Thirty years ago state repression of a mass revolt in China shocked the world.
An image of a single demonstrator facing down tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square came to represent the uprising.
It took tanks smashing students and workers off the streets—and months of vicious repression—for the state to restore order.
The scale of the revolt terrified China’s rulers. At one point workers and students controlled the capital for two days.
The movement began with a handful of students gathering in Tiananmen Square to mark the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April 1989.
The former Communist Party general secretary was responsible for political reforms, and had been seen as sympathetic to previous student demands.
By 20 April there were reports of solidarity protests in at least 11 cities as the movement tapped into a growing discontent within society.
And within weeks millions had taken to the streets not only in the capital Beijing but across China. Workers joined protests, struck and set up new independent union federations.
Stephen Hallet lived in Beijing during the revolt. “There was a sense of victory and celebration in the air,” he recalled.
“Students and citizens stood in excited groups chatting, laughing, calm and relaxed. Beijing felt like a new city.”
The uprising came during economic and political crisis. China called itself a socialist society and was run by the Communist Party, but in fact it was state capitalist.
The state, instead of competing private firms, owned and controlled production. But its economy was based on exploiting workers.
When this system ran into problems, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping led a drive to open up China’s economy to the world market.
By 1989 there was simmering anger at corruption, lack of democracy and Deng’s free market economic reforms. Inflation was running at over 31 percent.
Over a million factories closed in 1989 while other government measures undermined job security and benefits. Meanwhile state officials and their families got richer.
Beijing was in the hands of workers and students for 48 hours
State propaganda about “pampered” workers infuriated people.
One woman worker said, “We work more than 13 hours a day, including forced overtime, but have never received any overtime pay.
“The boss doesn’t allow us drinking water during working hours. We are body searched when leaving and live in unbelievably crowded dormitories.”
The student action unleashed a much wider discontent.
But there were different ideas about what sort of change was needed.
Western rulers characterised the revolt as being for democracy and free market capitalism. Some students did want these things. Minqi Li was an economics student in Beijing in 1989. He said, “We were convinced that the socialist economy was unjust, oppressive and inefficient.
“It rewarded a layer of privileged, lazy workers in the state sector and ‘punished’ capable and smart entrepreneurs and intellectuals.
“For China to catch up to the West, it had to follow the free market capitalist model.”
Class and political differences caused some tension. Student leaders tried to keep workers out of the movement. They feared workers’ involvement would lead to the movement becoming too radical and fighting for bigger changes than they aimed to achieve.
Historian Maurice Meisner said some students saw workers as “undisciplined and prone to violence”. They claimed involving workers would give the state an excuse to use force against them.
But workers did get involved. From the evening of 16 April, small groups gathered in Tiananmen Square.
They attacked government corruption and the extravagant lifestyles of officials and their families.
They wanted workers to have more say in their own lives.
Meisner said Deng seemed “confused and impotent” in the face of the protests.
The state banned all protests on 22 April, the day of Hu’s funeral. But students marched into the square throughout the night—and workers joined them. The next day, there were 150,000 protesters camping in the square.
Protesters began to call for Deng and Premier Li Peng to resign. One lorry driver said, “These men aren’t Communists, they’re just feudal old guys who are afraid of the people.”
On 27 April around 150,000 people, half of them workers, marched through Beijing.
It took 15 hours to cross the city. The demonstration shut down workplaces as it passed and workers protected it from troops.
One report said, “Construction labourers banged tin lunch boxes with chopsticks and roared their support.
“Factory workers in overalls leaned from workshop windows, flashing victory signs and applauding.”
Protests and strikes spread across China and on 13 May Beijing students began a hunger strike. Beginning with around 160, it grew to more than 3,000 within two days.
Over a million protested in support of the students on 17 May.
Workers brought banners from the Capital Iron and Steel Factory, Beijing Petrochemical Company, Capital Hospital, Xidan Department Store Workers, No 1 Machine Tool Factory, the People’s Bank of China, Ministry of Railways and others.
Tens of thousands of students headed to Beijing from across China. Rail workers provided them with free trains. Li Peng complained, “There is complete chaos in Beijing. Moreover, the turmoil has spread throughout the country.”
Talks between Peng and the students failed to end the hunger strikes. One student warned him, “The student movement may have become a people’s movement.
The students are relatively reasonable. We cannot ensure that a people’s movement can be reasonable.”
