China 1989: 25 years since the mass democracy movement

China’s dictatorship is haunted by the prospect of a new mass revolt

June 4th marks the 25th anniversary of the bloody massacre in Beijing that ended the mass student-led democracy movement which came close to toppling the Chinese dictatorship. This year on the night of June 4, hundreds of thousands will fill Hong Kong’s Victoria Park for the city’s annual commemoration of these events. Less than one hour’s train ride away, however, in mainland China, no protests will be tolerated and all mention of the 1989 movement has been erased from the media and internet. As Chen Mo explained in our book Seven Weeks That Shook the World ( 2009) “It is almost as if ‘89’, ‘June 4th’ and the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ never happened, and the subsequent generations have unfortunately been given amnesia-at-birth.” This book, which includes Stephen Jolly’s excellent ‘Eyewitness in China’, written after participating in these events, can be ordered from

Xi Jinping, the current ‘strong man’ heading China’s misnamed ‘communist’ party (CPP), has made clear there will be no political relaxation or ‘democratic reform’ on his watch, but rather a fortification of one-party rule. At the same time, pro-capitalist policies (the early effects of which were an important trigger for the 1989 protests) will continue and accelerate to give the market a ‘decisive role’.

Latest crackdown

In recent weeks there has been a further crackdown on prominent dissidents in China as the regime pre-emptively exorcises the ghosts of the 1989 movement. “The breadth and scope of the crackdown is worrying and definitely an increase from previous years,” noted an Amnesty International spokesman in Hong Kong. The lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who has represented other dissidents including artist Ai Weiwei, was arrested after a meeting in Beijing to discuss the 1989 movement. Veteran journalist Gao Yu was paraded in prison uniform on state broadcaster CCTV, accused of revealing state secrets, a very serious charge. This latest bout of repression is again aimed at both right and left, with pro-Maoist websites among those closed in recent weeks.

In the quarter century since the June 4th massacre, China’s economic growth achieved ‘miracle’ status, and despite its current slowdown is widely tipped to overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy before the end of the decade. The CCP’s model of ‘state capitalist’ development has created more dollar billionaires than anywhere outside the US, most of whom hold strong connections to the dictatorship and even sit in its auxiliary organs. The apparent successes of the CCP regime, after wading through the blood of anti-government protesters in 1989, has produced admirers among the world’s capitalists (even if many governments increasingly view China as a military and economic threat). This has also spawned the theory of “resilient authoritarianism” – a regime that has adapted, co-opted, and imitated, in order to stay in power.

In the months and years immediately after the Beijing massacre, many Chinese dissidents and democracy activists believed the regime was doomed to imminent collapse, like the USSR and other Stalinist one-party states. When this did not transpire the advocates of ‘bourgeois democracy’ in China began to adapt politically to the CCP, seeing ‘compromise’ and ‘gradual change’ as the only realistic strategy and regarding revolution as dangerous, a threat to capitalist interests and ‘stability’. This also describes the flawed approach of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders. In so doing, these layers have moved further and further away from the actual tradition of struggle established by the 1989 movement, which as we socialists explain, posed a revolutionary threat to the dictatorship, albeit without the crucial ingredient of a clear programme and leadership.

In the intervening years the capitalists internationally have also rushed to do business with the Chinese dictatorship (despite brief and token sanctions imposed after the massacre) as it opened up to mass-scale sweatshop production on a scale never before seen in history. The CCP cashed in on the accelerated globalisation wave of the 1990s and 2000s, placing itself at the centre of the worldwide ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of wages, pensions, social insurance and environmental standards. This was accompanied by measures to separate and break-up the old planning model, while strategic companies remained under state control. World capitalism has rewarded these policies with over US$1 trillion in foreign direct investment over the past quarter century.

Rather than weaken the repressive hold of the dictatorship, however, the opposite process has emerged from these capitalist policies. As the Wall Street Journal points out, “Spending on domestic security – from police salaries to surveillance equipment – rose nearly 90% to 769.1 billion yuan (US$123.1 billion) in the six years to 2013, outstripping the amount spent on national defence.” The Chinese state’s internal security bill is now of a similar size to Vietnam’s GDP. The country has nearly 30 million security cameras and 2 million internet police.

