The fall of the Soviet Union, and China’s turn to the free market, were supposed to prove there is no alternative to capitalism.
In reality none of these regimes had been communist in the sense that Karl Marx meant. The revolt that grew around Tiananmen Square, showed the possibility of a real alternative to both capitalism and this false socialism.
The massive square is at the heart of Beijing, China’s capital.
Twenty five years ago this week the death of Hu Yaobang, a senior politician associated with reform, opened a door for dissent. Students came to lay wreaths in Tiananmen Square. They stayed for speeches. Soon there were tens of thousands.
Some attacked the gates of the compound where China’s rulers lived. One told reporters, “The police don’t dare to do anything. If there’s trouble the workers will join in.”
The day of the funeral on 22 April 150,000 people defied a ban on protests to fill the square. They chanted, “We will return”.
The following week a huge march made its way to the square. Students shouted “long live the workers” as they passed building sites, while workers banged their lunch boxes shouting “long live the students”.
Workers stopped troops attacking the march. Nearly 1,000 army trucks fled as it entered the square.
The movement grew and spread to over 400 cities across China.
The protesters turned the square into a well-organised camp with food, first aid and protester-run checkpoints.
Half a million people occupied it during Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit in May. China’s rulers had to sneak him in the side door of the Great Hall of the People which was on the square’s western edge.
The new Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation set up headquarters in the square. Thousands of workers attended meetings about wages, workplace democracy and political representation.
Thousands more flocked to barricades when the government declared martial law and moved troops in on 18 May. They appealed to soldiers not to attack.
One eyewitness told Socialist Worker, “Every route into Tiananmen Square is now marshalled and workers deliver a constant stream of food, drinks, cigarettes and ice lollies.
“Cooks from restaurants arrive on the back of open-topped lorries bringing huge food containers. There are tens of thousands of students from the provinces here and the workers in restaurants are serving them free food.
“All of the city centre, maybe six miles wide and six miles deep, is now under the control of workers and students. People talk of five million people, over half the total population, in the streets yesterday.”
This was a festival of the oppressed, and it was turning into a challenge to the regime.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong took power in 1949. It freed China from subjugation by imperialism.
But where the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin had used brutal repression to achieve rapid economic growth, China’s economy stagnated.
Attempts to force development led to mass starvation. And state terror paralysed even loyal officials with fear of being seen to make the wrong move.
Bitter fights broke out in the CCP. These reached fever pitch with the persecution and forced displacement of millions in the “Cultural Revolution” in the late 1960s.
Its target was a faction led by Deng Xiaoping, which argued for a version of the free market. But by the late 1970s Deng’s group was taking over. Its reforms mirrored neoliberalism in the West.
It allowed peasants to sell their own produce, creating a rural market. This increased production—but increased inequality and shifted agriculture towards cash crops.
It set up dozens of Special Economic Zones, with low wages and taxes that undercut neighbouring countries for foreign investment. This began urban growth that transformed China—and made CCP leaders rich while exploiting millions of workers on poverty wages.
Deng’s faction walked a tightrope. Sometimes they backed protest to isolate conservatives. Sometimes they viciously cracked down on revolt.
But this didn’t stop the growth of a student movement. Rapid expansion of universities created a volatile combination of overcrowding, petty rules, and relative intellectual freedom through the 1980s.
At the same time oppressed minorities began to stir. By 1989 there was martial law in Tibet’s capital Lhasa, after an uprising, and hundreds of thousands protested against racism in Muslim provinces.
Meanwhile Deng’s strategy had unleashed economic growth at more than twice the rate he’d planned, leading to inflation and shortages.
Industries couldn’t get materials, and workers struggled to afford food. Rationing returned and price controls were imposed in some cities—until they became too expensive to maintain.
Crisis turned into recession. Millions of people were thrown out of work. Banks told companies to pass the cost on to workers by withholding wages.
All this fed into the Tiananmen Square revolt.
As Socialist Worker argued at the time, “This is not a revolt against ‘socialism’ as the Western press claims. It is a revolt both against the old style Stalinist state and the capitalist market that China’s leaders have been trying to introduce in the last decade.”
Protesters waved red flags and sang The Internationale—symbols of workers’ revolution. They carried a double meaning in the context of a regime that claimed to be socialist.
They could point beyond the rotten ruling class to hopes for genuine liberation. As one lorry driver told reporters, “These men aren’t communist, they’re just feudal old guys who are afraid of the people and despise us.”
But they also affirmed loyalty to a regime that few were ready to try and overthrow.
Some also had illusions in the West—so they built the iconic Goddess of Democracy statue to echo the Statue of Liberty. But, as Western politicians such as former Tory prime minister Edward Heath recognised, what the protesters called for “is not our idea of democracy”.
The ideas that dominated the leadership of the movement were a mixture of reformism and nationalism. There were sharp arguments between those who wanted to deepen the revolt and those who feared damaging the “national interest”.
These came to the fore when a majority of protest leaders opposed risking disruption to Gorbachev’s visit. A minority realised they had to seize the time or be crushed when it had passed. They began a hunger strike and called more protests.
Workers were united over the need to defend the students, but there was little agreement on how to go further.
Student Siu Chong told reporters, “Only if the workers stop steel production and the power stations and the railways can we bring these people down.
“There are not enough soldiers to keep the vital industries running. The workers have the power, let the workers have their say.”
But for this very reason, protest leaders rejected calling for a general strike.
Still, there were some strikes, and shutdowns caused by protests and disruption to transport. But mostly workers joined the barricades between their shifts.
Without a clear focus, by late May the movement began to dwindle in Beijing even as it continued to spread elsewhere.
On 3 June the state retaliated. Tanks ploughed through barricades, and soldiers shot down protesters.
Crowds rained rocks and petrol bombs on soldiers, commandeering buses and setting them alight as new barricades. But protest leaders opposed taking up arms. Soldiers had no reason to believe the movement could stop them being executed for defying orders.
More than 2,000 protesters were probably killed, though the authorities never permitted a proper count. By the end of the year tens of thousands would be arrested.
Western politicians shed crocodile tears. But the Wall Street Journal summed Western capitalism’s response up, saying “The market is breathing a sigh of relief that Deng is coming on top”.
Rapid growth has continued, making China a giant of capitalism. The labour movement that was missing in 1989 has begun to emerge through strikes for better wages and conditions.
Recent years have seen mass village protests against corruption, and ongoing environmental protests in Guangdong and ethnic tensions in Xinjiang.
Now China could be in line for another crash. The China Labour Bulletin reports a sharp increase in strikes. Sooner or later, further explosions are inevitable.
China’s rulers and its Western rivals like to give the impression of a monolithic place where no radical change is possible. But Tiananmen Square proved that nowhere is immune from revolution.