Commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre
"Unless we overthrow this inhumane government, our country will have no hope," – Cai Ling, student organiser
Twenty years have passed since the Chinese Communist state’s massacre of activists at Tiananmen Square at 1989. Twenty years ago, students and workers involved in the June 4th Movement fought against the authoritarianism, patriarchy, corruption and bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party. This movement emerged from a context of economic reform that caused high inflation and declining living standards. During this movement, there were many inspiring acts of dissent and solidarity with worker and student co-operation and mutual aid. There was a momentary rupture in history where the state was under threat, and its power undermined through student and worker resistance. The city of Beijing was temporarily taken over by the people and became an autonomous zone. It was a significant threat to the power of the bureaucrats in the CCP, who then ordered army to massacre of students at Tiananmen Square. The horrific violence of the state should never be forgotten or forgiven.
I will first look at some of the conditions in China based on my relatives’ experiences and describe an oral history of this event from the perspective of an ex-Beijing student who now resides in Aotearoa called Jiefang. Although it is hard to completely comprehend these events without being part of the cultural milieu and “being there”, much can be learnt from people who were there at the grassroots. But I also want to go beyond description and look at how and why this concept of ‘democracy’ was employed by students; how they were represented in the west; reflect on the strategies both authoritarian communist states and capitalist democracies use to suppress and limit dissent by using each other to assert their legitimacy.
For many peasants and workers the communist revolution brought hope of freedom and equality. The ideals of Marx, Engels, Mao and Lenin were the basis for a radical restructuring of urban and rural society in China. My maternal grandfather, who joined the Communist Party at age 30, just after migrating to the city from the village, believed the politics of communism would be beneficial for peasants like him and my grandmother. While the revolution provided material benefits to the working class and the peasantry (initially) – with relatively equal distribution of necessities such as food and clothing – this form of authoritarian communism made many worshippers of Mao. The regime created a personality cult around Mao, making it a crime to question his words. Neighbours would report his critics, who then would be arrested. An analogy my mother always likes to make is that Mao to most Chinese people during his reign was what God is to Christians – an omnipotent and omnipresent being, who guides the people to salvation. A colleague of hers was imprisoned for 8 years for saying one of the Communist politicians “didn’t look like a good guy”. My paternal grandfather was also imprisoned for three months for being an intellectual. Intellectuals or people with education were considered dangerous and threatening to the communist regime: the Party needed total control over thought and ideology to govern well.
With this all-powerful state in place, there was obviously little scope for democratising power. Since the establishment of the CCP government in 1949, there have been major turbulent periods caused by Mao’s policies such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. After Mao’s death government policies began to change. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping and other pragmatists in the CCP started making economic reforms. This marked the “opening up” of the Chinese economy (改革开放), and it allowed foreign investment and greater integration with global capitalism. However, after decades of anti-capitalism, this had to be presented to Chinese people as part of the ‘socialist’ program, so Deng termed this change “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It was a program for modernisation and capital investment to expand the Chinese economy. Consequently, the gap between the rich and poor had greatly widened in China.
It was a repressive system and Western edemocraciesf still like to criticise China for its ecommunistf (meaning totalitarian) tendencies. With this all-powerful state in place, there was obviously quite little scope for democratising power. Between the beginning of CCP control over China and the Tiananmen Square massacre, major catastrophic events took place: The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. During those periods, pro-democracy student movements had already attempted to challenge the CPP. After Mao's death, other members of the CCP rose to power and started changing things. Deng Xiaoping made economic reforms liberalising and gopening uph the Chinese economy (‰üŠv开•ú) It allowed foreign investment and reversion back to a more capitalist economy However after decades of anticapitalism this had to be presented as part of the esocialistf program, so Deng termed this change gsocialism with Chinese characteristicsh. It was a program for modernisation and capital investment. Since then it has greatly widened the gap between the rich and poor in China.The June 4th Movement
After Mao’s death there were several movements for democratic reform, but the most significant and well-known one is what is now called the June 4th Movement. It refers to the student movement that fought for democratic reforms in1989. It emerged from a context of economic reform, high inflation, and corruption and profiteering by state officials. Many ordinary students were swept up in this wave of dissent. A family friend, Jiefang was one of those students and from here on, the description of the June 4th movement is based on his perspective, supported by a chronology of events in the book Voices From Tiananmen Square. In 1989, he was a student at a Beijing university where he became involved in this pro-democracy movement. According to him, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms provoked people to question why there was to be no political reform, i.e. democratisation of state power. Some students with increasing knowledge of the outside world looked to eastern European countries for inspiration as to how socialist democracies might work and develop. It was during this period of reform that the pro-democracy movement led by university students sprang into being.
