The Forgotten Workers of Tiananmen Square

The Forgotten Workers of Tiananmen Square

The Forgotten Workers of Tiananmen Square

The 1989 massacre didn’t just end China’s democracy movement. It ushered in a new era of US-inspired worker suppression.


On June 4, 1989, the Chinese military violently suppressed the protest movement of students and workers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. The protests had begun earlier that spring; at their peak, they may have included as many as 1 million people. To put an end to them, the government invaded Beijing with as many as 250,000 soldiers, supported by tanks and armored personnel carriers, who shot, bayoneted, and ran over civilians. Protesters resisted by building blockades along the road to Tiananmen Square, setting vehicles on fire, and fighting back with rocks and Molotov cocktails. But they were overwhelmed.

When the protesters surrendered, they were beaten, arrested, and imprisoned. Many were executed. The Chinese government, which suppresses commemoration of this event within China (and this year, for the first time, in Hong Kong), has never revealed how many protesters died that day. Some put the number at hundreds; one report estimated that it could be as many as 10,000.

This year, the anniversary of that massacre arrives in the midst of a nationwide uprising in the United States. Widespread anger at the racist murders of black people by both police and civilians has given rise to a black-led, multiracial movement for justice—one that is now being answered with further police brutality, as well as threats from the president to deploy the military in American cities.

This June 4 also comes after years of rising tensions between the United States and China—tensions that have become much more acute over the last few months. Anti-China hawks in the US ruling class have been eager to use the racist identification of the Covid-19 pandemic with China and Chinese people as an opportunity to push for a new Cold War with China. And China, in turn, has imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong, threatening the city’s civil liberties. This has further antagonized the US government and strengthened the arguments of anti-China hawks.

We should expect excruciating moments of hypocrisy from US politicians today. Right-wing nationalists in this country, claiming a deep commitment to human rights, will use this anniversary as an occasion to argue for a more aggressive stance toward China. They will wax poetic about pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen in 1989 and in Hong Kong today, even as they make excuses for ongoing police brutality right next door. In truth, their desire for greater confrontation with China is driven by a fear of a possible future in which the United States is no longer able to dominate the planet. But by feigning a deep commitment to human rights, they will try to cover up this nationalistic hubris with a facade of high moral principle.

This hypocrisy is enabled by a dominant narrative that portrays American and Chinese societies as polar opposite: the first, as a liberal democracy, the second as an authoritarian state. US liberalism and Chinese authoritarianism are supposedly alien to each other, have nothing in common, and are radically incompatible. In this narrative, June 4 was the turning point when China rejected the possibility of joining the liberal democratic order and chose to remain an outsider and a threat to it. In this telling, the key protagonists of China’s 1989 protests are pro-democracy student activists.

This narrative captures only part of the truth. The events of June 4 were an assault on human life and human rights, a defeat of pro-democracy forces and a victory for the authoritarianistic regime that has remained in force until today. The Chinese government’s hard-line approach to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and its recent threats to Hong Kong’s relative autonomy are part of the legacy of June 4.

But China’s authoritarianism has hardly been incompatible with the US-led liberal democratic world. That world depends not on liberal democracy but on the global neoliberal economy—and authoritarian China has become an essential partner.

We usually remember June 4 as the end of a student protest movement. But June 4 also marked the moment when China chose to accelerate its integration into this US-led order. While students were at the center of the 1989 movement, it is too often forgotten that workers protested, too, and they brought distinct demands. When the protests were suppressed, it was the workers who suffered the most fallout. We should remember that the massacre was not only a defeat for democracy. It was a defeat for working-class power.

The Tiananmen Square movement came at the end of a decade of drastic market reform in China. After the Maoist state-controlled economy fell into a severe slowdown in the 1970s, the Chinese government spent the ’80s trying to build a more competitive and open economy. This meant decollectivizing rural economies, loosening price controls, decentralizing political and economic power, and increasing the profitability of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that ran coal, steel, and other major industries and thus dominated urban economies.