“The repressive apparatus in China is much more developed than it was in Egypt or Tunisia,” says Perry Link, the China expert who co-edited The Tiananmen Papers. “It’s sophisticated, layered and huge, so it’s hard for something like a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ to get going.”

There is no doubt that the state’s armoury of repression, its censorship of social media and its techniques for demobilising opposition are among the most sophisticated in the world, but ultimately even this will not save the regime. A growing corps of commentators see serious political turbulence ahead as China’s economy heads into a dramatic slowdown, alongside multi-layered risks of a property crash and shadow banking meltdown. A far cry from the economic triumphalism of former leaders, Xi Jinping recently announced that slower GDP growth was the “new normal” – raising concerns that even the official 7.5 percent growth target may be missed. A spokesman for the government’s top economic think tank, the Development Research Centre (DRC), recently warned GDP growth might slow to around 5 per cent in the next two to three years.

“That leaves only repression and nationalism in the party’s post-Tiananmen toolkit,” noted columnist Minxin Pei (South China Morning Post, 29 May). “And, indeed, both of them continue to play a central role in President Xi Jinping’s strategy for ensuring the party’s survival.”

Pei, like a growing number of commentators, believes the CCP regime is unlikely to survive another 25 years. The increase in state repression and surveillance, while mass protests are also on the rise, is a recipe for explosive social movements in the coming years. At the same time, the sharpening of international tensions and deepening military antagonisms in East Asia can produce new threats to the CCP’s grip on power. It is not sufficient, however, to wish for or predict the demise of the CCP dictatorship; we must build a mass socialist alternative that can influence and solidify coming mass struggles for democracy and against capitalism. This is what the CWI in China, also organised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is attempting to do today. A crucial part of this task is to draw out the real lessons of the 1989 movement.

Origins of the movement

On 15 April 1989 Hu Yaobang, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, died of a heart attack. This became the start signal for one of the biggest mass movements in modern history, a movement that soon grew beyond the wildest expectations of its initiators and came close to toppling the dictatorial regime of the so-called ‘communist’ party.

On 17 April the first contingents, around 700 students and teachers, marched 15 kilometers from their university campus into Tiananmen Square at the heart of the Chinese capital. They chanted, “Long Live Hu Yaobang! Long live democracy! Down with corruption! Down with autocracy!” In the ensuing weeks these slogans would echo around the world.

The students’ occupation of Tiananmen Square was in many ways the forerunner of the mass ‘occupy’ movements of the present, sharing many common features with the revolutionary upheavals of the ‘Arab Spring’ and youthful mass revolts such as ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and Taiwan’s ‘Sunflower Movement’. A key lesson of 1989 and the bloody massacre that ended this movement was the need for a strategy based upon the working class and a programme of class struggle. It also raises many questions about student-led movements, their possibilities but also their political limitations, unless equipped with a conscious strategy to spread beyond the middle-class and link up with workers.

Millions would join wave upon wave of demonstrations in Beijing itself, with anti-government protests spreading to over 110 cities across China. Throughout this movement and right up to the bloody finish, the demonstrators sang ‘The Internationale’, giving the lie to the regime’s claim that this was a bourgeois counter-revolutionary movement. Just five days after the first modest demonstration, up to 200,000 people defied a government ban, occupying the Square on the day of Hu’s funeral. An indefinite ‘student strike’ was called at over 20 universities and colleges in Beijing and the formation of an ‘autonomous federation’ was announced to coordinate the movement. By mid-May, the industrial working class too was beginning to organise and lay the foundations for an independent trade union movement. This development above all else – “The Polish fear” (growth of an independent mass workers’ movement) – terrified China’s leaders.