The movement began in spring after Hu Yaobang died of a heart attack on April 15th 1989. He was the General Secretary for the CCP who had been forced to resign from the Party for his pro-democracy views two years earlier. Many people respected him because he opposed the authoritarianism of the CCP and argued for democracy in China. After his death, people gathered at Tiananmen Square to pay their respects and lay wreaths. But the next day, the CCP removed the wreaths placed by Beijing University students and a demonstration was organised in response. About 3,000 students attended a march to
Tiananmen Square with a petition involving seven requests:
1. Re-evaluation of Hu Yaobang’s achievements
2. Rejection of the 1987 “anti-bourgeois liberalization campaign”
3. Freedom of press
4. Increase of the education budget
5. Freedom to protest and demonstrate
6. Publication of the financial holdings of senior government officials
7. Abolition of municipal regulations controlling demonstrations
A Chronology and Description of Events
On April 18th, 5000 students marched to Tiananmen Square to demand the resignation of Li Peng. Li Peng was the Premier at the time and he held very conservative views. He was seen as one of the main people responsible for corruption. Corruption was viewed by students as a symptom of a centralised bureaucratic political structure, where the state officials had monopoly over power and resources.
Protestors increased to 30,000 later on in the day. At 11pm, 1000 students tried to take a wreath to the gate of Zhongnanhai (CCP headquarters). At approximately midnight on April 19th, the police arrived and demanded students leave Zhongnanhai. They refused and stayed, so between 3am and 4am, the police started using force and violence to remove the students. Students tried to stay as long as possible, but police assaulted and forcibly dragged out those students who refused to leave. This was the first clash between police and students. Later that day, anger erupted and students started to mobilise.
In Beijing University, there were about 300,000-400,000 students at the time. They were angry at the state’s violent response to the anti-corruption protest so they decided to do something on April 22nd, a date that coincided with the state funeral for Hu Yaobang. Many students from different universities were also organising protests against corruption while mourning the death of Hu Yaobang. The CCP feared anti-government sentiments and there had been active surveillance of political movements including this one.
The CCP, fearing disorder at the state funeral, set a curfew for the evening of 21st April, after which people were banned from entering Tiananmen Square. Students entered before the curfew and planned to stay there until the next morning. Normally, a CCP state funeral procession would involve the coffin of the dead politician being walked around the square several times with “aiyue” (funeral music), before being taken to the crematorium. The CCP, however, were afraid that students would disrupt the state funeral, so Hu Yaobang’s coffin was sent straight to the crematorium, bypassing the customary procession. Jiefang went to this funeral and it was his first contact with the pro-democracy movement. At the time, he went not so much for the politics but to experience the movement. Chang An St, Beijing’s longest street was filled with people paying their final respects.
At this time, students were still demanding Li Peng’s resignation over corruption. They wanted to hand him a petition and were physically kneeling at the doorsteps of Zhongnanhai. Li Peng never came out.
