Twenty years after Tiananmen Square

June 4, 2009

Dennis Kosuth tells the story of the revolt that shook China's rulers.

THE CHINESE national anthem, like for most countries, is militaristic, jingoistic and--unless one is a fan of marching--difficult to listen to.

Unlike most others, however, it begins with the line "Arise, all who refuse to be slaves" and calls on the people to "stand up." The lyrics were a product of the nationalist revolution of 1949, in which, following the defeat of the Japanese colonialists four years earlier, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was victorious in a civil war over the Nationalist Party.

In October 1949, Mao Zedong, leader of the CCP, addressed tens of thousands in Tiananmen Square, announcing the creation of a "People's Republic" free from imperialist occupation. Meaning "Gate of Heavenly Peace," Tiananmen is the entrance to the Forbidden City, the part of Beijing from which many emperors--figuratively and physically sealed off from the population--ruled China.

Four decades later, over the course of several weeks, hundreds of thousands would again "stand up" and occupy Tiananmen, supported by millions of people around the city and the country.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising shook China's rulers
The 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising shook China's rulers

This was the Tiananmen Square rebellion, and its participants were "standing up" not to colonialism and occupation, but to economic crisis, corruption and autocracy--against a government that claimed to stand for socialism, but in reality ruled with an iron fist over an exploitative and oppressive system.

This regime eventually struck back against the Tiananmen uprising, crushing a revolt that threatened to shake its rule.

WHAT HAPPENED over the course of those spring weeks in 1989? How did the conflict come to the point where so much blood was shed?

From the beginning, the system established by Mao's CCP was a state capitalist command economy, not socialism. The party and state bureaucracy made all the important decisions about society, with the aim of accomplishing national economic development along the lines of the Russian model established under Joseph Stalin's totalitarian rule.

By the 1970s, the ruling faction of the Chinese government, led by Deng Xiaoping, steered the country toward "socialism with Chinese characteristics." This meant unleashing free-market forces in the countryside, where 80 percent of the Chinese population lived, and developing industry in multiple coastal cities through foreign investment and the use of Western technology and management techniques.

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In order to further this economic strategy, the government had to educate a homegrown army of technicians, engineers and managers by expanding access to education. As part of this move, it was important to relax the political control of the CCP to some extent. Greater latitude to think and debate freely, especially within educational institutions, was a necessary precondition to economic reform.

Economic reforms did lead to 10 percent growth for almost every year during the 1980s, but there were still sharp ups and downs as the economy lurched forward. By 1988, the country was deep in an economic crisis, with inflation spiraling out of control.

While China's first efforts were modeled on Stalin's multiple five-year-plans, and Deng later incorporated free-market forces into his restructuring policies, both strategies had the common denominator of setting priorities based on the need to compete in an international capitalist economy.

This economic competition with the outside world was the whip that drove China to advance its economy at any cost necessary. Like Stalin's Russia, the rhetoric of socialism was merely a tool to motivate workers to produce more.

By the end of the 1980s, increased political freedom resulted in people feeling they could finally air their discontent. The ruling class, already divided as a result of internal battles over how to carry out its program, was unable to alleviate the economic crisis. On the contrary, while workers suffered from price inflation and mass layoffs, officials and businessmen were seen to be living better than ever. This was the tinder for the revolt.

HU YAOBANG, the former general secretary of the CCP, died on April 15, 1989. Two years prior, he had been driven from his position in the party in disgrace because he was seen as challenging corruption.

In an obvious reference to then-84-year-old Deng, posters appeared around Beijing declaring: "The wrong man has died...Those who should die still live...Those who should live have died."

The first protest march on April 17 to Tiananmen Square only numbered in the hundreds, but the chants were indicative of the mood: "Long live Hu Yaobang. Long live democracy. Long live freedom. Down with corruption. Down with bureaucracy." As protests continued, Hu Yaobang became less a focus, and dissatisfaction with the status quo sharpened.

At its heart, the Tiananmen struggle was for bourgeois democratic rights--like those in a country like the U.S., where people have the freedom to vote and protest, even though a small minority holds political power in the interest of the rich. But compared to the CCP dictatorship, such democratic rights would have been a step forward.

The Tiananmen movement was being led by students and intellectuals, and had sympathizers among a small minority of the ruling class. Its demands found resonance within society at large, especially among the quickly growing urban working class.

As with any struggle, there were a variety of political ideas within the pro-democracy movement. A significant number of students identified with Western culture and economic systems. With Deng declaring, "to get rich is glorious," it isn't surprising that some people would take those words seriously, and want some idealized version of capitalist society.

Because of the temporary classless position of students--with the potential to become workers, bureaucrats or businessmen--many saw sense in appealing to a section of China's rulers to give them some political power, in exchange for their support.

Some sections of the students wanted to keep their struggle pure, separate from the rest of society. Others were aware that the movement had struck a chord with a significant section of society, giving it a power it never would have had otherwise.

Regardless of whether students were conscious of it, however, the mass character of the struggle--and the potential it represented--stirred fear among China's rulers, who prepared a bloody response.

Hu's official state funeral was to take place on April 22, across the street from Tiananmen Square. The night before, tens of thousands of students from universities and colleges across the city began pouring into the streets. The march grew to 100,000 and stretched more than two miles.

Nothing like it has been seen in China since the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Every Beijing institution was represented, including students from other cities.