A revolution, said Leon Trotsky, is when the masses begin to shape events directly and sense their power to do so. This sums up the situation in China at that time. The regime of Deng Xiaoping, praised by Western governments as the man who brought capitalism back to China, “seemed confused and impotent” noted the historian Maurice Meisner. The government hierarchy and military were deeply split. As Militant, newspaper of the CWI in Britain, explained “…all the conditions were there for the peaceful overthrow of the bureaucracy… The only thing missing was the vital ingredient of a clear programme, strategy and tactics.” [Militant, 9 June 1989]

On the night of 3-4 June 1989, Deng Xiaoping and his ‘hard-line’ supporters within the ruling group, waded through the blood of thousands of workers and youth in order to restore their control. Deng mobilised 200,000 PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troops for a full-scale ‘invasion’ of the Chinese capital. By way of comparison, the U.S. deployed 248,000 troops for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to Amnesty International at least one thousand people were killed in the storming of central Beijing. More than 40,000 were swept up in police raids during the following weeks and months, with workers rather than students suffering the most serious consequences. Workers who had organised or tried to organise strikes in the final days of the movement were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment or executed as “counter-revolutionaries”. The short-lived Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation, which had called for a general strike to stop the military onslaught, was accused of planning an armed insurrection against the government and its activists hunted down.

Those reading this article should know that such information is considered ‘seditious’ by the Chinese state. For 25 years a blanket ban has been in force on all reporting of ‘liu si’ (‘6/4’ – the June 4 incident), other than the government’s Kafkaesque version. This asserts that “no one died in Tiananmen Square” and that Deng was forced to act to avert “social chaos” and secure “China’s prosperity”. The rapid economic growth of the past quarter century is offered as historic justification for the massacre.

Suppressing the 1989 movement had nothing to do with preventing the return of capitalism to China, contrary to some of the statements made by Chinese leaders at the time. The regime has instead pursued a combination of increasingly neo-liberal capitalist policies alongside a revamped system of authoritarian rule. Those who argue that the market (capitalism) and democracy go hand-in-hand have a tough job explaining what has happened in China – and why the ‘Chinese model’ is so popular with the capitalist multinationals. This sympathy among capitalist commentators for authoritarian solutions has been expressed openly by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, for example, when he opined: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people [sic], as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”

Xi’s strategy of fortifying one-party rule and stamping on every shoot of independent political activity is an expression of a deep social and political crisis which will inevitably produce an explosive outcome – a new 1989 but on a higher level.

Origins of the 1989 movement

Student activists in Beijing had been planning to take to the streets for the 70th anniversary of the ‘May 4th movement’ of 1919, aiming to sustain these protests until the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived for his historic visit to China on 15 May 1989. Gorbachev was widely seen as a ‘democratiser’ within the communist (in reality Stalinist) bloc of countries. The students had a long list of grievances, but the central issue was the fear that the ‘democratisation’ process they had believed would accompany ‘market reforms’, a process seemingly thriving in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, was now going backwards in China. The news of Hu Yaobang’s death therefore led the student activists to fast-forward their protest plans, seizing the opportunity to “mourn the dead to criticise the living”.

Hu had been ousted as party leader in January 1987, accused of softness in the face of student pro-democracy demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing in December 1986. The hard-liners within the ruling bureaucracy, who feared political instability and a challenge from the masses above all else, pressured the paramount leader Deng to sacrifice his ally Hu, who like Deng was a pioneer of the pro-capitalist reforms adopted since 1978. His dismissal did not however signal a decisive change of course. Hu was succeeded by Zhao Ziyang, an even more openly pro-capitalist ‘reformer’. But Hu’s fall from grace reinforced the fears within the liberal camp and among the radical students that ‘political reform’ was being sidelined. From this they concluded, “something must be done” to tip the scales back the other way. Hu in many ways resembled Dubček, the leader of Czechoslovakia who stood for “socialism with a human face”, whose brief tenure ended with the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1968. Hu had argued for a Chinese military withdrawal from Tibet for example, but also enraged the ‘hard-line’ faction when he announced in 1984 “Marx and Lenin can’t solve our problems”.

