I arrived in Beijing in February 1989 as an 18-year-old student. I was fresh out of high school and part of an Australian government study program. The Hawke-Keating Labor government had dispatched eight teenagers to China to learn the language, so we could grow up into businesspeople, trade experts or wily diplomats, armed with the superpower of understanding what Chinese people were really saying.
Beijing is situated on a flat, dry plain in north-east China. In 1989, it was home to around 10 million people. It still contains ancient laneways, temples and courtyards, but these did not feature in our first impressions. What we saw were immense concrete structures – apartment towers, factories, public buildings – stained a uniform brown by coal smoke and dust storms, and vast, arrow-straight boulevards, alive with thousands of cyclists, dozens of buses and very few cars.
Major public buildings and workplaces all sported giant red and white slogans, exhorting passers-by to GO TO WORK HAPPILY, GO HOME PEACEFULLY or to DILIGENTLY WORK TO BUILD OUR COUNTRY. A very large proportion of people in the streets were dressed the same as each other, in dull blue or khaki cotton work clothes. On campus, loudspeakers blared you awake early with the same whip-cracking message – get up, work hard and build the country.
It was just what we expected “communism” to look like. I wrote in my diary, “A country with such a huge population simply has to have some form of socialism. It would be chaos otherwise. As poor as people are, everyone has the basics. There are no homeless or beggars”. Our hilarity at the sinister Orwellian slogans included the racist assumption that our Chinese teachers and classmates didn’t get the joke. We believed the Chinese Communist Party propaganda and assumed people were OK with the poverty and the mind control because it was the least worst option available to them.
Yet inconsistencies nagged at us. If everyone had a job and a home, who were the ruddy-faced lurkers and urgers eking out a living hawking cigarettes and games of pool at roadside tables, or sidling up to us offering to “change money”? Government stores dominated, so who were the entrepreneurs selling souvenirs and clothing at a few, tolerated free markets? And if the chicken at the first KFC in China was too expensive for us, let alone for our Chinese classmates, who could afford to buy it?
In fact, Chinese society in 1989 was unequal and hierarchical. The “people’s republic” established by Mao Zedong 40 years earlier cloaked itself with the slogans of communism and national liberation but did not end the exploitation of workers and peasants. Instead of enriching local landlords and gangster capitalists, their labour was exploited by the Chinese Communist Party so the Chinese state could grow larger and more powerful. This violent dictatorship had nothing to do with democracy, socialism or workers’ control. It was capitalist exploitation via the one-party state.
A huge apparatus of social control was developed and refined to prop up this state capitalist regime. China had been a virtually closed state from the 1950s. But this didn’t allow it to escape the pressures of military competition and arms spending that also weighed on the Soviet Union and other state capitalist economies during the 1980s. In Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power arguing for perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). The Chinese regime was keen on restructuring, dubbing it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, but had staked a lot against openness. Occasional experiments in loosening political repression always resulted in harsh crackdowns when the regime became terrified of losing control.
On 15 April 1989, the former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Yaobang, died suddenly. He’d been sacked from his leadership positions two years earlier for the twin crimes of being an enthusiastic reformer and supporting student protesters who demanded faster restructuring and more openness.
In the repressive political climate of China, the deaths of more sympathetic or progressive political leaders have often sparked protests. Protesters have used the cover of mourning to gather and paste up public criticisms of the regime. Hu’s death was seized on as just such an opportunity by groups of radical students and intellectuals who had been organising for several years before 1989. Within two days of Hu’s death, rallies of several thousand students from the city’s two most prestigious universities, Beijing University and Qinghua University, marched around 20 kilometres to the symbolic heart of the Chinese nation, Tiananmen Square.
There, the students formulated a list of demands for political freedoms and against elite corruption. Discussion swirled under the cover of darkness, and the students were joined by handfuls of disaffected workers attracted by the upheaval and the questioning of normality. Small but politically significant autonomous student and workers’ federations were formed.
