Tiananmen ’89 & The Rebellion of the Chinese Working Class

Beijing workers arrive at Tiananmen Square May 18, 1989

This appeared on the website of the Kasama Project and was written by Hong Huar. Note that posting this is not an endorsement of the Kasama Project, rather it is posted out of interest and to stimulate discussion.

There is a section of the left that offers an account of the 1989 Tiananmen movement, according to which the movement was comprised overwhelmingly of students (in terms of its sociological composition), and advanced a set of objectives accused of potentially accelerating the process of capitalist restoration in China and, by undermining if not ultimately overthrowing the Chinese government, created an opening for the United States to enhance its strategic position in the region.

These arguments are supported through multiple forms of evidence such as comments made by individual student leaders both during and after the demonstrations, as well as particular decisions made by certain groups of demonstrators, such as the decision to construct a replica of the State of Liberty and to present banners and signs written in English.

Owing to time constraints, this piece does not seek to present a point-by-point critique of these arguments, or engage in a detailed analysis of the entire context in which the protest movement emerged, but merely advances a number of positions, supported with reference to more sustained factual evidence, in order to challenge this narrative.

It should be emphasized from the beginning that, despite the avowed anti-imperialism of those criticizing the Tiananmen rebels, that there is something noteworthy about the substance of their narrative, namely that, by emphasizing the role of students and their alleged support for neo-liberalism, they advance a narrative that is shared not only by the Chinese government (to the extent that the movement is officially acknowledged in China) but also by the government of the United States and by most popular accounts.

This author believes that these actors have posed this common account because their possess a shared interest in ignoring the more complex and radical dimensions of the movement.

Not just a student movement

Firstly, the movement itself was not solely or primarily a student movement.

The movement eventually encompassed party cadres, state journalists, small businessmen who donated various supplies to the movement, and of course industrial workers – including workers from some of Beijing’s most important industrial enterprises, such as Shougang Iron and Steel and Yanshan Petrochemicals, along with marginal (e.g. temporary) workers and the recently unemployed.

Even members of the Central Party Committee, various Ministers of State Affairs, the National People’s Congress, various organs of the Chinese People’s Consultative Congress, (including the People’s Daily, the Guangming Daily, and the Xinhua News Agency) participated.

It is valid to say that the only social group in Chinese society that did not participate in the movement on a large scale was the rural peasantry.

Beyond the square itself, the movement extended to the citizens of Beijing, who constructed barricades along the ring-roads of Beijing to impede the movement of troops and tanks (as depicted in the pictures that Kasama has reproduced), the hospital staff who cooperated with the students during the crackdown in rescuing the wounded and shielding identities, and the workers in Beijing and other cities who took strike action and other forms of industrial action like slow-downs, especially in the immediate aftermath of the crackdown.

Diverse leadership and politics

In relation to the students themselves, the notion that there was a stable leadership core that had meaningful control over the movement is problematic because it neglects the extent of divisions within the student participants and the ongoing development of the movement.

There was constant fighting between the representatives of different universities and between Beijing-based institutions and students from the provinces, the organization of the sit-in at the square itself was poorly carried out so that there was a serious risk of an epidemic by the time the protestors were evicted, and on these grounds it seems naïve if not simply deceitful to argue that the students, even if they were committed supporters of neo-liberalism, could ever have presented themselves as credible rulers for a country as vast and complex as China (Wang, 2009).

Independent worker demands

Secondly, worker involvement was not limited to passive support for the student participants but involved attempts by workers to form their own organizations and articulate independent demands.

These attempts are demonstrated most clearly by the case of the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation, or BWAF, which, being formed in the month of May, issued a call for a one-day general strike (though excluding essential services and sectors) in order to put pressure on the government to withdraw the troops that had been stationed near Tiananmen Square, and launched a registration drive amongst the workers who were at the square or who visited the demonstrations at some point during the course of the events, with this registration drive requiring that workers show their work unit and resident identity cards, and resulting in the Federation being able to boast a membership total of 20,000 by the time the army was ordered to intervene, despite it being highly dangerous for workers to openly affiliate themselves to a working-class body that existed outside the official trade union structure – and the fact that as part of the registration process workers had to show their work unit cards meant that the membership of the organization was not comprised, as was later alleged by the government, of the unemployed and other disparate social elements, but by workers, including employees at some of Beijing’s biggest state-owned enterprises (Walder and Gong, 1993).

Diverse lines and visions

Thirdly, corresponding to its highly complex social composition and the presence of competing interests, the protest movement also exhibited no single discourse, but a wide range of competing demands and visions.

Wang Hui, a leading figure within the contemporary Chinese New Left, points out that the symbol of reform was common to almost all the participants, but that reform itself, as a political term and component of discourse, was open to widely varying interpretations, in that

“what the masses expected from reform and what they understood the democracy and the rule of law to be were not merely a set of proceduralist political arrangements and legal documents, rather, it was the hope to reorganize politics and the legal system to guarantee social justice and the democratization of economic life.”

