Workers Vanguard No. 1171
6 March 2020
Tiananmen 1989 vs. Hong Kong 2019
Incipient Workers Political Revolution vs. Counterrevolutionary Rampage
Although hampered now by the outbreak of the coronavirus, anti-Communist mobs have since last June wreaked havoc in Hong Kong, aiming to break this former British colony from the rule of the People’s Republic of China, a bureaucratically deformed workers state. They have been sponsored and cheered by bourgeois politicians and media in the U.S. and other imperialist countries as a wedge for “democratic” counterrevolution in China. Following the imperialists’ lead, the largely petty-bourgeois Hong Kong rabble and its champions in Socialist Action (SA), local affiliate of International Socialist Alternative, falsely link their counterrevolutionary efforts with the specter of “June 4,” the 1989 proletarian upheaval centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that was bloodily suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime of Deng Xiaoping.
We noted in “Hong Kong: No to Counterrevolutionary Rampage!” (WV No. 1160, 6 September 2019): “SA & Co. present the 1989 upheaval as a mass movement for (bourgeois) democracy. It was nothing of the kind!” What began as student protests in Beijing raising supportable demands against corruption, inflation, etc. grew into a mass workers upheaval that spread throughout China. This development showed the potential for the proletariat to replace the rule of the Stalinist CCP bureaucracy, which undermines the workers state and its planned economy, with the rule of workers and peasants councils based on revolutionary internationalism. This is the program needed today: for a proletarian political revolution based on defense of China’s socialized economy. A necessary part of this Trotskyist program is unconditional opposition to the counterrevolutionary forces in Hong Kong and their imperialist backers as well as opposition to Beijing’s “one country, two systems” policy, which maintains Hong Kong as a capitalist enclave.
After the incipient political revolution was finally put down in June 1989, every successive CCP regime has suppressed the truth of those events. If they say anything, the Stalinists themselves say that the upheaval was counterrevolutionary and pro-imperialist. To refute this lie and to help fill in what for many in China is a blank space in history, we reprint below an excerpt from Part Two of an article that was based on a public forum marking the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen upheaval (“China: Fight Capitalist Restoration! For Workers Political Revolution!” WV No. 715, 11 June 1999).
As that headline indicates, at the time we tended to paint a one-sided picture of the CCP’s “market reforms” as leading imminently to capitalist restoration. Nevertheless, we stand by the historical material and programmatic conclusions expressed in this article. As we wrote in the Hong Kong article last summer, “We honor the memory of the proletarian heroes of 1989, whose struggle vividly demonstrated the revolutionary potential of the working class.”
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If you were politically conscious in 1989 or have read about the Tiananmen events, you know at least that it had something to do with mass student protests, and that eventually the regime led by Deng Xiaoping moved in troops to crush those protests. At the time, the capitalist media and governments around the world harped on how students had erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty and described these as mass student protests for “democracy.” By “democracy,” they meant the bourgeois democracy practiced in the U.S. and West Europe. We know this better as murderous police terror in the ghettos, strikebreaking, destruction of social welfare programs. Lenin described bourgeois democracy as a “democratic” mask for the naked dictatorship of the capitalists over the working class.
The Chinese Stalinist regime put out the very same lie as the bourgeois propagandists. They called the protests “counterrevolutionary” and pro-capitalist. Talk about hypocrisy: Deng Xiaoping was the man who engineered the destruction of collectivized agriculture in China, who opened up “special economic zones” for exploitation by foreign capital, whose entire program revolved around making a deal with the U.S. and Japan to further imperialist penetration of China. And he accused the protesters of wanting to bring back capitalism?
So what happened? In mid-April 1989, a group of students bicycled out from a university in Beijing in the middle of the night to Tiananmen Square. At a monument to heroes of the Chinese Revolution in the center of the square, they laid a wreath in honor of a Communist Party official named Hu Yaobang, who had just died. He was regarded as one of the only officials who was not corrupt. The next day, thousands of students came out to the square.