By that point, China had a large population of relatively healthy, well-educated, but low-wage workers—products of the preceding Maoist path of development and social spending. The Chinese Communist Party used those workers, and the market reforms, to attract foreign capital into China and revive the economy. And it worked—at the cost of increasing inequality and growing popular resentment. SOEs cut their welfare programs and workers’ pay, and replaced guaranteed lifetime employment with short-term contracts. Meanwhile, corruption was rampant among elite officials; some used the reforms to get rich. A combination of loosened price controls and corruption led to high inflation, further squeezing the workers.

These problems generated widespread dissatisfaction among both university students and the urban workers in the SOEs. But for the most part, the students and the workers had different grievances and different agendas.

Both groups were against growing inequality and corruption. Workers critiqued the economic reforms, objecting to inflation and the attacks on their livelihood and economic security. They wanted improved workers’ rights and an end to profiteering. Meanwhile, the students demanded political reforms. They did not object to the economic reforms that were already taking place; rather, they believed that the economic chaos and corruption would be solved if political liberalization accompanied economic liberalization.

The two sets of demands were distinct, but not contradictory. One could imagine integrating them—for example, using a social democratic model. Sadly, this did not come to pass.

Students spent most of the movement at the center of the Tiananmen Square occupation, while workers were relegated to the periphery. So long as the workers were marginalized, their great weapon—the power of the strike—was marginalized too. After the Chinese government declared martial law in late May, the students asked the workers to exercise more power through a general strike, but it was already too late. On June 4, the military entered Beijing and smashed the Tiananmen Square occupation. Protesters and other civilians were killed. Even more were arrested or disappeared.

While both students and workers were assaulted and killed on June 4, and persecuted afterward, the violence against working-class protesters was especially merciless. And it was the workers’ collective power that was more thoroughly shattered.

If the massacre ended the students’ hopes for China’s political future, it also ended the workers’ hopes of stopping the assault on their livelihoods. After June 4, the Chinese government greatly accelerated the integration of China into the neoliberal global economy. China turned to Washington and Wall Street for advice, and radicalized the economic reform program. The post-1989 economy flourished, with very different consequences for workers and students. Workers suffered massive layoffs as SOEs were pushed further toward profitability and many were privatized outright. These increasingly vulnerable urban workers were also joined by an influx of millions of rural migrant workers from the countryside, forming a huge army of low-wage, disempowered workers for export-oriented sectors such as textiles and other manufacturing industries.

Meanwhile, university graduates found opportunities in the new economy, becoming highly educated professionals and part of China’s rising middle class. Many were able to gain status within the Chinese Communist Party, as the party reformed its membership criteria to incorporate the highly educated and private entrepreneurs.

It’s common for mainstream liberal thinkers to assume that the highly educated middle class is the key to democratization. The aftermath of June 4 is a clear counterexample. As Ho-fung Hung writes in his 2016 book The China Boom, surveys in China during the 1990s and early 2000s found that “most middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs [were] sternly opposed to political liberalization out of fear that it [would] unleash increasing social demands from below.” In general, research shows that it is the working class—not the middle class—who drive this kind of change.

In the 31 years since the massacre, the United States and other liberal democratic powers have been crucial collaborators in suppressing the Chinese working class, and thus the potential for political liberalization. They have conspired with the Chinese government to undermine the power of Chinese workers, in pursuit of cheap labor and profits for their transnational corporations. They refused to make global labor standards part of the architecture of the neoliberal global economy. Instead, they fostered a race to the bottom in workers’ rights, suppressing wages in China, the United States, and all over the world.

For decades, China’s economic development has depended on its ability to ascend within this US-led, anti-worker global order. Working within the unforgiving terms of the neoliberal system, the only way for China to climb out of poverty was through a highly authoritarian form of governance that would keep the working class in check.

Today the neoliberal system is breaking down. Years of slowing growth have given way to a global depression, triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are in the midst of a deep crisis—and that makes radical change inevitable. The question is whether this change will lead to our liberation.

