Remembering Tiananmen Square | The Nation


Remembering Tiananmen Square

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About the Author

Robin Munro
As a researcher in 1989 for Human Rights Watch in Beijing, Robin Munro witnessed first hand the weeks of pro-democracy...

On April 26, 1989, the People's Daily published its now infamous editorial condemning the student protest movement in Beijing as being, in essence, "a planned conspiracy, a riot, whose real nature was to fundamentally negate the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and to negate the socialist system." The editorial was the first definitive statement by the Chinese leadership on the student movement since its inception on April 15, the day reform-minded party leader Hu Yaobang had died.

But if a conspiracy to overthrow the socialist system had been launched in the Chinese capital, whom did the party point to as the main culprits? Surprisingly, not to the students. According to the editorial, "The Party and government [take] a tolerant, restrained attitude to certain inappropriate words and actions of emotionally excited young students." On the other hand, "these facts demonstrate that an extremely small number of people were not involved in mourning Comrade Hu Yaobang . . . Their goal was to poison people's minds, to create turmoil throughout the country, to destroy political stability and unity." As the official conspiracy theory developed, the authorities charged that the students were being manipulated by "outside elements" with "ulterior motives." This meant, first of all, dissident Chinese workers and (to a lesser extent) intellectuals, and second, foreign "reactionaries." This line of analysis was upheld during the military crackdown of June 3-4, and it underpins the repression that continues to this day.

Chinese political tradition has long conferred a limited degree of tolerance and immunity on students, a certain latitude of action not shared by other groups—and especially not by the workers. This relative privilege was enhanced during the decade of reform in the 1980s, as Deng Xiaoping moved rapidly toward a historic compromise with the intelligentsia (whom Mao Zedong had ruthlessly persecuted) in order to advance China's modernization program and facilitate the economic opening to the West. This official stance was fraught with problems, of course, since greater freedom for the students and intellectuals inevitably brought with it the danger of corrosive "bourgeois liberal" ideas from the West.

But that was nothing compared with the other danger that had preoccupied the party since the start of the reform process. This was the prospect of organized unrest and dissent among the urban working class, along the lines of Poland's Solidarity. Above all, it was the rapid trend toward just such a movement—what China's leaders call the "Polish disease" —in Beijing and other major cities last spring that determined the uncompromising character of the crackdown when it finally came. The students had initiated the movement and brilliantly outmaneuvered the government but with the intervention of broader social forces on Tiananmen Square, the students soon lost control of the situation and their leadership became chronically divided.

The other major factor behind the crackdown was the increasing ideological defection of the party apparatus itself to the students' cause. By mid-May, even sections of the public security service, law courts and military—the very backbone of the dictatorship of the proletariat—were beginning to appear in the square in open support of the pro-democracy movement. On June 14, in an illustration of the party's paranoid vision of events, the Beijing Propaganda Department concluded that "a certain small group of people" had "plotted to arrest party and state leaders and seize power in a 'Bastille'-style attack."

In retrospect, the logic of the massacre of June 3-4 is clear. The students responded to the draconian People's Daily editorial not, as expected, by retreating to their campuses but by stepping up their protests. The demonstrations drew massive public support, and the authorities were thrown into a state of confusion and paralysis from which they did not emerge until after June 4. On May 13, after a brief hiatus of failed "dialogue" with the government, the students launched a mass hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. By May 17, the sight of as many as 2,000 idealistic young students collapsing from heat and starvation brought more than a million ordinary Beijing citizens into the square in a moving display of human solidarity. "The students speak on behalf of all of us," they would tell any foreigner who cared to listen. Having been passive spectators, the laobaixing now began to act as a bastion of active support for the students, bringing food and other supplies to the square on a round-the-clock basis.

This specter of emerging cross-class solidarity led directly to the authorities' decision to impose martial law in Beijing on May 20. But again, the strength of the popular response caught China's leaders unawares: The tanks and troop columns were halted at all major points of entry to the city by a human wall of peaceful protesters, and after a few days the soldiers were forced to withdraw to their barracks in the suburbs. Action groups formed spontaneously throughout Beijing. These included "dare-to-die squads" of workers and other laobaixing, who vowed to die rather than let the army into the city; the workers' pickets, who, together with formidably organized contingents of student pickets, patrolled the neighborhoods and maintained order (the public security forces and traffic police were nowhere to be seen after May 20); and "the little flying tigers," large groups of youths on motorcycles who sped around the city on liaison missions for the movement. The laobaixing were now in a posture of peaceful, nonviolent but direct confrontation with the government and army, and similar "turmoil"—to use the party's term—rapidly emerged in dozens of other cities.

Moreover, the laobaixing were beginning to articulate their own grievances. These were mostly a product of the decade-long economic reforms, which, though broadly popular, had also generated a range of serious social tensions: sharp income polarization, spiraling commodity prices, an acute shortage of acceptable housing and—last but by no means least—rampant corruption, speculation and profiteering by government and party officials. The authorities probably overestimated the political challenge that these new workers' and citizens' groups posed. The groups were spontaneous, and while their visible impact and propaganda effect were considerable, they lacked any distinct ideological framework or program. But the party's alarm was real.

However, the birth of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation a few days after the abortive imposition of martial law posed a much greater threat. That is because this group, headquartered in a couple of scruffy tents in the northwest corner of Tiananmen Square, raised an issue that had been taboo in China since 1949: the right of workers to engage in independent labor organization and self-representation. Such a demand struck at the very core of the Chinese Communist state, for the party's main claim to legitimacy is that it rules in the name and interests of the "laboring masses." Although its active membership remained relatively small, its formal membership soared during the first few days of June, reaching a peak of more than 10,000 enrollments after three of its leaders were secretly arrested on May 29. Autonomous workers' groups quickly sprang up in most of China's major cities.

This was the "cancer cell" that the authorities had feared from the outset would appear if legal recognition were ever to be conferred on the student organizations. In the government's eyes, if the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, erected in the square at the end of May, represented the arrogant defiance of the students and the symbolic intrusion of "bourgeois liberalism" and "Western subversion" into the sacred heart of Communist rule, the crude red-and-black banner of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation, not a hundred yards away from the goddess, represented the terrifying power of the workers awakened. Both had to be crushed, and the rapidly defecting party apparatus had to be frightened and shocked back into line.

In the spirit of the April 26 editorial, the students and intellectuals would, by and large, be spared. The laobaixing, on the other hand, would be mercilessly punished in order to eradicate organized popular unrest for a generation. The arenas of conflict on the night of June 3-4 overlapped, but they were essentially separate. The real killing grounds, the theater of the popular uprising and massacre, lay mainly on the periphery, above all along western Changan Boulevard and out to the western suburbs. Here, the laobaixing fought and died to defend the center: Tiananmen Square. The pro-democracy movement stayed firm in its commitment to the principles of dialogue and nonviolence, and it resorted to force on that final night only out of desperation and rage. Once the army had embarked on the rape of Beijing it was clear that all was lost. In the eye of the storm, around the Monument to the People's Heroes, stood the students—brave, resolute but ultimately protected within a charmed circle. At the last minute, in the square itself, with its most lethal resources arrayed against the moral authority of youth, the government stepped back from the brink of a slaughter of incalculable proportions.

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