These student protests against corruption were organised partly to honour Hu Yaobang and restore his reputation and dignity that was smeared by his dismissal from the CCP. He represented a political stance against corruption, against the one party policy and for democratic reform. Students were demanding punishment for politicians involved in corruption who had been using their power to benefit themselves. They were not specifically targeting Deng Xiaoping or Li Peng, but were using them as symbols of corruption.
Meanwhile in other cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Tianjin and Xi’an, protests were happening in support of the Beijing students’ demands. Hundreds of students from Tianjin planned to catch a train to Beijing, but university authorities stopped most of them by cancelling their tickets.
On April 26th, the CCP issued a press statement labelling the student protests an “anti-government and anti-society movement” causing “turmoil” (动乱) – a negative term used to discredit the students’ demands. On April 27th, 200,000 students from all over Beijing marched to Tiananmen Square to protest this press statement and misrepresentation of the movement. Over a million citizens supported them along the route. The march lasted from 7am to 9pm and it covered around 20km. It was one of the biggest demonstrations since the Cultural Revolution.
The state refused to change its press statement and the movement grew even bigger. On April 28th, the Autonomous Student Union of Beijing Universities was established for students to organise together around pro-democracy demands. Students outside of Beijing were also organising and demonstrating: on the same day ASUBU was set up, 6000 students demonstrated in Tianjin.
By May 4th there was still a deadlock and students continued to demonstrate. May 4th is an important historical date in Chinese political history. In 1919, the May 4th Movement was an anti-imperialist movement in Beijing that lead to the end of feudalism and marked the birth of Chinese communism. It was also characterised by significant student involvement and working class dissent and revolutionary activity. To mark the 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement, Beijing students held a demonstration at Tiananmen Square. Not long afterwards, other groups in society became involved, and journalists started demonstrating for free press with slogans like “I want to tell the truth”. On hearing the news of a Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, planning to visit Beijing, ASUBU decided to organise a protest coinciding with his visit.
Hunger strike begins
On May 13th, about 3000 students from Beijing University began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square to protest the government's reluctance to engage in dialogue. By this time, many students were living and sleeping in the square. Makeshift shelters were made and living conditions were rough. The next day, a few politicians visited the students in the square and promised dialogue, but no agreement was reached. On May 15th, Gorbachev arrived in Beijing. Welcoming of foreign leaders is usually conducted at Tiananmen Square, but this was stopped by the student occupation whose aim was to embarrass the CCP in front of foreign visitors. By May 17th, all of Beijing had been mobilised and there was a huge demonstration participated by millions of people from all walks of life, workers, students and pretty much the whole of society. They were pro-democracy and against the CCP’s authoritarian reign. Meanwhile every day, hundreds and thousands of students were being hospitalised due to the hunger strike, their depleting health gained a lot of sympathy from other areas of society. On May 19th, the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation (BWAF) was set up in support of the students. It was the first independent trade union since the establishment of the CCP government.
On May 20th, the government declared martial law. No protests, petitions or strikes were allowed. Curfews were put in place and there was to be military control of Beijing. However, although martial law was declared, it could not be implemented.
The whole city of Beijing was now involved in this movement and the army was blockaded from entering the city. Beijing became an autonomous zone. Workers didn’t have to go to work and everyday routines were disrupted. It was a moment in time where political dissent and activism involved the whole of society and everyone was a comrade (同志) and stood in solidarity with each other. There were no police in Beijing, so traffic was being directed by students. Food and drinks were free to all the students because they had workers’ support. During this time of crisis and social upheaval, people showed more politeness to each other and solidarity. Even thieves stopped stealing.
After a deadlock for 10 days, the government still refused to accept the demands of the movement. By this time, students from all over China started coming to Beijing. Trains were free because workers supported this movement. On May 31st/June 1st, the government started to crackdown harder on the movement. But at the time, the army still could not enter Tiananmen Square because of the blockades. Undercover soldiers attempted to sneak into the square with weapons. On June 3rd, around midday, a car with guns in Zhongnanhai was discovered and exposed by students. The students confiscated the weapons and ammunition. The army was still determined to enter but had to get through blockades defended by 20,000 people.