The deep economic integration between the United States and China is metastasizing into zero-sum competition, as both countries compete for a larger slice of a shrinking pie. This feeds into the demands of anti-China hawks for a new Cold War—and, for political leaders in both countries, presents belligerent nationalism as a solution to domestic political problems.

An emancipatory alternative to this disastrous path is, in large part, in the hands of the global working class, of which Chinese workers form a large and crucial part. If we want to resolve the growing dysfunction of the neoliberal global order, we need to increase the status and power of workers. We must shift income and power away from capital, and toward labor.

China has been a hotbed of wildcat strikes and other worker unrest for many years—even after recent government crackdowns on labor activism. Last year, the China Labour Bulletin recorded nearly 1,400 such actions; the CLB, which is a nonprofit based in Hong Kong, estimates that this number represents only 5 to 10 percent of the true total. Worker unrest spans industries, including manufacturing, construction, retail, the gig economy, and the tech sector.

To be sure, these tend to be small, localized actions. They don’t challenge the central government of China, and are ill-suited to winning structural change. Now, however, the Covid-19 crisis creates the potential for something new. The crisis has caused a sharp jump in unemployment, which China is not well-equipped to correct. Jobless workers are poorly covered by the social welfare programs that have been corroding since the 1980s. This is especially true for China’s nearly 300 million rural migrant workers, who live and work in urban areas as second-class citizens cut off from the welfare programs that do exist.

Meanwhile, Chinese university graduates are facing the same issue as their US counterparts: increasing enrollment in higher education combined with a slowing economy. Even before this year, this led to a hyper-competitive job market and frustrated aspirations for university graduates. Now, because of the Covid-19 crisis, China’s class of 2020 will graduate into the worst year yet. Herein lies the potential for a new cross-class alliance: Perhaps professional-class university graduates and less-educated workers could overcome the divide that destroyed the hopes of 1989, and reunite their demands for political and economic democratization.

It would be foolish to try to predict how this will play out in China, and our ability to influence the outcome from the United States is limited. But one thing we can do is resist the anti-China hawks pushing for Cold War politics, which can only undermine the Chinese working class. That includes Senator Josh Hawley, who warns that China seeks to dominate us as an imperialist power; Senator Tom Cotton, who demands retribution against China for Covid-19; and Senator Marco Rubio, who argues that the key to winning a “pro-worker” economy is an economic war with China. (In Rubio’s world, “pro-worker” means more government handouts to US corporations.)

We must protect Chinese international students, now under attack by the Trump administration. The scapegoating of these students is not only racist, it inhibits some of the most inspiring and hopeful organizing happening now, among international students who are challenging nationalism, anti-worker politics, and gender oppression in China.

Anti-Chinese US nationalism also stokes nationalism within China—the Chinese government’s chief ideological weapon to justify attacks on labor organizers and activists of all kinds. China’s persecution of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities is also justified through nationalistic claims that Uighurs have been infected by ideologies of Islamic terrorism from abroad, allowing the government to portray its concentration camps as part of the Global War on Terror. The Chinese government has a talent for diverting domestic unrest toward nationalist rivalry, just as Trump uses anti-China nationalism to shift attention away from his own failings. Not only that, but when the United States leads attacks on China’s economy, it directly harms Chinese workers, as the state cracks down on employees even more intensely to protect Chinese corporate profits.

Instead of lusting after a new Cold War, we can start by agitating for US-China cooperation to beat Covid-19—an idea that most polls have found many people support, despite the rise in anti-China sentiment. And we can, and should, go further than that: We could demand a radical renegotiation of the US-China economic relationship along progressive principles, one that centers around labor standards, climate-friendly industrial policy, and job creation at the international level. By offering US cooperation with key Chinese priorities—such as the Belt and Road initiative—in exchange for improved standards, we can dial down tensions and create a new win-win relationship, increasing the chances of progress on human rights issues.

Today, US pundits and politicians will tell us that the lesson of June 4 is that the United States should confront China. But we should remember the forgotten workers of Tiananmen Square instead—and the forgotten workers of the United States as well. That will bring us to a different conclusion: What we truly need is to build global cooperation and working-class solidarity between the United States and China, and beyond.

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