Origins and consequences of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre

Part 1

By John Chan
4 June 2009

The following is the first part of a three-part series. Click here for part 2 and 3

Two decades ago, on June 4 1989, Beijing resembled a war zone, with trucks ablaze, rapid and continuous gunfire and tanks rolling through streets strewn with dead bodies. During the previous weeks, around 200,000 troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been brought into the capital following the imposition of martial law. On the orders of China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the army crushed the two month-long protests by workers and students against the Stalinist Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime.

Although the events of June 3-4 are generally referred to as the Tiananmen Square massacre, most of the killings occurred when 40,000 heavily-armed troops forced their way through densely-populated working class districts to reach Tiananmen Square on the evening of June 3 and the following morning. Roadblocks were set up in the surrounding suburbs and pitched street battles took place between workers and the mechanised PLA.

Students began their protests in Beijing in April 1989, demanding democratic reforms. These opened the floodgates for a nationwide upheaval of the urban working class, which began to advance far more radical social demands. About 100 million people, encompassing virtually every higher-learning institution, half the country’s technical schools and countless factories, mines and offices in some 400 cities participated in one form or another. By strangling the movement in Beijing, then unleashing a countrywide crackdown, including the arrest of tens of thousands of activists, the regime survived the revolutionary crisis.

Confronted by the mass protests, the regime was deeply divided. CCP general secretary Zhao Ziyang, who supported the students and liberal intelligentsia in order to accelerate his market reform agenda, was purged and placed under house arrest. A section of PLA soldiers expressed sympathy for the protestors, raising the spectre of civil war. Fearing the eruption of new oppositional movements, Beijing ended any talk of democratic reform after 1989.

The regime’s official death toll of just 241, including soldiers, is disputed by almost every independent study of the massacre. Estimates range from 2,000 to 7,000 dead. The repression was aimed not only at intimidating the Chinese masses, but at sending an unambiguous message to global investors that China’s police-state apparatus could be relied upon to regiment and contain the working class.

On June 2, 1989, the CCP Politburo Standing Committee met with the party’s “Elders” headed by Deng and decided to clear Tiananmen Square by force.

At the meeting, Wang Zhen, one of Mao’s peasant generals, expressed the sentiments of those present: “Those goddamn bastards! Who do they think they are, trampling on sacred ground like Tiananmen so long?! They’re really asking for it! We should send the troops right now to grab those counter-revolutionaries, Comrade Xiaoping! What’s the People’s Liberation Army for, anyway? What are the martial law troops for? They’re not supposed to just sit around and eat! ... We’ve got to do it or the common people will rebel! Anybody who tries to overthrow the Communist Party deserves death and no burial!” [1]

Wang’s comments demonstrated the open class hostility of the CCP towards the urban working class. The regime, which came to power in 1949 on the basis of Mao’s peasant armies, was never socialist or communist. By 1989, forty years later, it functioned as a police-state instrument against the Chinese proletariat on behalf of world imperialism.

The evolution of Maoism


The Tiananmen Square massacre confirmed the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism as an agent of world imperialism. Maoism was a variant of Stalinism that emerged following the crushing defeat of the working class during the 1925-27 Chinese revolution—the direct product of Stalin’s class-collaborationist policy of subordinating the CCP to the bourgeois Kuomintang (KMT). In the aftermath, a section of the CCP leadership turned to Trotskyism and maintained its orientation to the urban proletariat. Mao Zedong, however, was deeply pessimistic about the revolutionary capacity of the working class, insisting on turning to the peasantry, with a perspective of a rural guerrilla war waged by a “Red Army”.

The evolution of Maoism into a murderous, anti-working class regime had its origins in the rejection of international socialism in favour of the Stalinist perspective of the national road to socialism. According to Stalin’s “two-stage” theory, backward countries like China had to first pass through a prolonged period of capitalist development, to allow the consolidation of large-scale industry and the working class, thus relegating the socialist revolution to the distant future. It was precisely this theory that strangled the Chinese revolution in 1927.

In the course of the twentieth century, the “two-stage” theory has produced only disaster for the working class. Throughout Asia, every Stalinist party has supported, in one way or another, the interests of their own national bourgeoisie. In 1965, the mass Indonesian Communist Party subordinated the working class to the bourgeois nationalist Sukarno, even as the military under General Suharto carried out its US-backed coup and slaughtered half a million workers and peasants. Just as the Vietnamese Communist Party’s “victory” over US imperialism in 1975 paved the way for the country’s transformation into today’s cheap labour platform, so the coming to power of the Maoists in 1949 prepared for China’s eventual emergence in the 1990s as the sweatshop of the world.

