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Tiananmen Square 1989: Counter-revolution crushes China's democracy movement
On 3 to 4 June 1989, Deng Xiaoping and other aged leaders of China's so-called 'communist' party, ordered 200,000 troops to crush a two-month long movement of workers and students against bureaucratic rule and for workers' democracy. At least 1,000 people were killed in central Beijing and 40,000 arrested in the following weeks.
We reprint an extract from the Militant editorial (forerunner of the Socialist) written at the time, followed by an eyewitness account of the fatal counter-revolution. There is also an introduction from a longer article from www.chinaworker.info on prospects for change in China today.
Workers and students put up heroic resistance
Thousands have been arrested and thrown into jail. Thousands more have gone into hiding. Students' and workers' leaders have been rounded up, including the founders of the autonomous trade union organisation.
Telephone hotlines have been set up for informers. Every day prisoners are paraded on the television, chained and obviously beaten, to create an atmosphere of fear and despair.
In true bureaucratic style, Deng Xiaoping, Li Peng, and their henchmen are denouncing their opponents as 'counter-revolutionaries'. Strange counter-revolutionaries who sang the Internationale as the tanks tore into them on Tiananmen Square!
The hardliners are reviving the Stalinist language of the so-called Cultural Revolution, during which Deng himself was denounced as a counter-revolutionary and purged by the Maoist faction.
According to the old guard, the movement against them was a plot led by "a very small number of political hooligans and evil-doers".
As in the Cultural Revolution, the leaders also point to the 'black hand' of American imperialism, and are attempting to whip up xenophobia, hatred of foreigners, to bolster up their regime. Yet day after day, the 'small group of hooligans' numbered hundreds of thousands on Tiananmen Square.
Such a mighty wave of opposition can arise only from deep social roots.
It was triggered off by the bold action of the students. But the movement, which drew in wide sections of the workers and other strata, was stimulated by accelerating inflation and unemployment, growing inequality between a prosperous elite and the majority of workers and peasants and rampant corruption among managers and party bosses.
The protest expressed a profound hatred of the bureaucracy. The bloody repression of 4 June evoked no celebrations from a populace saved from 'counter-revolution'. On the contrary, the massacre provoked mass protest and clashes throughout China.
For a whole week, 15 major cities were convulsed by mass demonstrations, a blockade of roads and railways, extensive strikes and clashes with the police and army, with the virtual paralysis of the main industrial centres.
Step by step the regime has clamped down. Yet in Shanghai, the country's biggest industrial centre where there has been an extraordinary movement of the students and workers, the mayor has so far been very cautious in carrying out repression, though he does not rule out more drastic measures as the movement ebbs.
The hardliners are now firmly back in the saddle. They are trampling on the mass movement with steel studded boots. This is their revenge against a movement which shook the bureaucracy to its rotten core.
From the start, the bureaucracy was split. The commanders of the 38th Army based in Beijing refused to move against the students and workers. For two weeks, behind closed doors, Deng, Li and the old guard fought a bitter struggle for control of the key levers of the state apparatus and the army. They were suspended in mid-air, powerless to enforce their rule.
The students' call for democracy and an end to bureaucracy and corruption drew out hundreds of thousands of workers onto the streets. Even sections of the bureaucracy and members of the ['communist'] party were affected. When the army first moved against them, the human barricades fraternised with the soldiers and the army cracked, with many soldiers throwing off their uniforms and some handing over their weapons.
Had the students and workers organised committees of workers, soldiers and students and peasants... for the overthrow of the bureaucracy and the introduction of workers' democracy, the army could have been split from top to bottom.
Decisive sections could have been won over to the workers. All the conditions were there, apart from a clear Marxist programme, for the overthrow of the bureaucracy.
But as in all revolutionary situations, the movement reached the point of either/or - either the overthrow of the bureaucracy, with power being taken into the hands of the workers, or a bloody counter-revolution, with the bureaucracy re-establishing its rule by naked repression.