Tiananmen Square is the political center of China. It’s where Mao in 1949 declared the foundation of the People’s Republic. It’s where lots of mass demonstrations have happened. By the time of Hu’s funeral a week later, the protests had expanded, not only in Tiananmen but to several other cities. What were the students demanding? For one thing, they were on a fixed income and they didn’t like the fact that there was rampant inflation in China for the first time since 1949 because of “market reforms.” They didn’t like the fact that they were assigned jobs after graduation and couldn’t choose their own careers. In general, they were protesting the Stalinists’ stultification of social and political life. By and large, these were pretty privileged people, sons and daughters of the bureaucracy. It’s true that during the course of the protests they showed plenty of illusions in the U.S. and in bourgeois democracy. At the same time, the student protesters sang the “Internationale,” the international workers anthem. That’s not exactly counterrevolutionary.
But something else happened with the protests. After Hu’s funeral, students from 21 universities in Beijing called for a strike, and they began to leaflet working-class neighborhoods. And then the working class began to respond, at first very timidly. They started coming out to Tiananmen Square. Now, a lot of the students had petty-bourgeois contempt for the workers. They looked down on them as ruffians who were going to cause trouble, and they kept them segregated to one part of the square. But as the days went on, it was the working-class component that grew. And the workers began to raise their own demands, mostly against corruption, inflation, economic insecurity. You have to understand that prior to the 1989 protests, the effects of “market reforms” had led to a real explosion of the kind of strikes and protests we’ve seen on the increase in the last several years in China.
May 4 was a very important date: the 70th anniversary of the May 4th Movement of 1919, which was a mass anti-imperialist protest movement out of which emerged the Communist Party as well as the trade-union movement in China. On the day of the anniversary, there was a massive demonstration of 300,000 people in Beijing. There was another huge demonstration two weeks later, and then the regime decided it had had enough and declared martial law. The students called a hunger strike.
The workers had different ideas. They started setting up defense guards. You might have seen pictures of them in newspapers and books. They set up what were called “dare to die” teams after martial law was declared whose specific purpose was to defend student protesters against police crackdowns. One of those was called the “Black Panthers,” interestingly enough. Workers were putting out their own leaflets. They set up a loudspeaker in Tiananmen Square that they turned into an impromptu radio station, and every night workers coming in from the factories would read their complaints over the air, etc. A very high level of organization, and it showed some political consciousness. When the martial law edict came down, one of those motorcycle groups drove through the Capital Iron and Steel Works—a massive steel facility right in Beijing—calling for a general strike. And you also had organizations springing up in the working-class neighborhoods.
For two solid weeks, the regime could not enforce its martial law decree. Even the police were joining the demonstrations—that’s quite a clear reflection of the difference between a deformed workers state and a capitalist state. One very good book on these events is called The Legacy of Tiananmen—China in Disarray by a BBC reporter named James Miles, who was there at the time. He tried for days to call the foreign ministry and other government offices and couldn’t get them to even answer the phone. They were not there.
Most importantly, the workers’ actions were beginning to polarize the armed forces, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) itself. The first major army unit called in to crush the protesters would not move on them when workers in the neighborhoods came out to meet them. Seven retired senior PLA officers wrote a letter to Deng to protest the use of the People’s Army against the people. Eventually, Deng was able to get loyal army units to move on the protesters, and there was a massacre on the night of June 3-4. Now, the bourgeois media lies about this, too. They say it was the students who were slaughtered. That’s wrong. The students were allowed to leave Tiananmen Square peacefully. What happened was that before the army units got to Tiananmen Square, they were again met by mass outbursts in the neighborhoods. They turned their guns on the working-class population of Beijing. It was the workers who bore the brunt of repression that night. There’s really no way to tell how many people were killed; the estimates vary wildly.
But it’s important to understand that it still took weeks for the regime to regain its hold over that society. The June 4 massacre was answered with mass strikes throughout China. There was a display at a military museum after it all died down that pinpointed where the protests had taken place—at least 80 cities were caught up in the turmoil.
