolution leaders also ignited the hopes of some “Rebels”. They hoped that the authorities would redress the injustice and suppression that they had suffered, also hoping that the high-handed authorities would loosen up. Simultaneously, Deng Xiaoping, during 1976-1978, in order to consolidate mass support in the party’s power struggle with Hua Guofeng, did give out some signals of political easing. This further reinforced the rebels’ optimism.

The optimistic mood of the rebels finally emerged as the “Democracy Wall Movement”. Meisner points out that the main force in the movement were the worker and student “Rebels” who had been active during 1966-1967 and were later suppressed, instead of the intellectuals. The “Rebels” quickly formed political groups, organized public debate, issued their publications, and stuck up their Big Character Posters. The influence of the movement soon extended from Beijing to other cities. Their narrative focused on the critique of the single-party autocracy, which they argued resulted in bureaucracy, and revived the socialist democracy narratives of the early days of the Cultural Revolution. To the participants of the Democracy Wall Movement, the meaning of this movement was precisely that the movement of 1966-1967, after the heavy suppression, finally had a chance to advance again. From this point of view, the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement was the second socialist democracy movement after 1966-1967.

By 1979, Deng Xiaoping had already won in the CPC’s internal power struggle and became the de facto supreme ruler. The extent to which Mao Zedong panicked during the 1966-1967 movements was matched by how much Deng Xiaoping panicked during the 1979 movement. Like Mao, Deng Xiaoping also started to suppress the participants of the Democracy Movement and claimed that they were “anarchists”. The suppression of the Democracy Wall Movement created an even stronger sense of malaise towards politics – which had been growing since 1968 – among the workers and citizens. After this, the narratives of socialist democracy almost completely disappeared from the public debate. The disappearance of the narratives also meant that class language was becoming more and more marginalized – after all, the core of socialist democracy is understood as putting “democracy” within the class terminology. This change is consistent with Deng Xiaoping’s increasing emphasis on the “Don’t Argue” pragmatist policy path, and the trend of moving away from the discourse of “class struggle”, which can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

The “Democracy Wall Movement” was suppressed, resulting in the working class being silenced in the public domain. Political discussions became more and more dominated by the intellectuals and students. With the end of the socialist democracy narratives and the class discourse, the discussion about “democracy” went further and further down the path of liberalization. The most obvious example is the intellectual debate about “Democracy or Authoritarianism”, with all assuming the legitimacy of marketization reforms. Scholar Anita Chan points out that the intellectuals’ discussions in the 1980s almost never mentioned the working class.

Many narratives nowadays still hold a romantic view of Mainland China in the 1980s, claiming that it was a free, idealistic era full of hope. However, if we are to judge the 1980s, not only should we consider what we saw, but also what we did not see. The importation of the Western ethos, the relaxation in freedom of speech, and the activism of social groups, were all possible because of the exit of the working class from political life and the disappearance of socialist democracy narratives, and all this came out of the tragic conclusion of the Democracy Wall Movement. In other words, the freedom of the 1980s was precisely the product of political suppression.

If we were to discuss “freedom”, then the question must be asked: whose freedom exactly? The liberal advancements of the 1980s, whether it was the openness of public opinions, diversity of thought, or the diversity of lifestyles, were all enjoyed by the intellectuals and students. Deng Xiaoping, in order to consolidate mass support and to establish the legitimacy of marketization reforms, greatly improved the economic and social status of the intellectuals and strengthened the elitism in higher education. This made the process by which the intellectuals and students participated in political debate also the process that consistently strengthened the recognition of their own elitist identities. The documentary River Elegy, which drew widespread attention, was the typical representation of this elitist liberalism.

At the same time, what freedom did the urban working class enjoy? The most influential reform of the 1980s for the workers’ lives probably was not the Price Reform, but the decentralization of state-owned enterprises’ management rights and the implementation of the managerial responsibility system. This series of reforms greatly increased the discretionary power and control over the means of production of state-owned enterprise management. The normalized manager autocracy was almost equal to the de facto private ownership of the manager. As the Workers’ Congress (职工代表大会, a form of labour-management cooperation where workers are supposedly allowed to elect delegates within the company and make recommendations to the management) gradually became just a dead name, and the limited democratic decision-making channels also became just a dead letter. The workers were experiencing the “bureaucratic autocracy” more and more directly in their process of laboring. As the workers felt they were “oppressed”, “bullied”, “losing their dignity”, “unequally treated”, the management of the state-owned enterprises could only stimulate the enthusiasm of workers through material incentives. In other words, the improvement in the material status of the workers was precisely the result of the weakening of their democratic rights in the workplaces. And up to the end of the 1980s, the material status of the workers could not be improved anymore as inflation rose – it even dropped. The discontentment of the workers grew even stronger.