Then the shooting started…
In the middle of the night on June 3rd to the early hours of June 4th, the army started firing. At first, students thought they were using rubber bullets but soon realised they were real. The army and the people of Beijing started fighting. As the army started entering, people were fighting back with Molotov cocktails, stones and bricks. Around 11-12am, the killing started. Jiefang was at university when this was happening and it was being reported on the radio. When they heard the news, him and his friends jumped on their bikes and rode to Tiananmen Square. As they were riding, they passed burning cars, buses, army vehicles, which people had ignited to act as a barricade preventing the army from coming in further. They also saw injured people being carried away and transported by bike trailers. The army was firing both warning shots and shots at people. People were angry and afraid, calling the army “Fascists!” (法西斯). People beside him were hurt and had been shot. All around him people were carrying injured students. Blood was everywhere. There were countless deaths and injuries. The exact statistics are still unknown, only estimates. Nobody could sleep while bullets were firing.
Meanwhile at Tiananmen Square, thousands of students stayed staunch and kept their occupation of the square. The government tried to negotiate with movement leaders but they refused to move. When the army arrived at Tiananmen Square at about 2.30am, the atmosphere was full of fear and chaos. Over the megaphones in the square, the government were sending warning messages about this “暴乱” (riot, chaos) and the crackdown. Messages to the square occupants included “This is your life, your responsibility; take it at your own risk”. By 4am, the army surrounded Tiananmen Square. Lights were turned off and tanks drove in and fired into the crowds to drive the students out of the square. Many walked away “shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand” crying as they left the square. People were emotionally distressed, traumatized and afraid and many could not believe what was happening. Some soldiers were also injured and killed. After the massacre, the government regained control of the square. Many of the students left the country and went into exile, while the leaders were arrested and imprisoned. Millions of students had been involved and most just returned back to their own lives. Within the army, there were some non-cooperative soldiers and generals who refused to take government orders, they were sacked in the aftermath of the massacre.
This story based on one student’s experience of the June 4th movement is one amongst many others. There are still Chinese people of my generation who deny the massacre ever happened and consider it “Western propaganda”. While the way it has been portrayed in the West is no doubt with western bias, and the event was utilised in a way to demonstrate the western democracy as “the way of the future” and proclaim a kind of civilisational superiority, it is not an event that can be denied. Unlike many western portrayals of the movement, its goal was not to set up a capitalist democracy, rather to democratize and decentralise power within a socialist economy.
Solidarity and mutual aid
One of the inspiring features that characterised the pro-democracy movement of '89 is the mutual aid and solidarity between students and workers. This was a conscious recognition of the importance of the working class in winning this struggle for democratic socialism. Ren Wanding, one of the students involved in the June 4th Movement made a speech looking the lessons learnt from previous student movements for democracy: the Democracy Wall Movement and the Student Movement 1986. His/her critique was that they had no concrete programme for long-term goals and were not connected to working class struggles. But workers involved were arrested and jailed in both movements.
"Students should join the workers, who in their turn should fight for independent trade unions. Only when several million production workers understand that their democratic rights are not handed down to them, but are something that must be fought for, and take command of the situation, will democracy be realised." - Ren Wanding, April 21,1989, Tiananmen square
Students reflected on their role in society and took their privileges into consideration. Out of most sections of society excluded from participation in government, some students saw themselves as having the most freedom to act and protest. Hue Yu, a student writing in '89 before the massacre argues:
We can see that in China the people who are under the iron first of arbitrary rule and slavery are not the students, but the workers, peasants and other strata of society. In the Democracy Movement the students, who have the greater freedom than others, are making the loudest demands for democracy and freedom. This should change, and the people who should speak are not students, but the people.