The specific demands that were expressed by the worker participants included, in opposition to the largely abstract demands of the students,

  • “opposition to corruption and official malfeasance,
  • opposition to the princeling party (special privileged class),
  • demands for stable prices,
  • restrictions on Yangpu Peninsula in Hainan Island (an area that was rented out to foreign capital) and
  • demands for social guarantees and social justice –
  • in short, the demand for the use of democratic methods to supervise the process and progress of the organization of social benefits” (Wang, 2009).

The workers also drew on a rich language of social revolt and principles of distributive justice (a moral economy, if you will) that had been promoted during the Mao period and internalized by the individuals and families that had grown up in that period, such that the political discourses adopted by the workers were by no means invented out of the blue, much less solely foreign in origin but represented a broader historical tradition whose relevance continues to be marked (Perry, 2003).

The statement of purpose of the BWAF, for example, began

“the working class is the most advanced class, and we, in the Democratic Movement, should be prepared to demonstrate its great power” –

hardly the language of workers who submitted to a bunch of students (Sheehan, 1998).

Fourthly, far from the working-class participants limiting themselves to participation and the promotion of demands, there was widespread strike action, especially in the aftermath of the crackdown, even though the government had aimed specifically to prevent the workers from linking up with the movement, and even though many students were dismissive of the workers.

Autonomous working class organization

The day of the crackdown itself (June 4th) and the day after were marked by the formation of new Workers Autonomous Federations in Guangdong and Hangzhou on the model of the body that had been formed by workers participants in Beijing at the square itself, the BWAF.

And whilst it is not straightforward to get an accurate estimate of the number of workers who took part in subsequent strikes, there was a sharp drop in industrial production from May through to July, and there were so many reports of strikes and mass absenteeism that it would be highly problematic to assert that there was no strike action or that industrial unrest was limited to a small minority.

In X’ian, to give a particular example, there was a virtual standstill across the city for six days and a loss in industrial output of 40 million yuan, and it is hard to explain the scale of these events if you accept the government’s line, namely that it was down to a small bunch of “hooligans”.

There were also reports of roads, bridges, and railways being blocked all over China, and here again the line of the government was to refer to “hooligans” and “criminal elements” in order to avoid having to acknowledge that there was mass civilian involvement.

Consistent with the sweep of modern Chinese history, including the May 4th Movement, the working-class participants also received much harsher punishments than leading students, especially as the latter also had the resources to move overseas, unlike workers (Sheehan 1998).

Where the real killing happened

Fifthly, and finally, concerning the crackdown itself, and the process of remembering, it’s worth pointing out that much of the fighting and killing took place not only in the square itself but also in the streets surrounding the square and along the main routes to the hospitals, such that many of the civilians who died were killed not through intentional fire from soldiers but as a result of being crushed by tanks as they were trying to make their way to hospitals or otherwise escape from the square. That’s why the term “Tiananmen” is deceptive in the phrase “Tiananmen massacre” or “Tiananmen protest movement”, notwithstanding the square’s symbolic importance and strategic location.

There were attacks on soldiers during the crackdown, as argued by the Chinese government at the time and as acknowledged by both journalistic and academic accounts.

However, far from being indicative of the “reactionary” character of the movement, the militancy of those who resisted the soldiers, many of whom were citizens who had not participated in the occupation of the square, speaks to the intensity of the grievances in Chinese society at that time as well as the depth of the perception that the PLA had transgressed fundamental political boundaries by attacking the Chinese people.

I will not condemn those attacks, because I think that resistance to the armed bodies of men that constitute the neo-authoritarian capitalist Chinese state are fully justified. I only wish that the movement had gone further and that a situation of genuine dual power had developed through the acquisition of larger quantities of weapons by the workers and students.

As for the act of remembering, I say that the movement has to be reclaimed as a working-class rebellion, not simply a liberal protest, and that it can be a source of pride for the emergent workers’ movement in mainland China today, the same being true of other struggles that have been allowed to escape from the collective memory of the Chinese working class – including the 1966/67 Wind of Economism.


Perry, Elizabeth J., “To Rebel is Justified”: Cultural Revolution influences on Contemporary Chinese Protest in Kam-yee Law, (ed.), The Chinese Cultural Revolution Reconsidered (2003)

Sheehan, Jackie, Chinese Workers: A New History (1998)

Walder, Andrew G., Gong, Xiaoxia, Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Autonomous Workers Federation, in The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 29 (Jan., 1993)

Wang Hui, The End of the Revolution (2009)


Posted on June 10, 2011, in Radical History, Socialism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Tiananmen ’89 & The Rebellion of the Chinese Working Class.

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