Without the decisive winning over of the troops, most of the military commanders, faced with a challenge to the rule of the bureaucracy, fell in line with the hardliners...
The hardliners are now tightening their grip on the regime and over society. The head of the security apparatus, Qiao Shi, appears to be a key figure in the new leadership.
Deng, once hailed as the great reformer, has abandoned reforms and his reformist allies like Zhao Ziyang who has disappeared. Zhao and the reformist wing of the bureaucracy may well have favoured further economic liberalisation and a relaxation of political control within the party and the state. But their position was fatally undermined by the economic chaos which resulted from their reform policies.
Significantly, Deng's first appearance on television was with the generals, "the iron great wall of the state", gratefully thanking them for their success in suppressing the 'counter-revolution'.
But by the same token, the generals have been brought nearer to the centre of power. The military bureaucrats will want their say in running the state. The factions within the military will be embroiled in new struggles within the leadership which will inevitably break out again in the future... Their only policy now is repression, repression and more repression.
But the economy is in crisis, in spite of the rapid growth of the recent period. The reforms, which opened the door to foreign firms and let loose an element of private enterprise in the countryside, have produced inflation of over 35%, shortages of basic food products and mass unemployment...
Although Deng is still saying the reform policy will continue, in reality there will be a period of re-centralisation. There will be re-centralisation and curbs on private enterprise, in a desperate effort to control inflation and bring down unemployment.
But this in turn will produce new problems. Under modern conditions the industrial sector cannot develop in isolation, without the import of technology and specialised products from the world market. Curbs on foreign investment, moreover, would undermine the development that has taken place recently, especially in the industrial centres on the East coast...
But the inevitable contradictions will sooner or later produce another zig-zag, when the bureaucracy, with new leaders coming to the fore, will lurch back in the other direction...
Eyewitness to massacre
ON THE eve of the 3-4 June 1989 bloody massacre in Tiananmen Square, Steve Jolly, a witness and participant in the April-June events in China (who was then visiting from Australia and is now a Socialist Party councillor in Melbourne), was invited to address the formation of the Beijing autonomous trade union.
Because of the previous arrests of a number of worker activists, the meeting was switched to Tiananmen Square and Steve ended up speaking to a meeting of 500,000 people!
"I expressed solidarity from workers and students in Britain... to the movement in China and how they had captured the imagination of the workers and students and peasants internationally.
"I said: 'You are being called counter-revolutionary and pro-capitalist. But any government that calls itself communist, arrests union leaders and stands against democratic rights is not a real communist government - you are the real communists, you are the ones who hold the banner of revolution, not this government.'"
Later Steve recounts the moments when Deng Xiaoping's regime launched its counter-revolution.
"During the course of the day [3 June] 3,000 troops moved to one of the buildings next to Tiananmen Square...
"Workers and students were so confident that they could persuade the 27th army not to move against them. But at midnight it all started. They came first with tear gas followed by troops with electric batons. After that it was troops on foot, then tanks and army personnel carriers.
"Students lit up the barricades all over the city and they had street battles. But because they hadn't armed themselves and had refused on previous occasions to take arms from soldiers who had offered them, they suffered the consequences." (from Militant 16/6/89)
Eyewitness in China, The events in Tiananmen Square May-June 1989, by Steve Jolly, is incorporated into Tiananmen 1989 - Seven Weeks that Shook the World compiled by chinaworker.info (see book advert)
China's dictatorship haunted by the prospect of a new mass revolt
Vincent Kolo , chinaworker.info
On 4 June this year, 180,000 people filled Hong Kong's Victoria Park for the city's annual commemoration of the 1989 events. Less than one hour's train ride away, however, in mainland China, no protests will be tolerated and all mention of the 1989 movement has been erased from the media and internet.