On the eve of Hu Yaobang’s state funeral four days later, 100,000 students marched to the square in defiance of official instructions that it was out of bounds. Divisions within the senior leadership of the Communist Party meant that the official response to the protests was by turns placatory and threatening. On 26 April, top leader Deng Xiaoping ordered the official newspaper, the People’s Daily, to print a hard-line editorial on its front page condemning the protesters. The aim was to isolate the protesters and scare off their support. It backfired spectacularly. The next day another huge student protest took place, and this time the working class of Beijing started to show active support.
It would have been around this time that I attended my first Tiananmen protest. I had never been in a crowd so large before, or seen the joy and creativity unleashed in struggle. Imagine the impact of seeing hundreds of banners representing colleges and universities all over the city, and the sight of workers out on the streets pressing drinks and food into the hands of the student marchers. Another massive protest took place on 4 May, the 70th anniversary of a celebrated uprising against colonial forces in China started by students in Beijing in 1919. Significantly, there were large marches across China, not just in Beijing.
Press restrictions were loosened in early-mid May, too. Footage and sympathetic coverage of the students appeared on TV and in the newspapers. We were astounded one morning when our very earnest and formal teacher cast aside her lesson plan and spent the class time talking with us movingly about why the protests were happening and why she supported them. She explained to us that the students had started a hunger strike to publicise their demands, and convinced us to leave class immediately and head straight to central Beijing, where we became part of one of the very largest rallies of the Tiananmen protests.
Buses were still running from our outer suburban campus but could go no further than the outskirts of central Beijing. We walked through a city alive with rebellion. This time, workers’ participation was prominent. We waited at an intersection for workplace after workplace to cross. Railway workers carrying portraits of Mao Zedong seemed to claim his support for their mobilisation. Shop workers in aprons and cotton hats marched alongside construction workers in bamboo helmets.
Most memorable for me were the workers from the People’s Daily, wearing paper hats fashioned out of their newspaper, and the bloke who’d borrowed an excavator to bring to the protest. High school and primary school students marched with banners that read: “Elder brothers and sisters, we are coming to join you”. Contingents from universities across China had started arriving in Beijing, too. It was exhilarating to be part of a city that had collectively decided that continuous protest was the new normal.
Calling the hunger strike was a brave and outrageous step for the students to take. It seemed deliberately timed to severely embarrass the Communist Party leadership. The Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was to visit Beijing on 15 May. It would be the first meeting between the leaders of the two countries since their alliance had broken down 30 years earlier.
Such a visit would normally be celebrated with a huge ceremony in Tiananmen Square. Instead, Gorbachev received a low-key welcome at the airport, and had to be hustled in the back door of the Great Hall of the People for the official ceremonies. The daring of forcing such a loss of face on China’s cruel powermongers was not lost on anyone. The day Gorbachev left, the gloves came off and the orders to declare martial law across Beijing were written. The hardliners were outfacing the moderates in the leadership.
Meanwhile, the daily protests were growing and the movement spread to more than 400 cities. The fledgling Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation was prominent during this week of rising protests, and recruited dozens of new members, with its focus on attacking corruption and calling for action against rampant inflation. It attempted to register its existence formally with several bodies, including with the government-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the Public Security Bureau, but its existence was too dangerous to be officially recognised.
The hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square had become a moral centre for the protests. The movement did not aim to overthrow the regime, but its demands threatened to tear down the facade of the regime’s authority. Tiananmen Square is vast – the equivalent of 22 Melbourne Cricket Grounds. During the hunger strike protest days, all of it was covered with a tent city of student protesters. The hunger strikers lay in ranks of iron bedsteads “liberated” from campus dormitories, or sheltered in buses commandeered from the streets. Workers had set up dedicated, cordoned-off roadways through the square, and marshals enforced these so ambulances could reach the weak and fainting hunger strikers. The constant ambulance sirens tearing through the square made the situation feel so serious and urgent.
Members of the general public (and, sadly, members of the workers’ federation) were not permitted within the student protest camp itself. That included many foreign students, but we had real Chinese student cards because our study program was government-funded. We showed our student cards to the nearest marshal and demanded to be allowed in to show our solidarity and be part of it all. Inside the tent city, discussions were taking place everywhere you turned, singers strummed guitars and students from across the nation met under each other’s banners, swapped college badges and felt themselves to be “the moral conscience of the people”.