In the early 1930s, Leon Trotsky had warned that the CCP under Mao was a movement of “revolutionary petty proprietors”, whose program represented the interests not of the working class but of the bourgeoisie, and whose peasant army would be deeply hostile to the working class if it succeeded in capturing the cities. The CCP’s overthrow of the KMT regime in 1949 vindicated Trotsky’s analysis. To sustain the CCP’s “bloc of four classes”—the bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, peasantry and proletariat—Mao’s armies suppressed any independent activity by urban workers and physically destroyed the Chinese Trotskyist movement. The commanding stratum of the PLA provided a ready-make bureaucracy for the new state to suppress any initiative of the masses.

Mao embraced the Stalinist dogma of “building socialism in one country”. His turn towards nationalising industry and bureaucratically planned production was not a socialist policy involving democratic workers’ control, but a response to the economic crisis provoked by the Korean War in 1950-53 and the integration of China into the Soviet bloc. Deeply fearful of the impact of the uprisings of Hungarian and Polish workers in 1956, Mao supported Moscow’s military crackdown in Eastern Europe and sought to pre-empt a similar upheaval in China through the persecution of half a million workers and intellectuals in 1957.

Mao was always fearful of the fact that the development of large-scale industry would served to strengthen the urban working class at the expense of the peasantry. In the late 1950s, he rejected a new five-year plan, implementing instead a series of utopian experiments in building “socialist” rural communes on the basis of “backyard technology”. The result was an economic disaster that allowed more openly pro-capitalist elements, led by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, to promote a pro-market agenda of decollectivising farms, allowing autonomy to state enterprise and encouraging trade. To hold onto his position, Mao launched the “Cultural Revolution” in 1966, mobilising millions of student youth in a campaign against the “capitalist roaders”. Its reactionary character was underscored by its attack on everything associated with urban culture as “bourgeois”.

The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was not the first time that the PLA was unleashed against the working class. In 1967, when millions of workers began to raise their own demands for the smashing of the hated state bureaucracy and formed mass industrial revolt committees, Mao did not hesitate to use the army to crush them, killing thousands. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, “Red China” was a society dominated by repressive military rule, the grotesque personality cult of Mao and economic stagnation. In 1971, to head off further political turmoil, Mao was driven to reach a rapprochement with US imperialism, making a mockery of his anti-imperialist demagogy.

The economic and political crisis, however, was not unique to China. In the same year, the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system marked the end of the post-war boom, amid a wave of revolutionary struggles by the working class across the globe between 1968 and 1975. The autarkic Stalinist regimes were becoming increasingly vulnerable under conditions of the emergence of globalised production. Just as Mao’s policies created economic havoc in China, the Soviet Union was mired in economic stagnation. The two supposedly comradely regimes came to military blows—a product of their nationalism and chauvinism—allowing Washington to woo Beijing to its side.

Washington turned to China, not just to gain its political support against the Soviet Union. With international capital desperately searching for new sources of cheap labour to boost falling rates of profit and to attack the social position of workers in the advanced capitalist countries, the opening up of China offered new economic opportunities.

Even before Mao’s death in 1976, Western corporations began to return to China. From 1971-74, China’s trade with the non-Soviet bloc more than trebled. As early as 1975, Zhao Ziyang, then CCP secretary of Sichuan province, decollectivised farms, helping to propel him to political prominence. Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, unveiled a “five-year plan” involving the massive importation of foreign capital and technology. When Deng Xiaoping pushed Hua aside and unleashed a fully-fledged market agenda in 1978, this was no radical break, but the logical evolution of Maoism.

The crisis of market reform


China’s turn from autarky to the capitalist market was not done in isolation. In his memoirs published in May, the late Zhao Ziyang recalled that Beijing was initially inspired by the experiments in “market socialism” in Hungary and Yugoslavia. China, however, went much further. It copied the “Asian tigers” model, implemented in South Korea and Taiwan, which had become cheap labour platforms under military dictatorships. Zhao recalled that the plan he drafted was to create export zones involving 100-200 million people. His scheme was only realised after the resistance of the working class had been crushed in 1989.

In his book, Zhao admitted that by 1987, when he became CCP general secretary, he invented terms like “socialist market economy” to disguise the real implications of his policies and to thwart criticism that he was taking the “capitalist road”. “It was only because of ideological barriers that the term ‘free market’ wasn’t being used,” he wrote. [2]

Despite an initial increase in living standards for workers and farmers due to the higher productivities achieved through China’s access to foreign technologies and the international division of labour, market forces rapidly created enormous social divisions and tensions. A new capitalist class began to emerge and consolidate its position at the expense of the masses.

