Tiananmen Square: Workers bore brunt of repression
On 20th anniversary of massacre, few remember the key role state employees played in supporting students – and the price some paid for organizing.
Twenty years after Chinese troops dispersed pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square with murderous gunfire, some 50 protesters still languish in jail. Most of the prisoners were workers at the time. None of them was a student.Skip to next paragraph
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While the world remembers the six weeks of mass rallies in Beijing's central square as a cry for freedom by idealistic students, the workers and other ordinary Chinese citizens who bore the brunt of the repression remain largely forgotten.
Yet the severity of the punishment meted out to workers was no coincidence. And some historians see in the brutal crackdown on June 4, 1989, not only an end to hopes for democracy, but also a warning to those likely to suffer from free-market economic reform not to make trouble.
"The ones who made the big sacrifice in 1989 were not the students or the intellectuals, but the workers and other citizens," argues Wang Hui, one of the last students to leave the square as the tanks moved in. Now a history professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University, he adds, "The government's big worry was social unrest, and the autonomous trade union was their top target."
Supporting the students
Workers made up a very small minority of the Tiananmen protesters, and played very little role in setting their agenda.
"We just supported the students. They led the protests and gave workers something to follow," recalls Han Dongfang, a railroad worker who was spokesman for the short-lived Autonomous Workers' Federation that sprang up in Tiananmen Square and rallied trade union activists in cities around the country.
But the support that workers and ordinary citizens gave the students – offering them food, water, money, and goodwill – "was very important," says Professor Wang, who is today a leader of the "New Left" intellectual movement in China. "If it had just been groups of students protesting, as had happened before, they would have immediately disappeared. But 1989 was different. There was massive social mobilization."
Feeling the pinch of market reform
By 1989, the negative aspects of the free-market reforms that had been launched a decade earlier were beginning to make themselves felt.
Inflation, running at close to 30 percent a year, was making life harder for almost everybody, and the new social order was creating unprecedented, and often unwelcome, inequality.
"The sense of insecurity and inequality had become very strong, and that was the driving force for all of society to support the students," says Wang.
Among those most uncertain of their future, he adds, were the hundreds of millions of employees at state-owned enterprises. "They realized they were at risk of losing their jobs and being sacrificed for the new reforms."