Political function

Two main groups: students and workers. The students perhaps a proto-elite, supporting reform faction in leadership (led by Zhao Ziyang) more and more as movement went on. Few intended “democracy” to include ordinary Chinese people; often scornful of workers’ and (especially) peasants’ ability to play any political role. Also wary of encouraging, even allowing, workers’ participation in movement in case it provoked early crackdown. Demanded end to official corruption, control of inflation, increased political role for themselves.

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Student groups troubled by concerns about personal prestige – several different people styling selves “Commander-in-Chief of Tiananmen Square”, for example. Besides food and other supplies from fellow-citizens, students also received cash donations, and ironically, there were complaints of corruption – money disappearing or being spent against rules; a cause of disputes within student ranks. Fed government’s propaganda against movement. Workers much more sceptical of all top leaders (Zhao Ziyang a particular target of criticism for family’s wealthy lifestyle, especially golf habit). Workers resented fact that those students who did show interest in workers’ movement wanted to lead it.

Unwilling to accept subordinate role or student dominance over workers’ organizations. Shop-floor organizational efforts hampered, especially after martial law, and kept out of Tiananmen Square itself by students until last days of occupation of Square. But did form independent unions which also had political function – intended to give workers collective voice in national and local decision-making as well as protecting interests at work.

Many worker activists followed fortunes of Poland’s Solidarity throughout 1980s; still thought Solidarity an example to emulate. Solidarity finally legalized 17 April 1989, two days after Hu Yaobang’s death, and this event mentioned in many speeches made in early days of movement. Workers’ groups anti-hierarchical, avoided positions of authority, titles – strong direct-democracy tradition of Poland’s original Solidarity. Workers “targeted the system” from beginning in movement, whereas many students seemed to aspire to join system and reform from within. Thus a lot of bad feeling within two groups, and students only abandoned insistence on keeping movement “pure” towards end, when numbers occupying Tiananmen Square dropping and students felt vulnerable enough to need support and protection of teams of worker-pickets. Earlier vetoed several calls for a general strike.

Workers’ organizations kept illegal by authorities’ refusal to register them, cf. DWM. Workers’ language also distinguished them from most students: talked about Party’s exploitation of them, called elite in power a “bourgeoisie”, and in one leaflet even quoted Communist Manifesto of 1848: Workers of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains, and a world to win!’ 4 The course of the movement in Beijing and around the country Events of movement in Beijing and other cities (all major Chinese cities and some smaller ones). Very large demonstrations causing Party concern, especially as occupation of Tiananmen Square continued during Gorbachev’s visit in mid-May.

April 15 – death of Hu Yaobang, allegedly while in heated row with CCP conservatives. Followed by days of activity, especially in Beijing, where tributes, wreaths etc. and criticism of rest of CCP leadership placed around Monument to People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square. Until after Hu’s funeral, leadership couldn’t do much about it – had to allow mourning for top leader. 50,000-strong demo in Tiananmen Square on 22 April, day of memorial service – large police/army presence. Demos in Changsha and Xian turn violent.

After memorial service, university students in Beijing and elsewhere began class boycotts. People milling around in Tiananmen Square reading posters and talking have already begun to form groups – many worker-activists later in workers’ autonomous federations (WAFs) met this way. Protest could usually be compartmentalized by authorities into individual work-units, but circumstances in which 1989 movement began cut across those divisions.

April 26 People’s Daily editorial condemning “turmoil” – first official reaction, and used term “counter-rev. turmoil”, which made participation potentially a very serious (capital) offence. Rank and file students given way out, though – article talked about most students meaning well and only wanting to pay respects to Hu being led astray by small minority with evil intentions. Repudiation of editorial became major demand of demonstrators, especially hunger-strikers from May 13, who demanded that movement be recognized as patriotic and democratic. Generally met with outrage and gave impetus to movement.

Late April – early May – demos growing in size, and reported in Chinese press, with pictures, so people can see level of support. Demonstrators applauded in streets and given food, drinks and donations by bystanders. Autonomous student unions and workers’ unions set up. Calls by student leadership for dialogue with Party. Hunger strike has tremendous emotional impact on public in Beijing – great support and sympathy for students (despite fact that several were interpreting “hunger strike” fairly broadly).