Lessons of Tiananmen
As we wrote at the time of the Tiananmen events: “It was the beginnings of a working-class revolt against Deng’s program of ‘building socialism with capitalist methods’ which gave the protests their mass and potentially revolutionary nature” (“Defend Chinese Workers!” WV No. 480, 23 June 1989). Through its repression directed against the working class, the bureaucracy in its own way showed that it realized that. The Stalinists televised frame-up trials of workers and marched workers through the streets with signs charging things like “instigating social unrest” and “spreading rumors.” For that, you could be executed. And they did execute dozens of workers, but not students.
This reveals something critically important to understand about the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy. It is not a possessing class, it is a parasitic caste sitting atop collectivized property forms. Its rule is extremely brittle. Ruling in the name of “the masses” while in fact politically fearing and suppressing the proletariat, the bureaucracy cannot stand the least bit of independent working-class organization.
The events in Tiananmen bear resemblance to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when workers rose up against the Stalinist regime there and fraternized with the first wave of Soviet troops that were called out to crush the uprising. The pro-socialist Hungarian workers created workers councils, like the soviets that arose in Russia in 1917 and took power there under Bolshevik leadership. Under the impact of the workers revolt in Hungary, the bureaucracy shattered. Many of its elements joined the side of the working class. The Stalinist bureaucrats were finally able to muster fresh Soviet troops to put down the rebellion.
What was missing in both Hungary ’56 and China ’89 was a revolutionary leadership of the proletariat. Even a tiny Bolshevik organization could have had a decisive effect in those events.
I wanted to raise one point that’s kind of a postscript on Tiananmen. I’ve heard from Chinese students—ones who don’t like that China is so clearly moving toward capitalism—that it was right for the government to suppress the Tiananmen protests because they would have developed into a counterrevolution. They point to some of the student leaders at the time, who have since become open spokesmen for U.S. imperialism. One of them is a big stockbroker in Taiwan right now.
In fact, there is no evidence of any significant number of openly pro-imperialist elements in the Tiananmen protests. In any case, a Trotskyist group would have sought to expose and politically defeat those tendencies which promoted illusions in parliamentary (i.e., bourgeois) “democracy.” Our program is a regime of workers democracy, the rule of workers, soldiers and peasants soviets based on defense of collectivized property.
Many Western academics claim that the Chinese workers were trying to emulate Polish Solidarność. This is a lie. Solidarność, which arose in 1980, was a counterrevolutionary fake union totally backed by the CIA and the Vatican. It was the spearhead of capitalist counterrevolution in East Europe. The workers in Tiananmen had no truck with such forces. Where Solidarność carried photos of Pilsudski—the nationalist dictator of pre-World War II Poland—the workers at Tiananmen carried posters not of prerevolutionary Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-shek but of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, founders of the People’s Republic.
That’s not to say that the Chinese workers face no danger from anti-Communist reactionaries opposing the Beijing regime. One such is Han Dongfang, a Tiananmen student leader who went on to set up shop in Hong Kong as an organizer of so-called “free trade unions,” particularly targeting Southern China. This guy is so openly pro-U.S. he even has a show on the CIA’s Radio Free Asia. People like Han are deadly enemies of the proletariat. They want to take full advantage of the unrest in China today to foment a Solidarność-type counterrevolution.
Predictably, Han is sponsored by the American AFL-CIO labor bureaucracy, who we call the “labor lieutenants” of the capitalist class. The AFL-CIO tops worked hand in glove with the CIA throughout the anti-Soviet Cold War, setting up anti-Communist “labor” fronts—under the same slogan of “free trade unions”—in order to smash leftist-led and other militant unions in U.S.-backed police states from South Korea to South America and to foment capitalist counterrevolution inside the Soviet bloc. Their support to U.S. imperialism abroad goes hand in hand with chaining workers to their own exploiters at home, mainly through support to the capitalist Democratic Party.