The image of a single defiant protester halting a convoy of tanks captured the imagination of millions of people around the world 20 years ago. This lone man facing down the immense power of the army has come to represent the Tiananmen Square uprising of June 1989. It shook China’s rulers to the core.
Those at the top managed to put down the revolt using the utmost brutality. But they have failed to suppress its inspirational story or to deal with the issues that lay behind the protests, and that continue to spark resistance in China today.
Many commentators claim that the 1989 uprising was a movement against Communism and in favour of free market reforms.
In fact millions of people took to the streets of China to challenge the corrupt state bureaucracy and its turn to the world market.
The Chinese Communists, led by Mao Zedong, took power in 1949. They wanted to build an independent national economy that could compete on the world stage.
While the leaders used the language of socialism, they pushed through policies that subordinated the needs of China’s hundreds of millions of exploited peasants and workers.
Socialist Worker describes the regime as “state capitalist”. Its economy was based on class division and exploitation, but the state, rather than competing private companies, owned and controlled production.
The regime emulated the way society was organised in the Soviet Union, which had itself become state capitalist under the rule of Joseph Stalin.
After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping took control of the state. He opened China up to the global capitalist market in an attempt to solve the country’s economic problems.
Over the following years this intensified pressure on ordinary people, hitting students, workers and peasants. It inspired various protests, but none had become widespread.
The situation changed with the democracy movement sparked by the death of Hu Yaobong on 15 April 1989.
Hu had been the general secretary of the Communist Party for much of the 1980s and had been responsible for political reforms in China and Tibet.
The state bureaucracy forced him from office in 1987, after a series of student protests which it felt he was too sympathetic towards.
The day after his death students began to gather in the gigantic Tiananmen Square in the centre of China’s capital Beijing to remember Hu.
The numbers increased over the next few days to tens of thousands of people, including many workers.
Speakers in the square began to raise political demands – including democratic elections, freedom of the press and assembly, and an end to corruption among the bureaucracy.
Crucially, protests and strikes took place in other Chinese cities.
Those on the right tend to focus on the individual acts of defiance in Tiananmen Square. But the wave of mass protests that was spreading across China was central to understanding why China’s rulers were so scared – and why they acted as they did.
A worried ruling class banned all demonstrations for Saturday 22 April, the day of Hu’s funeral. Police and the army took up position in Tiananmen.
But throughout the night columns of students marched into the square past the police lines.
The next day 150,000 protesters were camped out in the square, listening to speakers, waving red flags, and singing the socialist anthem, The Internationale, which became the movement’s song.
Fearful of the consequences of repressing the students, the government did nothing. China’s rulers were in crisis. Some were unsure how the army would react to the protests. They didn’t know if they could rely on the army to back up the government.
After Hu’s funeral service the students marched out of the square chanting, “Up with democracy, down with autocracy.”
Around 150,000 people – half of them students and half workers – then marched through Beijing on 27 April. Every factory and workplace they passed was shut down as people came out to show their support.
Thousands of workers intervened to stop soldiers from approaching the march.
After a brief lull in the movement, a small number of student leaders called a hunger strike that began in Tiananmen on 13 May. This raised the protests to new heights.
The hunger strike began with 200 people, but the number soon rose to 1,000, while thousands more protesters descended on Tiananmen. The hunger strikers demanded Deng’s resignation and the sacking of Chinese premier Li Peng.
The next day there were a million protesters and the day after two million.
The government tried to defuse the hunger strikes. Li Peng and Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party general secretary who was seen as sympathetic to demands for reform, met with protesters.
When these talks failed the regime declared martial law on 19 May. Some 300,000 troops began moving into Beijing.
Ranks of students and workers formed human barricades on the outskirts of the city to halt the troops.
Underground workers cut the power to the tube system to stop it being used to transport troops. Workers at the Capital Iron and Steel Works walked out, and many other workers stayed away from work.
Barricades of buses, trucks and construction vehicles were put into place. Millions of people came out onto the streets to stop the army.
Their show of power forced the state back and revealed the extent of the crisis facing the ruling class.
Two eyewitnesses in Beijing reported in Socialist Worker, “For 48 hours now the city of Beijing has been entirely in the hands of the people.
“Though the atmosphere is tense, there is no drunkenness, no looting and no violence.
“For over 1,000 metres there must be over 100 buses arranged in intricate patterns blocking the road.
“The barricade won’t, and isn’t meant to, stop tanks. The idea is to halt and slow up moving troops to allow people to argue with the soldiers and turn them back, as has happened so often in the last couple of days.
“All of the city centre, maybe six miles wide and six miles deep, is now under the control of workers and students.
“Everywhere open-topped trucks packed with workers and students are passing. They all have red flags and banners flying as they speed from barricade to barricade, checking on the situation… And everyone sings ‘The Internationale’ over and over again.”
Huge protests also took place across the country and one million people marched in Hong Kong, which was to be returned to China by Britain in 1997.
A stalemate developed in Beijing allowing the regime to draw breath and make preparations. Deng Xiaoping and six military commanders put together a task force to crush the revolt.
Troops moved into Beijing on 3 June. Armoured cars and tanks smashed into Tiananmen Square in the early morning firing at the protesters.
The Chinese army is called the People’s Liberation Army and until this moment most protesters didn’t believe that they would actually fire on the people.
Stunned workers poured onto the streets in solidarity with the students, and many were gunned down. They fought back, setting fire to barricades and throwing bricks, stones and petrol bombs at the army.
It took until the evening of the next day for the troops to quell the resistance using the bloodiest methods possible.
The Chinese Red Cross estimated the death toll was 2,600 – which it later retracted after pressure from the government. Many thousands were injured, with casualties filling the hospitals.
The repression continued. Tens of thousands of people were arrested and many executed. No one knows what became of the anonymous protester who stopped the tanks on 5 June.
Deng and China’s rulers were able to continue with their free market drive, creating an even more unequal society.
The last few years have seen a rise in the level of struggle as workers have demonstrated and struck against bullying management and lay-offs, and peasants have protested against unjust taxes and corrupt local bureaucrats. Students have also protested.
The defiant spirit shown 20 years ago in Tiananmen Square lives on.
The events of 1989, despite their bloody ending, revealed that China’s workers, peasants and students have the power to challenge the country’s rulers, and the potential, ultimately, to overthrow them.
This is the nightmare that still causes the butchers of Beijing to lose sleep.