None of us from Australia had ever been part of a protest movement. Yet the language of struggle is universal. In the contest between repressive state control and student uprising, we all instinctively sided with the movement. None of us had ever heard “the Internationale” before (the international song of the workers’ and socialist movement), but we somehow, suddenly, just knew what it was, and when it was sung in the square it made us shiver. The history of student uprisings in Paris gave the French students in our dormitory much more of an idea of what to do. They painted a banner of solidarity with the Chinese students and hung it out of their third-floor windows until they were forced to remove it by college authorities.
Martial law was declared on 20 May; 30 divisions of the army were mobilised to take control of Beijing. We were in the square the night of the announcement. Deputy premier Li Peng’s hated voice blared through the sound system, telling the protesters to disperse. He was drowned out by tens of thousands of voices singing “the Internationale”. (The song was taught to schoolchildren in China like a solemn patriotic hymn, so the fact that its revolutionary energy couldn’t be quashed is amazing. It became one of the anthems of the movement.)
The workers and citizens of Beijing mobilised against the army. The troops entered Beijing in open trucks during broad daylight. That was a mistake, because the grandmas could see them and talk to them. On the road from the east that ran past our campus, we witnessed an army truck stoppage. People surrounded the truck and then argued with the soldiers and simply refused to let them pass. They held up children to pass them food, drinks and sweets that the soldiers were unable to refuse. “You’re the People’s Liberation Army!”, cried one woman. “We’re the people! You have to help us; you can’t go there and act against the protesters!” The soldiers – most of whom looked around 18 years old – looked ashamed and confused. The truck did not advance.
I recorded what I could understand of the conversations around me. On the night of the declaration of martial law, I noted that there was talk of a strike by the 200,000 workers at the Capital Iron and Steel Works, the largest factory in China. Despite my relative lack of political knowledge, it was clear to me that strikes and industrial action could put pressure on the government that no amount of moral high ground and martyrdom could match.
Tragically, the fractious and disparate leadership of the Tiananmen student movement was united in disdain and dismissiveness toward the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation, most of whose activists were blue collar workers. Just as the student movement was starting to fall apart through infighting and lack of political strategy, the Workers’ Federation was coordinating mass daily protests, signing up hundreds of new members every day, running a wildly popular nightly broadcast at the square and calling for a general strike against martial law.
Key student leaders resisted the calls for a mass strike, and their moral authority was respected by the Workers’ Federation. This proved fatal for the struggle. By the time a messenger was sent to the Workers’ Federation tents to ask that a general strike be called, at the beginning of June, it was far too late.
By the end of May, the numbers had dwindled to around 10,000 at the square, but unrest was spreading through the country. There was jubilation at the ease with which protesters had withstood the first attempt at imposing martial law. A brief resurgence took place on 30-31 May, when as many as 300,000 people returned to the square to watch a 10-metre tall statue, Goddess of Democracy, being defiantly installed by a collective of art students. It faced the giant portrait of Mao Zedong in a mute challenge to the authority of the Chinese state. To maintain control, Communist Party leaders gave the orders for a sustained military assault. Tiananmen Square was to be cleared.
On Saturday evening 3 June, troops were secretly moved into position in buildings surrounding the square while tanks and armoured personnel carriers advanced from the four compass points, some firing indiscriminately as they advanced. These troops were not youths from the local garrison, but battle-hardened soldiers from the borders of the Chinese empire, with experience in putting down uprisings in Tibet and Xinjiang (East Turkestan).
The population of Beijing rose bravely to resist, hurling rocks at the troops and building roadblocks, often with buses. The most savage fighting took place in the inner-west of the city. At Muxidi, buses were used to barricade a bridge and then set on fire. Dozens were killed in the two miles between Muxidi and Xidan. More than 100 military vehicles were destroyed in the fighting and hundreds more were damaged.
As the troops drew nearer to Tiananmen Square, they raked the buildings lining Chang’An Boulevard with live fire. Multiple fatalities were recorded in apartments lining the approach to the Square. In the Square itself, the thousands of students remaining were huddled together at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. They joined hands, singing and preparing to die for their ideals. Helicopters roared overhead as night fell, and news of the bloodshed in the west of the city reached the square.