At the same time the government’s radical market policies had introduced sweeping changes into Chinese society, setting warning lights flashing in many areas. Tibet had erupted in the most serious rioting and street protests for 30 years in March 1989. This movement was crushed by the then party boss in Tibet, Hu Jintao, with the same ruthless methods that were later used in Beijing. Hu was later rewarded with promotion to party leader and president. Inflation at over 31 percent, was at its highest level since the 1949 revolution. Over a million factories closed in 1989 as a result of the regime’s austerity measures. On the day of Hu Yaobang’s funeral (22 April) unemployed youth and rural migrants in Xian and Changsha clashed with police.

For a whole year the top levels of government had been locked in an increasingly rancorous debate over price reforms, with Zhao, initially supported by Deng, pushing for full price liberalisation. At that stage there existed a twin-system of state regulated prices and market prices, which provided lucrative opportunities for a section of the bureaucracy to enrich themselves, pilfering goods from the state sector and selling them into the market sector. As Beijing academic and representative of the ‘new left’ Wang Hui, explains, “In 1988 alone, the differences between the two levels of prices in the two systems (that is ‘rent’) reached almost 357 billion yuan, amounting to almost 30 percent of the national income that year.” [Wang Hui, China’s New Order, 2006]

Zhao’s proposed reforms were presented as a way to eliminate such speculation but in reality meant higher prices and greater burdens for the working class and the poor. Political ‘gridlock’ at the top – reflecting mass pressure – led to the withdrawal of Zhao’s price reforms. This plan would be pushed through three months after the massacre, in September 1989, with the threat of mass protests having been removed. Ironically, by that time Zhao himself was under house arrest, lasting until his death in 2005, while his economic policies were enacted by his successors.

Stalinist system in crisis

In his gripping firsthand account of the movement in Beijing, ‘Eyewitness in China’, the then 27-year old Trotskyist Stephen Jolly from Australia wrote: “I felt as if I was at the centre of the world”. It was clear that the outcome of the struggle in China would have colossal effects internationally, as important in its way as the industrial and financial crisis of capitalism that is now unfolding around us. Wang Hui, who was among the last group of students to leave the Square on the morning of 4 June, argues that, “The events in Beijing of that year triggered the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and inaugurated the political and economic structure by which neo-liberalism came to dominate the globe.”

This somewhat overstates the case, yet there is no doubt that the heroic defiance of the Chinese workers and youth followed by the sadistic crushing of this movement, accelerated and compounded the crisis within other Stalinist one-party states, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. In the capitalist West, the neo-liberal onslaught against the working class had already begun, but accelerated exponentially as a result of the crisis and collapse of the Stalinist regimes. The Stalinist states had been wracked by crisis in many cases from the late 1970s onwards. The rapid industrialisation achieved in their early years, based on the enormous advantages of central planning and state ownership, had given way to economic stagnation due to the suffocating role of the ruling bureaucracy. This was inevitable without the active and democratic involvement of the working class in the running of society and the economy – i.e. genuine socialism.

This deepening economic crisis, but also – critically – the repressive nature of Stalinism and a yearning for democracy among the masses, coupled to the bureaucracy’s increasing attacks on workers’ rights and social protection, produced among some layers a growing antipathy towards ‘socialism’ in whose name these regimes purported to rule. This attitude was especially pronounced among the intelligentsia and within the bureaucracy itself. In China’s case, the chaotic results of the so-called Cultural Revolution 1966-76, during which intellectuals especially were scapegoated as “bad elements” by Maoist propagandists, had made a significant layer of intellectuals hostile to ‘communism’.

Throughout the Stalinist world, with the regimes in China, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia to the fore, sections of the Stalinist bureaucracy began to look towards capitalism for a lifeline, to safeguard their own power and privileges. Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, with the defeat and arrest of the Maoist ‘Gang of Four’, marked a decisive turn in China, not as a fully-developed plan to restore capitalism, but initially as a ‘pragmatic’ attempt to combine some features of capitalism – higher management ‘incentives’, less protection for workers, more openings for private wealth and investment – with a bureaucratically planned economy. In the course of the 1980s, however, a more conscious pro-capitalist wing emerged within the Chinese regime, with Deng and Zhao as its principle figures.