The next day, the state declared martial law, sending troops to Beijing. Workers and some students barricaded roads with vehicles.
There were angry protests across China and beyond. It took months for the state to fully regain control. And the revolt left a lasting memory of what is possible.
Army trucks were drained of petrol and their tyres were let down. Metro staff cut power to the underground railway to stop troops being transported.
Masses of people mobilised to defend the movement. One eyewitness said, “It was unreal the amount of people who came out onto the streets.
“There was everybody there—the very old, families with young children, babies being carried in mothers’ arms. Everybody was there to stop the soldiers.”
They added, “For 48 hours Beijing has been entirely in the hands of the people.
“All the city centre is 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.”
On 29 May students erected the “Goddess of Liberty” statue in the square. A fresh hunger strike began. And a National People’s Congress was set to take place on 20 June. But the state was preparing to crush the movement.
Troops moved into Tiananmen Square on the evening of 3 June in huge numbers.
They fired at protesters at random. Tens of thousands of workers came out to defend those under attack, and threw stones and petrol bombs at the army.
Student leader Chai Ling said that “students, labourers, ordinary folk” urged student leaders to “fight back with weapons”.
But she said, “The highest principle of our struggle is peace. The ultimate price of peaceful protest is to sacrifice oneself.”
Student leaders had even refused offers of weapons from armaments workers and sympathetic soldiers. They also discouraged workers from striking.
Chai said, “Some students still had hope in the government. The tanks made mincemeat of them.
“A friend saw a girl. She stood in front of the tank and waved her hand. The vehicle rolled over her body. She was crushed.”
Students remaining in the square eventually agreed to withdraw. The army fired on them as they left.
The Chinese Red Cross said that around 2,600 people may have been killed in the massacre. Tens of thousands were arrested and many were executed in the months that followed.
But there were also angry protests across China and beyond. It took months for the state to fully regain control. And the revolt left a lasting memory of what is possible.
Chinese workers organised to bring down dictatorship
The involvement of workers radicalised the movement. They wanted changes at the top of society, but also changes in workplaces.
Grievances included the big pay gap between workers and managers, the lack of genuine workers’ representation, poor conditions and declining living standards.
One activist said, “The state has become a free world for those with power and money, but the ordinary people don’t have a chance to benefit.”
The movement was a chance for workers to develop new forms of organisation.
Just days after protests began in Beijing, a small group of workers announced the formation of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF).
There were also attempts to organise autonomous federations in Shanghai, Xian, Hangzou, Guangzhou and other cities too.
Workers wanted genuine and democratic organisations, as opposed to the state-sanctioned All China Federation of Trade Unions.
One activist complained that the All China federation “wasn’t an organisation that workers could call their own”.
The BWAF focused on demands to improve workers’ conditions—and to have more control.
Its opening statement demanded the power to “monitor the legal representatives of all state and collective enterprises”.
It also called for the income and spending of state officials and their families to be made public.
A union poster declared, ‘You bureaucrats have made a mess of China’
And it demanded an end to discrimination against women in factory hiring practices. The BWAF declared that it was fighting for “democracy” and to “bring down dictatorship”. One of its posters dated 29 May read, “You bureaucrats have made a mess of China.
“We’ve had 10 years of reform and we don’t know where we are going. The bureaucratic cats get fat, while the people starve.”
Authors Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia said its supporters came from “steel mills, railway yards, machine building plants and construction companies”.
Members were initially so nervous about organising that they only knew each other by their surnames. But Walder and Xiaoxia said the group “played an increasingly pivotal role” in the movement.
There were no formal branches in workplaces, but members had “important informal ties to workers and work units throughout the city”.
The week of 13 to 20 May saw large numbers of workers from factories and other workplaces join protests for the first time.
Many got involved with BWAF. By 3 June it claimed to have registered almost 20,000 members.
The federation developed different departments for jobs such as propaganda and liaison with large factories.
The propaganda department organised broadcasting in Tiananmen Square.
BWAF members were at the forefront of physically resisting troops as news of massacres at outlying areas of Tiananmen Square began to emerge on 3 June.
But because it didn’t have workplace branches, it couldn’t coordinate mass walkouts at crucial points.
The regime declared the BWAF a counter-revolutionary organisation on 8 June. It set up a special hotline for informers to hand over the names of its members.
But banners from autonomous union federations were raised on some protests during the crackdown.