Unperturbed by the presence of police and soldiers, the students refused to clear the square. As the octogenarians who ran the country were walked, wheeled and carried into Hu's service, chants of "Long live democracy, down with autocracy" could be heard echoing across the square.

From the party's perspective, this insolence could not go unanswered. The People's Daily editorial carried Deng's line characterizing the demonstrations as "planned conspiracy and turmoil, its essence is once and for all to negate the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the socialist system."

Instead of being intimidated, however, students were enraged. Meeting on the night of April 26, the Provisional Beijing Students' Union called for a mass march the next day. Thousands gathered on campuses across Beijing, broke through police lines and came together in a procession of 150,000. The government's ultimatum had been met with open defiance.

While hardliners in the CCP wanted to squash the movement through fear, General Secretary Zhao Ziyang sought a different approach, trying to placate the students. In his speech, he implicitly undercut Deng's editorial assertion and stated that there was "no great turmoil."

The old guard, of course, saw such conciliation as weakness. While the divisions had existed in China's ruling class previously, they were now clear for all to see.

The debate over how to deal with the protesters fell along similar lines to the argument about how to move forward with China's economic development. This was reflected, too, among the students, who held a variety of opinions as to the direction and speed that reforms should take.

The Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev--who was presiding over his own policies, called perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), to reform state capitalism in the USSR--was due to arrive in Beijing on May 15. This would be the first visit from a Russian head of state since the split between the USSR and China in the early 1960s. The world lens would be focused on Beijing.

Meanwhile, students had embarked on a hunger strike to revitalize the movement, which had been waning in strength after Zhao's intervention.

The hunger strike was a success at raising the level of sympathy for the students' cause. On its fourth day, when 600 people were taken to the hospital, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the square to show their solidarity. British journalist Michael Fathers described the scene:

The following day, the students staged their biggest demonstration yet. At their encouragement, more than a million people took to the streets...Sympathy demonstrations broke out in at least 24 cities across the country...

Schoolchildren thrust tiny fists into the air, led by their teachers in chants of "long live democracy, down with corruption." Workers arrived from Beijing Brewery, the Capital Iron and Steel Works and the Beijing Jeep Corporation. "Get up and stand up for your rights," chanted a group of teenagers, carrying a black-and-white banner bearing the image of Bob Marley...

Of all the slogans, placards and flags on view in and around Tiananmen Square, the most worrying for the leadership was surely the long red banner carried by short-haired men in uniforms. "The People's Liberation Army," it announced in gold letters.

THIS WAS the apex of the struggle, with demonstrations held in cities across the country. It was clear to the ruling bureaucracy that it had to act soon if the status quo was going to be maintained.

The army began its invasion of Beijing early on May 20, but the citizens of Beijing rose up to protect the students. As Fathers wrote:

The people's army had been outmaneuvered by the people. Without orders to open fire, troops sat disconsolately on the back of canvas-covered trucks, cradling their AK-47 rifles. Around them swarmed not only students in headbands, but workers, old women, middle-aged cadres, all of them chanting "Go home" and "The people's army should love the people."

This outpouring of support materialized because ordinary people supported the students against the government. While the workers didn't necessarily share all the political positions of the students, they were fed up with the system for their own reasons, and when the government ordered the invasion, they knew whose side they were on.

The Beijing Autonomous Union had been founded only weeks before by workers who wanted to do something around inflation and corruption, and saw their official state-run union as passive at best, and obstructionist at worst. As one of their posters summarized:

We have calculated carefully, 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 and sweat...There are only two classes: the rulers and the ruled...The political campaigns of the past 40 years amount to a political method for suppressing the people...History's final accounting has yet to be completed.

Many students felt they had a friend in Zhao Ziyang, and that Deng's overall project of modernizing China was a step in the right direction. Most workers, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic about Deng's reforms, because they were the gears upon which China's economic development turned. The workers who took part in the struggle wanted independent organizations to defend their class interests.

But on the whole, the working class was unorganized. Its leadership in the struggle wasn't an option, so that role fell to students and intellectuals.

On May 30, the "Goddess of Democracy," a 30-foot plaster version of the Statue of Liberty, was erected in Tiananmen. But the number of students in the square was diminishing rapidly, and the arrival of the statue did little to bring in more support.

The Army moved in with a final assault on June 4, using tanks and live ammunition. The resistance, while heroic in its attempts to stop the advancing army, was ultimately futile.

It's difficult to say how many died, since the victor wanted to downplay the bloodshed in its version of history. Needless to say, the brunt of the violence was borne by the common citizens of the city, who had only buses, barricades and their bodies with which to confront the armed soldiers.

Much ink condemning the Chinese government was spilled in the Western media after the fact, and the image of one lone individual stopping the advance of a line of tanks was played and replayed.

But once the blood and broken bodies had been swept from the streets, the Western powers from which the condemnations came were all too eager to get back to business as usual with China.

Sadly, some organizations on the left today--like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, for example--continue to this day to make excuses for the CCP's slaughter at Tiananmen, on the bizarre reasoning that the Chinese government remained a defender of the working class.

This kind of twisted thinking has to be rejected outright if politics for true working class liberation, in China or anywhere else, are going to be put forward. Socialism is the polar opposite of the barbaric regime that crushed the Tiananmen Square revolt.

Anyone who believes in justice will look forward to the day when the Chinese working class, one of the largest in the world, will lead the struggle not only for its own emancipation, but the freedom of every oppressed group in China. When they do, they will be following in the tradition of the students and workers who gathered in Tiananmen in the spring of 1989.

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