May 14 – agreed dialogue session between Party and student leaders to be broadcast live on TV. Dialogue goes ahead, but when it isn’t on TV, crowds from Square storm the venue and end the meeting in disarray. Another attempt on May 18 fails when Premier Li Peng monopolizes session with lecture to students. More radical leadership (e.g. Chai Ling) now of student movement – moderate figures like Wu’er Kaixi and Wang Dan have less and less influence, though still make attempts to get students occupying Square to agree to orderly withdrawal.

May 18 – Gorbachev leaves. ACFTU donates 100,000 yuan to students – first official gesture of support. Reported that ACFTU also agreed to back a general strike call by autonomous unions – very significant if true. But student leaders repeatedly vetoed calls, and when they finally supported general strike, in early June, too late. Martial Law declared immediately after Gorbachev’s visit ended – early hours of May 19. Revealed in January 2001, when Tiananmen Papers published, that the Politburo Standing Committee had been split over whether to declare martial law or continue negotiating with students (Li Peng and Yao Yilin for, Zhao Ziyang and Hu Qili against, Qiao Shi abstained).

Decision then referred to “Eight Elders”, including Deng Xiaoping (old guard kicked upstairs to Central Advisory Commission in mid-80s drive to have proper retirement procedures in CCP – Chinese House of Lords). Contrary to reports/rumours at the time, Deng actually not one of the most gung-ho or bloodthirsty about martial law, and particularly anxious that nobody should be killed in Tiananmen Square itself. Others less squeamish (especially retired General Wang Zhen, who thought death was too good for the protesters).

And it seems to have been Li Peng, the most criticized leader and one the movement really did want to depose (the movement never called for the overthrow of the whole Chinese government), who pushed for martial law. He skilfully played on Deng’s and the other old leaders’ fear of Red Guard-style street politics and the possibility that they’d all end up under house arrest unless the movement was swiftly crushed.

Zhao Ziyang, the only leader who really was on verge of being deposed and put under house arrest, by his colleagues, not the students or workers, made a last, tearful visit to the Square, urging students to leave and preserve themselves to fight another day. But this and all subsequent attempts to clear the Square failed. Those who wanted to leave would just go, so there was always a majority to vote to stay when shows of hands or voice votes were taken.

Once martial law had been declared, participants and citizens took measures to forestall military intervention, setting up barricades, explaining to soldiers that what they’d been told about “counter-revolutionary uprising” was lies, that it was patriotic, democratic movement supported by whole of urban citizenry. So first attempt at military intervention stopped in tracks by number of people congregating at road-junctions into centre of Beijing – human wall which army, this time, unwilling to force its way through. Took 24 hours of tense stand-off before army told to withdraw.

But decisive military intervention probably inevitable, despite apparent disagreement among top Party leadership over how to deal with movement, and despite rumours that some of army didn’t want to be involved in suppression. (Not surprising if true – not the kind of job professional soldiers like to do, especially where some may sympathize with movement they’re to put down, as some soldiers did in 1989.)

Easy to assume after the event that it was obvious the DM would end in a violent crackdown and that the people who chose to stay in Tiananmen Square and in the streets leading to it that night should have known what to expect. But take one example – a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and freelance reporter arranged to meet Wang Juntao (one of the “Black Hands” subsequently blamed for the movement by the Chinese authorities) at half past two on the afternoon of 3 June at a particular place on the Square. Both arrived on time at the appointed spot, but Wang Juntao asked if they could take a rain check for 24 hours as he really needed to be somewhere else, the reporter said that actually that suited her better as well, and so they agreed to return to that place on the Square on the afternoon of 4 June.

And needless to say, they didn’t – the Square by then was strewn with the remains of tents crushed under tank tracks, burnt-out buses and APCs, and the whole area was being patrolled by jumpy and sometimes out-of-control soldiers who were still loosing off shots at passers-by. The point is that even these two, politically experienced, astute and finely attuned to changes in the political atmosphere in China, had no idea that the final crackdown would begin barely twelve hours after they spoke, or that it would take the form it did. After the first attempt to move troops in to clear the Square on May 19-20th had been successfully blocked by millions of Beijing citizens, it was not only possible but easy to convince yourself that the government would never order the army to open fire and drive over unarmed people, and that the army would never obey such orders anyway.