As one historian wrote: “It is one of the curiosities of the development of Chinese capitalism under the Deng regime that a significant portion of these initial capital accumulations were the fruits of official corruption. Prominent among the members of China’s new post-revolutionary ‘bourgeoisie’, for example, were local officials (and their friends and relatives) who were able to buy goods and materials at low state prices and sell them at higher market prices. Equally prominent, especially in the popular political consciousness, were the children of high Communist Party leaders who, in the early 1980s, were politically positioned to play a lucrative compradore role in establishing ties between foreign capitalists and state enterprises. While some of these fruits of bureaucratic corruption no doubt found their way into secret Swiss bank accounts, as rumour had it, most was invested in a vast variety of highly profitable domestic financial, industrial and commercial enterprises in what became an extraordinarily rapid process of capital accumulation and economic growth.” [3]

By 1987-88, the market reform agenda was running out of control due to price deregulation, the oversupply of credit and real estate speculation, leading to 30 percent inflation in the autumn of 1988. Zhao recalled: “The bank runs and hoarding of commodities led to an overall panic, which arrived with the force of a tidal wave. Every major city was in a tense situation.” [4]

Aggravating the social crisis, Zhao was forced to tighten credit, resulting in widespread factory closures. His previous ending of state-guaranteed employment had already dramatically increased the insecurity of factory workers, while millions of rural workers in collective firms were also being laid off. Incomes were being eroded by inflation. Farming output had declined for the third year in a row in 1988, due to the low state-controlled price of grain and the high market price of fertiliser. Tens of millions of migrant workers started to appear in urban areas looking for jobs, producing a steady rise in the crime rate. With rising numbers of protests and strikes, including riots in Tibet in March 1989, a political storm was looming.

The emergence of the student movement


The roots of the political crisis that erupted in April-May 1989 lay in the regime’s waning social support base among the peasantry and its failure to secure a new social buffer against the working class.

To legitimise market reform, Deng sought to cultivate support in intellectual and academic circles, and chose Hu Yaobang as CCP general secretary for that purpose. Western bourgeois social and philosophical thought was encouraged on Chinese campuses, including currents that openly blamed classical Marxism for the crimes of Mao and the CCP’s dictatorial rule. Many students, hostile to the decades-long bureaucratic controls over youth activities, were attracted by the anti-establishment flavour of these newly available works.

A wave of protests by university students in 1986-87 frightened Deng, who removed Hu Yaobang from his post, in the name of opposing “bourgeois liberalisation”, but preserved his membership in the Politburo. Deng was already concerned that student unrest had the potential to ignite a far bigger social movement.

The anti-Stalinist “Solidarity” movement of Polish workers in 1980-81 had already had a major impact on the thinking of the Chinese regime. In 1982, the CCP removed the right to strike from the Chinese constitution. The following year, as market reform was extended to urban industry, Beijing created the People’s Armed Police—a 400,000-strong paramilitary force specialising in domestic repression.

Zhao Ziyang replaced Hu as CCP general secretary, but rapidly adopted the same approach—to use intellectuals to create a base of support for the increasingly unpopular market reform agenda. Similar moves were taking place in the former USSR and Eastern Europe, where the social and economic crisis was about to explode. Zhao’s counterpart in the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated the policy of “glasnost” (openness), which was similar to Zhao’s conception of “transparency”. Both called for “political reform”, as a means of exploiting widespread public anger over the dictatorial character of Stalinist rule to advance their reactionary perspective of reintroducing the unfettered operation of the capitalist market.

The liberal intelligentsia represented a layer of the middle classes who felt they had not benefitted sufficiently from market reform. They demanded freedom of the press and curbs on the corruption associated with the well-connected children of CCP leaders, in order that they could gain a larger share of the wealth being created by the working class. Zhao recalled that after he became CCP general secretary in 1987: “I developed a strong belief that tensions in the relationship between the Party and the intelligentsia needed to be resolved. Yet, without political participation by intellectuals, it was impossible to improve the relationship in a fundamental way”. [5]

Deng’s suppression of “bourgeois liberalisation” only heightened frustrations within the intelligentsia. Then, on April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang suddenly died of a heart attack during a Politburo meeting. University students in Beijing paid tribute to Hu as a means of expressing their support for his policies. However, the memorial meetings extolling his virtues soon gave way to more radical demands for democratic rights. The rallies swelled to thousands.

On April 17, the student gatherings to mourn Hu spread from the campuses into Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing, which had historically been the site for protests and demonstrations, including the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement in 1919. The next day, hundreds of students from Peking University and the People’s University staged a sit-in protest in front of the Great Hall of the People, demanding the National People’s Congress rehabilitate Hu Yaobang’s views on democracy and freedom, release the income details of top leaders, grant freedom of the press, increase education funding, end restrictions on demonstrations, and hold democratic elections to replace “bad” government officials.

On April 19, when government officials failed to grant these demands, students laid siege to the Xinhua Gate of the Chinese leadership’s office compound, raising the spectre of political unrest directed against the CCP leadership itself. On April 23, students from 21 universities formed the Autonomous Federation of Beijing University Students, to coordinate student strikes and to call on ordinary people to join their protests.

To be continued


1. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese leadership’s decision to use force against their own people—in their owns words, complied by Zhang Liang, edited by Andrew J. Nathan and Perry Link, Little, Brown and Company, 2001, p.357

2. Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, Simon & Schuster, 2009, p.124

3. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic Third Edition, Maurice Meisner, The Free Press, 1998, p.458

4. Prisoner of the State, p.223

5. Ibid., p.257