Just after midnight, a flare lit the sky above and the first armoured vehicles advanced into Tiananmen Square. Demonstrators fought to resist, setting fire to one vehicle. Debate raged among those remaining. Should they remain non-violent? Should they resist in any way possible? Should they surrender and attempt to save lives? Testimony of the savagery of the troops’ approach influenced leading protesters to attempt to negotiate a safe passage out.
Finally, hundreds of troops sealed off the square and advanced on the protesters from all sides. Tanks rolled menacingly through, crushing the feeble student barricades, their tent city and the Goddess of Democracy. Paratroopers shot dead people trying to enter the Square from the south, and police prevented hundreds of parents and relatives of the protesters from entering from the north. The soldiers and riot police clubbed, beat and bayoneted the protesters until all had left the square. Then the soldiers removed and, in some cases, burned the tents and items left behind.
We had travelled to the nearby city of Tianjin the day before to visit a friend. We returned to Beijing Railway Station, three kilometres from Tiananmen, at 6am on Sunday morning 4 June, intending to go straight to the square to see the Goddess of Democracy. Pushing through crowds of people moving in the opposite direction, we met a pair of dazed-looking students from our college and asked them what was going on. Shell-shocked, they told us that the army had cleared the square. They had lost their friends and all their belongings. The man’s shoes were much larger than his feet, his head was bleeding and her arm was badly injured. Emerging onto the main boulevard, we saw buses splayed wildly across the ten lanes to form barricades. We saw tanks, army vehicles and soldiers with machine guns blocking the roads from the east and understood that the protests had finally been crushed.
In the days that followed, the crackdown intensified across the country. Thousands were arrested, and four insurgent worker leaders in Shanghai were summarily shot. Beijing remained under martial law. Our group of students was evacuated a few days later. We did not see Tiananmen Square again until National Day (1 October). That day, security was fierce around this incendiary 40 hectares of concrete, as it has been on every significant commemoration day since 4 June 1989. Only tourists were permitted into the vast windscape, and so we traversed it, weeping, sickened by the brazen lack of cover-up of what had taken place four months earlier. The steps of the Monument to the People’s Heroes – the organising centre of the protests – were chipped, broken and burned all the way around. There were bullet holes in the friezes. At regular intervals across the Square were vast burned areas, and faintly visible painted slogans from the movement. Most chilling was the one that simply read: TYRANNY. It looked like it had been painted in fear and haste.
We were based in Shanghai at this time, and on campuses the repression was ongoing. A friend was taken into custody for carelessly whistling “the Internationale” while cycling home one afternoon. The newspapers reverted to their usual practice of failing to report the news. But they could not fail to report the Berlin Wall coming down in November 1989. At Christmas celebrations, Chinese friends shared news of the overthrow of the brutal Ceausescu regime in Romania and the fall of Czech communism. Their faces were solemn, but their eyes were alight with hope.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I was at university in Australia. I was disillusioned with the idea of mass struggle. When socialist activists handed me leaflets for rallies, I felt like telling them there was no point. Hadn’t I been in rallies of more than a million people, only to see the protests crushed and the regime become even stronger? But again and again I faced the choice – to side with the rulers or the ruled; the protesters or the powers-that-be? We’re all continually faced with this choice, both when our side is winning victories, and whenever a movement is defeated. And our movements will continue to suffer defeats and setbacks until this brutal system of repression and exploitation is finally overthrown.
Since 1989, China has become a paradise for capitalists, still ruled by the elite of the Chinese Communist Party. Censorship is widespread, labour activists imprisoned and killed, and more than a million Uighur Muslims are interned in labour camps. It’s a glittering industrial empire with a black heart of corruption, murder and state control. In the lead-up to the 30th anniversary, repression intensified in China. Yet as fast as the regime cuts off the heads of the movement, more continually rise. And the ghosts of 1989 are cheering them on. The time is long overdue for the butchers of Tiananmen to be called to account for their crimes.
For information about the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation, I have relied heavily on Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia’s 1993 article “Workers in the Tiananmen protests: the politics of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation”, available at http://www.tsquare.tv/links/Walder.html.