Therefore, the whole of the 1980s witnessed a division between the students and intellectuals, and the working class. And this division, to a large degree, originated from the suppression of the socialist democratic movement, eventually making class terminology marginalized in politics. By the time we get to 1989, the workers who had been accumulating strong discontent finally exploded, and the socialist democracy narratives that had first appeared in 1966 and 1979 became the weapon of the workers once again. Unfortunately, after the long process of division, the students and intellectuals this time did not understand and did not care about the demands of socialist democracy raised by the working class.

Divide and rule: the key to maintaining authoritarianism?

All research into the democratization movements of the late-20th-century emphasized the connections and cooperation between the intellectuals, workers, peasants, and other toilers. Yet in present-day China, it is not possible to forge an alliance between intellectuals, the middle class, and the workers, meaning that the large-scale, long-term, struggle movements with an organized base, also possessing the ability to articulate ideas, have almost no possibility to appear.

By the time we got to the ‘90s, the division between the intellectual groups and the working class had worsened. The different approach adopted by the authorities towards the students and workers participating in the June Fourth Movement – “little punishment” for the students, and merciless suppression for the workers – also became the main theme throughout the whole of the ‘90s.

Jaisic students Image fair useThe author is sceptical about the prospects of student and working-class struggle in China today, but this is precisely what we are starting to see, and will see more of in the next period / Image: fair use

The further acceleration of the marketization reforms at the end of the ‘80s and beginning of the ‘90s provided the university graduates who received elite education many economic opportunities. Some observers had long pointed out that many liberal, intellectual elites who participated in the June Fourth Movement became the newly formed urban middle class following the trend of marketization, and became the people with vested interests in and who advocate for the status quo of the Communist Party system. To some degree, marketization can be seen as the absorption and bribing of the student participants of the June Fourth Movement. I have engaged with many who were studying in Beijing’s famous universities at the end of the ‘80s, who almost all participated in the 1989 demonstrations. However, as upstanding members of the middle class, they believed in the “supremacy of stability”. Looking into the past, they all thought that they had been naive and immature to participate in the democracy movement, and they had been “manipulated”.

The marketization reforms of the ‘90s, while “bribing” the students and intellectuals, also impacted the urban working class devastatingly. A large number of state-owned enterprises were privatised, and countless urban workers were forcibly laid off or forced into retirement, hence losing their job opportunities and basic working securities. Analysts had always considered that what drove the authorities to launch the state-owned enterprise reform were the economic considerations. But looking back at the trajectory of the June Fourth Movement, we could hazard a guess – although this guess lacks sufficient evidence, we could discuss this question – that political motives may also have played an important role. Perhaps the authorities were determined to destroy the class as a whole because it had concerns over the organizational ability and radicalism that the urban working class displayed in the movement.

The distinct fate of the intellectuals and urban workers in the ‘90s constituted the fractured social situation in the post-June-Fourth Era, which has continued to this day. This strategy, which divided and ruled different classes, became the key factor in maintaining the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. This is one of the most important legacies that the June Fourth Movement has left behind for today.

Whether it is the classic revolution theory of Marxism, the national revolution theory, or the late-20th-century democratization movements in Spain, South Korea, Poland, etc., all emphasize the connections and cooperation between the intellectuals, workers, peasants and other exploited groups. Yet, in present-day China, the intellectuals and the urban middle class, who have received higher education, have all benefited from the economic opportunities that the status quo offers, and mostly have had no interest in political struggles. Hence they became the “foundation” of the CPC’s authoritarian rule, possessing not a single iota of solidarity with the working class. At the inception of the 21st century, the Civil Society Movements and Rights Protection Movements, mainly composed of a few middle-class professional groups such as scholars, journalists, lawyers and NGO practitioners, paid basically no attention to labor issues. This meant the coalition of the intellectuals, the middle class, and the working class cannot form, and also that the large-scale, long-term, movements of struggle, of the manner previously described, have little chance of appearing. In recent years, the efforts of some young students involved in the workers’ movement are very precious, but there is still a long way to go. The fractured social situation will continue for quite some time.


Andreas, Joel. 2009. The Rise of Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China’s New Class. Stanford University Press.

Andreas, Joel. Forthcoming. Disenfranchised: The Rise and Fall of Industrial Citizenship in China. Oxford University Press.

Chan, Anita. 1990. “China's Long Winter.” Monthly Review 41(8): 1-15.

Meisner, Maurice. 1999. Mao’s China and After. Free Press.

Walder, Andrew G. and Gong Xiaoxia. 1993. “Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation.” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs 29: 1-29.

Wang, Hui. 2003. China’s New Order: Society, Economy and Politics in Transition. Theodore Huters (ed). Harvard University Press.

Wu, Yiching. 2014. The Cultural Revolution at the Margins: Chinese Socialism in Crisis. Harvard University Press.

Zhao, Dingxin. 2001. The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement. The University of Chicago Press.

《李鹏六四日记》,鲍朴整理。 (Li Peng’s June Fourth Diaries, organized by Bao Pu.)

《天安门血腥清场内幕》,吴仁华著。 (Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square, written by Wu Renhua.)

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