Coming from an anarchist position, I think it's important to understand why democracy was fought for in China, but also to critically support demands for democracy. Under authoritarian communist reign and within the global context of western cultural dominance, this idea of democracy was perhaps the most available and accessible political ideal to use as a strategy for liberation. They saw rights such as free speech, freedom to demonstrate and protest and participation in decision-making as part of “democracy”.
However, as most of us are aware of, western capitalist democracies are far from free. In comparison to totalitarian regimes, it seems like an ideal option, but ultimately state power is always oppressive. Western democracies are just better at hiding and governing populations by creating an illusion of freedom and using ideological and political technologies to keep people in line. When there is a small elite governing the majority, even when there is token participation like voting, social hierarchy and inequality is still maintained. Crackdown on dissent also happens but in less visibly violent forms. It is done through surveillance, the police, the court system, the prison system and the education system. Western democracies give an illusion of freedom by allowing voting every few years, but these political systems are still very much tied up to economic forces and conservative social attitudes of the dominant Pakeha culture.
In Chinese pop culture’s representations of the communist revolution, there is still a deep romanticism of a classless society through struggle, sacrifice and hardship. There are countless television dramas representing the stories of peasants or workers with the background context being the communist revolution. With this relatively new economic condition of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, which is essentially state capitalism using nationalist rhetoric, the ideals of communism, working class and peasant struggle are part of a romanticised past; a memory. Ideals that started off as a liberating force have reverted back to oppression. The ideal of democracy, Western liberal representative democracy, was a liberating idea from the authoritarian conditions of state communism. Similarly, people in capitalist democracies looked to communist systems for inspiration and liberation. But are they ultimately futile in the scheme of things if hierarchical structures are maintained?
Ideological strategies employed to discredit dissent
Authoritarian communism and capitalist democracy are really two sides of same coin. It is convenient for the ruling class of both systems to construct themselves in opposition to each other. Often in capitalist democracies, people are taught to think that the opposite of democracy is communism. They are afraid of the economic idea of communism because they think it necessarily involves the political system of dictatorship. Similarly, CCP propaganda equates the political system of democracy with the economic system of capitalism.
This deliberate confusion of political and economic systems operates in both oppressive state systems to justify the existence of the state and centralised power. Although their justifications rest on different political ideologies, they both operate to restrict dissent and construct an illusion of freedom. The CCP labelled pro-democracy activists as “bourgeois” as a way to connect democracy ideals to the evils of capitalism. Meanwhile in western capitalist democracies, the label of “communist” has been used in a derogatory way to connect anti-capitalists to totalitarian dictatorships. Using ideologies for liberation to justify oppression happens in both contexts, communism in China and other 'communist' states are not actually communist.
Western capitalist democracies such as the US or NZ always emphasise that they are a “democracy”, but never call themselves “capitalist”. Likewise, Chinese political discourse emphasises and refers to China as a “communist” or “socialist” country but never a “totalitarian dictatorship”. I think this is a way both states tries to connect to people on the grassroots and dupe them into thinking they are free and equal, and at the same time masking the systems that cause more inequality and oppression.
What these idealised visions of freedom and equality also did was sow the seed for criticism when the reality of the situation is the opposite. The student movement in '89 argued that the CCP was “practicing capitalism under the name of socialism”. Similarly, democracies in western countries are sometimes critiqued by its citizens as not being real democracies. But they are just enough to pass it as such to provide the illusion that people have freedom. Both systems use each other to prop up themselves, but it creates a false dichotomy of just two options in the way politics can be organised.
Anarchism as an alternative has been suppressed, misrepresented and dismissed in both contexts so hierarchical power structures can continue to exist. But the real danger to the state and capitalism is when communism is combined with anarchism, which is when there is potential for meaningful revolutionary change.