The economic changes wrought by this shift at the top were dramatic. Firstly, all agriculture was privatised 1979-83, with the destruction of collective farming rather than its reorganisation along democratic lines, which we genuine Marxists would advocate. This would later create a huge ‘black hole’ of underfunded rural healthcare and education (these services had been dependent on the collective farms for support). The regime launched its ‘coastal strategy’ at the same time, ceding greater powers to the eastern provinces and encouraging their integration into the world market, particularly through the capitalists of the Chinese diaspora. The special economic zones (SEZs), run on capitalist lines, were set up in a few areas but then extended. Xi Jinping’s father Xi Zhongxun is regarded as the pioneer of the SEZs, which he launched while party chief in Guangdong province.

Other reforms undermined the job security and benefit entitlements of state sector workers, while state propaganda increasingly lauded social inequality as a spur to ‘economic development’, and lambasted ‘pampered’ workers. A contract labour reform introduced in 1986 abolished the permanent employment system in the state-owned enterprises. These changes did not amount to the restoration of capitalism at that time, but were nevertheless a substantial erosion of the planned economic foundations and the position of the working class.

The Maoist writer Minqi Li, a participant in 1989 (although he confesses he was then a ‘neo-liberal democrat’) describes the period from 1985 onwards as follows: “The official television programmes, newspapers, and magazines now positively portrayed a materially prosperous western capitalism and highly dynamic East Asian capitalist ‘dragons’. Only China and other socialist states appeared to have lagged behind… The dominant image of capitalism had turned from one of sweatshop super-exploitation into one synonymous of democracy, high wages and welfare benefits, as well as union protection of workers’ rights. It was not until the 1990s that the Chinese working class would again learn from their own experience what capitalism was to mean in real life.” [Li, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, 2008].

How to characterise the 1989 movement?

Today, compounded by the regime’s block on free information and discussion, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion about the Tiananmen events. Some apologists for the Chinese regime describe 1989 as a “colour revolution”, placing it on a par with the upheavals in Georgia 2003 and Ukraine 2004. By this, they wish to dismiss the movement as pro-Western – the protesters mere ‘puppets’ of foreign imperialism. This idea is echoed by sections of the neo-Maoist movement in China, who point to the openly capitalist position of many leaders of the 1989 movement today, which however does not necessarily match what these same individuals said and did at the time. Significantly, however, a growing number of today’s Maoist-influenced youth have begun to revise their view and now describe Tiananmen as a “genuine people’s movement”. This is a welcome step.

Like most truly mass movements, the Tiananmen movement was an extremely complex and diverse one. This was inevitable, particularly under conditions of one-party dictatorship and the complete absence of independent organisations of the working class and other oppressed layers. Emerging from the dark night of authoritarian rule, the constituent parts of this movement spanned the entire political rainbow. Among some layers there were indeed illusions in Western-style bourgeois democracy and even more so in the ‘Taiwan model’, but this was just one of many strands within the movement – influential, but not decisive. Others sought a ‘renewal of socialism’ with some – but by no means all – looking towards Gorbachev for inspiration. Especially among workers there was already an extremely wary attitude towards the ‘market reforms’ and a will to defend state-owned property, the biggest gain from the 1949 revolution. The common denominator in the movement was an explosion in demands for democratic rights and flowing from this a growing rejection of the existing government even if there was little clarity over what should replace it.

There is no question that the initial impetus for the movement came from a layer of intellectuals and their student supporters that today would be described as ‘neo-liberal’ (this term was not used then). They were close to the Zhao wing of the regime and their political outlook embraced not just ‘democracy’ but also, to differing degrees, support for the capitalist ‘free market’. At that time, however, they would not have expressed support for capitalism in such strident terms as some of them have done since. Most of the leaders of the student movement did not want to topple the government, but rather achieve a shift at the top in favour of Zhao and the ‘reform’ wing. This is shown by one of their central demands: for China’s (actually toothless) National People’s Congress to convene and censure or remove the ‘hard-line’ members of the government. “Our purpose was to make the government listen to us and talk to us,” said the student leader Wuerkaixi in retrospect, “that was our only real demand.”

