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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.

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Mr. Han, who fled the country after the crackdown but remains active in union issues through the China Labour Bulletin that he founded in Hong Kong, recalls more mundane grievances.

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"As an ordinary worker, I was confused," he remembers. "We were no longer equally poor. We supported the reforms because they brought wage bonuses, but we were opposed because managers had more power to decide who got them. When we saw our bonus, we were happy, but when we saw others getting bigger bonuses because they got on better with the manager, we were unhappy."

Even during the tumultuous six weeks of the Tiananmen movement, however, few workers had the courage to organize themselves into unions independent of the ruling Communist party, Han points out. "Organized counterrevolutionary activity was punishable by death," he recalls. "That was the crystal-clear reality."

The Autonomous Workers' Federation lasted only two weeks before the crackdown, when its leaders were imprisoned or fled.

Punish the workers' movement

Weak as it was, the workers' movement was singled out for punishment.

Many workers were charged with "counterrevolutionary assault," "counterrevolutionary sabotage," or "hooliganism," according to a list of current June 4 prisoners compiled by Human Rights in China, a US-based watchdog group.

That, says Han, partly reflects the fact that workers, not students, were the most aggressive in resisting the military takeover of the square on the night of June 3, burning buses and tanks.

But, he adds, it also shows that "the government wanted to punish workers harder to create more fear. Their biggest fear was that workers would come up with more unhappiness, so they wanted to smash it [dissent] before it even appeared."

The dual policy of pushing economic reform and crushing dissent – later evoked by supreme leader Deng Xiaoping in the slogan "seize with both hands, make both hands tougher" – worked, says Wang.

Price reforms that had failed before the Tiananmen massacre were pushed through that September.

"Because of the repression there was no room for protest, and that was the beginning of marketization," he says.

Reform, backed by a big stick

Though it was uncertain at the time exactly what direction economic policy would take after the crackdown, "it was clear that the reform policy would continue … and the big stick was clear," remembers Han. Eventually, 60 million workers in state-owned enterprises would lose their jobs with minimal compensation, and the "iron rice bowl" system of social security and healthcare would be dismantled.

Nonetheless, labor organizer Han sees a silver lining in all this.

"The heavier the exploitation, the greater the fight back," he says. "Today, workers are much braver to take organized action to defend their interests. In 1989, hundreds of thousands were not willing to take the risk."

Today, he adds, if people have concrete grievances, "nearly everyone is ready to strike."