Politicians tell us that grassroots demands that threaten their power are “unrealistic” or “impossible” because they’re “not practical” or “against human nature”. By using media, political rituals, symbols and imagery, they create and construct a sense of 'reality' that helps to maintain their power. Because the state has the power to define what constitutes “reality”, it becomes hard to think outside of their framework of possibilities. When people internalise these dominant ideas of realism and pragmatism, it limits our imagination of alternative forms of socio-political and economic organisation. Despite these strategies to suppress dissent in state societies, many people can still see right through these ideas which ignores or justify their oppression and organise collectively to challenge injustice.
The CCP tried to discredit the June 4th Movement by branding as causing “turmoil” and the previous student movement as a “bourgeois liberalization campaign”. When Helen Clark branded the Tino Rangatiranga movement against the Seabed and Foreshore bill confiscating more Maori land as “haters and wreckers”, or when the Crown branded Maori and Pakeha anarchists and political activists as “terrorists”, it's the same shit, different context. Except in capitalist democracies the repression and violence is less visible and more sophisticated. The state doesn't need to massacre people to stay in power. The violence at Tiananmen Square in '89 showed the depleting power and legitimacy of the CCP and violence was subsequently used to re-establish authority and control.
The Tiananmen Square massacre showed the state’s capability for violence and dissolution of dissent. Blood, sweat and tears were shed for justice and liberation, as it always has been. But twenty years later, the struggle is not over. While no event since the Tiananmen Square massacre has garnered the same amount of global and national attention, media coverage and the effect on Chinese politics, resistance against state power and capitalism continues. The political and economic situation in China has not changed much since 1989, rather it has become worse: unemployment rates are extremely high; the gap between rich and poor is widening more and more; inflation is rampant; and there have been attempts to privatise industries. The power of the state is still strong and people have little say in most aspects of their lives. Within the first three months of this year, there were news of 58,000 “mass incidents”, which is the state’s term for protest actions, uprisings, strikes, road blocks and rioting. More recently in China, steelworkers clashed with riot police to stop plans to privatise state-owned Tonghua Steel in Jilin province. The state was forced to listen to their demands. These recent examples of political activity and the June 4th Movement are all part of the same struggle to take back power nationally and globally, slowly chipping away the power of corporations and the state. Listening to a participant of the movement talk about the bloodshed, the death of freedom fighters and the injustice of the situation makes me angry and upset. The trauma it has caused Jiefang and other students like him, the workers involved and the soldiers who disobeyed orders and the people who have lived through that is immense. It explains why my family here and in China are always concerned about my safety for being involved in political dissent. But I think it would be more tragic and insulting to those who fought and suffered for wanting freedom if the rest of us are too paralysed by fear to fight back. In honouring the people involved in this movement and others like it, the least we can do is to keep creating 'turmoil' wherever oppression exists.
Bibliography and further reading
Zhou, Qin andZi Jin, trans. 1989. June Four: A Chronicle of the Chinese Democratic Uprising. Fayetteville : University of Arkansas Press
Barme, Geremie and Linga Jaivin, eds. 1992. New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices. New York: Random House Inc.
Yu, Mok Chiu and J. Frank Harrison. 1990. Voices from Tiananmen Square: Beijing Spring and the Democracy Movement. Canada: Black Rose Books.
Saich, Tony, ed. 1990. The Chinese People’s Movement: Perspectives on Spring 1989. New York: An East Gate Book.
 It is fairly easy to access Western and Chinese histories of the event written from an “objective” historical approach, but I think that can easily lose the subjective human elements of people’s actual experience.
 It was named after the Tiananmen Square massacre happened on that date.
That was the state's reaction to the student movement that existed in '86-'87, who were labeled as bourgeois liberals for wanting democracy.
(cited in Yu and Harrison, eds 1989: 46)
 (cited in Yu and Harrison 1989:64)
 (Yu and Harrison, eds 1989:56).
 I think because communism worldwide is no longer really a threat to capitalist societies, since countries like China have already assimilated capitalist policies, the new derogatory term since 9/11 has shifted to “terrorist” rather than “communist”.