As Chen Mo explained in our book, Seven Weeks That Shook the World (chinaworker.info 2009): "It is almost as if '89', 'June 4th' and the 'Tiananmen Incident' never happened, and the subsequent generations have unfortunately been given amnesia-at-birth."
Xi Jinping, the current 'strong man' heading China's misnamed 'communist' party (CPP), has made it clear that there will be no political relaxation or 'democratic reform' on his watch, but rather a fortification of one-party rule.
At the same time, pro-capitalist policies (the early effects of which were an important trigger for the 1989 protests) will continue and accelerate to give the market a 'decisive role'.
In recent weeks there has been a further crackdown on prominent dissidents in China as the regime pre-emptively exorcises the ghosts of the 1989 movement.
Since the 4 June massacre, China's economic growth achieved 'miracle' status and, despite its current slowdown, is widely tipped to overtake the US as the world's biggest economy before the end of the decade.
The CCP's model of 'state capitalist' development has created more dollar billionaires than anywhere outside the US, most of whom hold strong connections to the dictatorship and even sit in its auxiliary organs.
In the months and years immediately after the Beijing massacre, many Chinese dissidents and democracy activists believed the regime was doomed to imminent collapse, like the USSR and other Stalinist one-party states.
When this did not transpire the advocates of 'bourgeois democracy' in China began to adapt politically to the CCP, seeing 'compromise' and 'gradual change' as the only realistic strategy and regarding revolution as dangerous, a threat to capitalist interests and 'stability'. This also describes the flawed approach of Hong Kong's pro-democracy leaders.
In so doing, these layers have moved further and further away from the actual tradition of struggle established by the 1989 movement, which as we socialists explain, posed a revolutionary threat to the dictatorship, albeit without the crucial ingredient of a clear programme and leadership.
In the intervening years the capitalists internationally have also rushed to do business with the Chinese dictatorship (despite brief and token sanctions imposed after the massacre) as it opened up to mass-scale sweatshop production on a scale never before seen in history.
The CCP cashed in on the accelerated globalisation wave of the 1990s and 2000s, placing itself at the centre of the worldwide 'race to the bottom' in terms of wages, pensions, social insurance and environmental standards.
This was accompanied by measures to separate and break-up the old planning model, while strategic companies remained under state control. World capitalism has rewarded these policies with over US$1 trillion in foreign direct investment over the past quarter century.
Rather than weaken the repressive hold of the dictatorship, however, the opposite process has emerged from these capitalist policies. The Chinese state's internal security bill is now of a similar size to Vietnam's GDP. The country has nearly 30 million security cameras and two million internet police.
However, Xi Jinping recently announced that slower GDP growth was the "new normal" - raising concerns that even the official 7.5% growth target may be missed.
And a growing number of commentators believe the CCP regime is unlikely to survive another 25 years. The increase in state repression and surveillance, while mass protests are also on the rise, is a recipe for explosive social movements in the coming years.
At the same time, the sharpening of international tensions and deepening military antagonisms in East Asia can produce new threats to the CCP's grip on power.
It is not sufficient, however, to wish for or predict the demise of the CCP dictatorship; we must build a mass socialist alternative that can influence and solidify coming mass struggles for democracy and against capitalism.
This is what the CWI in China, also organised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is attempting to do today.
- An analysis of the build-up and bloody crushing of the movement is contained in our book, Seven Weeks that Shook the World, published by chinaworker.info, (96 pages,) available from Socialist Books.
From Socialist Books
Tiananmen 1989 - Seven Weeks that Shook the World
compiled by chinaworker.info
(Includes Eyewitness in China, The events in Tiananmen Square May-June 1989, by Steve Jolly)
China - Sweatshop of the World
The Coming Revolt, by Vincent Kolo and Chen Lizni
For background historical material on the 1925-27 revolution see:
- Problems of the Chinese Revolution by Leon Trotsky, 354 pages £5.95
- Leon Trotsky on China introduction by Peng Shu-tse, 874 pages £26.00
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