However, once the psychological barrier had been broken – of daring to confront the dictatorship openly on the streets – the student protests acted like a gigantic magnet for all the accumulated social discontent in society. In this way the floodgates were thrust open to social forces that did not fully share the interests and aims of the original student leaders. Even within the ranks of the students there was a division between the older and generally more privileged pro-Zhao layer and a younger, more radical majority, who regarded Zhao as fundamentally no different from the rest of the top bureaucrats. This was reflected in the mass hatred towards the “princelings” – the sons and daughters of top officials who had become or were becoming capitalists through exploiting their connections. The offspring of both Deng and Zhao were notorious princelings, duly denounced by millions of demonstrators: “Chairman Mao sent his son to fight [in Korea]. Lin Biao sent his son to make a coup. Deng Xiaoping sent his son to organise donations, and Zhao Ziyang sent his son to sell televisions at a profit,” was one popular chant.

Maoist ideas emerged as a significant but also contradictory trend within the mass movement. Many demonstrations outside Beijing, especially in industrial cities, carried Mao’s portrait, counterposing the allegedly uncorrupt lifestyle of the bureaucratic leaders in Mao’s day with the millionaire lifestyle they were increasingly attaining under Deng. This was less common in the Beijing demonstrations, where many student activists were wary of Mao, who they regarded as even more authoritarian than his successors. But even in Beijing, the students’ hunger strike, which began on 12 May, drew heavily on the slogans and campaign style of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. This was also an extremely contentious episode, opposed outright as “too radical” by some of the liberal intellectuals in the movement. Yet the hunger strike in Tiananmen Square proved to be a pivotal event, the point when other layers and especially the working class came ‘off the fence’ and into the fray.

The entrance of the broad masses into the movement changed its character and propelled it in another direction: from a protest movement seeking to strengthen one wing of the bureaucracy, into an increasingly open challenge to the bureaucracy as a whole. Furthermore, the Tiananmen movement – perhaps uniquely in the Stalinist bloc at that time – developed in an increasingly anti-capitalist, anti-‘market reform’ direction. As Wang Hui told the New York Times (15 October 2006), this was a “broad social movement” that grew out of “the distress caused by the shock therapy of market reforms.”

A political revolution – to safeguard the priceless social conquest of a state-owned economy, but place it under a new regime of democratic workers’ control and management – was within reach in 1989. The critical ingredient that was lacking was a genuine Marxist party, rooted among workers as well as students, which could have emerged from underground conditions to fructify the mass movement with a clear programme and correct tactics. Such a force could have given a conscious expression to the unconscious processes among the masses in the direction of a socialist alternative to capitalism and Stalinism.

• This article deals with the background and opening phase of the 1989 movement. An analysis of the build-up and bloody crushing of the movement is contained in our book, Seven Weeks That Shook the World, published by, which can be ordered (96 pages, 70 HK dollars including postage) from

Previous Article

Electoral surge against austerity in the South

Next Article

Euro polls warning

Related Posts
Read More

Gorbachev: Accidental architect of world change

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, left a truly historical legacy. Aiming to reform bureaucratic rule he helped unleash forces that led to the complete collapse of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe. That then fed capitalist globalisation, opening up new markets and cheap labour – and a worldwide propaganda offensive against socialism.
Read More

Hong Kong: Movement against CCP dictatorship gains momentum

The only support that the movement can rely upon is workers in China and internationally. The movement must appeal to the struggling Chinese workers and youth for a joint challenge against the CCP dictatorship and to eliminate the exploitation and oppression that the authoritarian system means for Chinese and Hong Kong workers and youth. This means fighting for a democratic socialist alternative, run by and based upon the needs of the working class, rather than the super-profits of the capitalist tycoons and CCP elite.

Read More

Refugee crisis exposes brutality of capitalism

The left-wing Labour MP Tony Benn once said, “The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.” The breaking up of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais has again highlighted how ruthlessly right-wing governments across Europe are treating those most desperately in need of help.