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.

Elizabeth Dalziel/AP
Paramilitary police officers patrol the area around Tiananmen Square during the flag lowering ceremony in Beijing Thursday, June 4, 2009.

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.

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."

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.

"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."

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