WORKERS AND students halt, and win over, troops sent to crush the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolt

Ten years since Tiananmen Square revolt

The nightmare still haunting China's rulers


CITIES ACROSS China saw a wave of demonstrations last week in outrage at NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. They were the biggest street protests since the Tiananmen Square revolt which reached its height ten years ago this week. China's rulers first tolerated the protests, but soon curbed them. Vice-president Hu Jintao worried they could attract elements "who may use the occasion to disturb social order".

China's economy, the seventh largest in the world, has not been immune from the effects of the Asian economic crisis that swept through the region last year. Unemployment has risen to its highest level since 1949 and some figures estimate that 100 million are out of work. China's rulers are sitting on a volcano, where they fear that the pressure of ordinary people's anger at the economic crisis and the demands for political change could explode.

The ruling class in China is haunted by the memory of the last time protest demonstrations boiled into a serious challenge to its rule. In May 1989 a demonstration of 150,000 students over the funeral of the sacked pro-reform politician Hu Yaobang went on to become an occupation of Beijing's giant Tiananmen Square. The protest was fuelled by the chaotic effects of the massive growth in China's economy in the 1980s. That growth had transformed life for millions, but also brought insecurity and poverty for millions too.

The Tiananmen Square revolt is often seen as a student protest. But though the students started the movement, it quickly drew in millions of workers. John Gittings is one of the most authoritative Western writers on China, and writes for the Guardian newspaper. He described how "Beijing in May 1989 was a city transformed. In the streets there was a sense of comradeship mixed with excitement that so many people-workers and ordinary citizens-had found their voices. The [government] seemed paralysed and the streets belonged to the masses."

After a month of protest on 19 May China's rulers attempted to reassert their authority. Prime minister Li Peng declared martial law and ordered troops into Beijing to clear the protesters. But this only served to fuel the protest and drive it to new heights. Some workers now went on strike, like the 70,000 workers in the city's Capital Iron and Steel works. Workers in the underground system cut the power off to halt the troops. And workers played the crucial role in building barricades around the city, which they designed not to stop the soldiers but to slow their progress so they could be argued with to join the revolt.

Whole sections of the soldiers were won over to the side of the workers and students. It looked for a moment as if the revolt could turn into revolution. "For 48 hours now the city of Beijing has been entirely in the hands of the people," was how an eyewitness described that weekend. "All of the city centre is now under the control of the workers and students. People talk of five million people out on the streets. Everyone sings the Internationale over and over."

Workers in other cities across China joined protests in solidarity. In Hong Kong there was a march of more than one million people, a sixth of the entire population. But tragically there was no strategy being argued to take the movement forward. The student leaders argued a workers' general strike would be against China's "national interest" and that the workers did not need to take the arms from the soldiers. The movement could not remain static. It had to go forward or the rulers would seize the initiative.

The failure to build on the potential shown when workers and students halted the army allowed Li Peng and China's top ruler, Deng Xiaoping, to order the final crackdown using a new wave of troops. On 3 June the Beijing massacre began as tanks smashed through the barricades. John Gittings described the scene: "The tactics were brutally simple. Armoured personnel carriers formed the spearhead while soldiers on foot shot to kill from both sides."

It took the army four days to crush the workers' resistance, with thousands killed. That resistance was symbolised for many across the world in the image of Wang Weilin, the 19 year son of a factory worker, who blocked the path of a column of tanks. He was secretly executed later . China's rulers managed to regain control through repression and the fact that the years of economic growth had insulated many in the countryside from its worse effects.

Now China is being hit by another economic crisis, and this time there is little room for the ruling class to buy off people's discontent. "The economy has entered a slowdown that could last for years," says one leading Chinese economist. "Everyone is worried about jobs, jobs, jobs." The government is cutting back manufacturing production because, as the China Economic Times put it, 67 percent of the key manufactured products are in "oversupply". What they mean is they can't make enough profit on these goods. So 25,800 coal mines are scheduled for closure with the loss of 400,000 jobs, and textile, cement and glass factories are set to close.

Workers' social security benefits like medical care, maternity benefits and childcare are also being cut back. An independent Hong Kong based journal for Chinese workers, the China Labour Bulletin, says the result of the economic crisis is that "open class conflict is becoming a daily reality in China. A summer of discontent looms. "It is a result of a combination of both internal and external pressures on the Chinese economy that are having a devastating effect on China's working people."

BUT WHILE economic crisis and hardship fuel discontent among millions of ordinary people, it is a different picture for those at the top. China's rulers may claim to be "Communist", but the reality is that they are a ruling class every bit as rich and parasitic as those in the West. Their luxury lifestyles and the webs of corruption surrounding the ruling elite serve to deepen the bitterness of ordinary people.

The sons and daughters of top political leaders, of the bosses of huge state run enterprises, and of top army chiefs live playboy lives. They rake in millions through a web of lucrative deals with foreign firms trying to get into the Chinese market.

AGAINST THIS background there are signs of renewed popular unrest in recent months and years. A report by the official Chinese Academy of Social Sciences confirms that strikes and demonstrations have been growing steadily since 1994. According to the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Public Security's official statistics on public disturbances there were 216,750 strikes and demonstrations last year alone. In the southern Guangdong province, which is seen as an economic powerhouse, there were 740,000 recorded strike days last year. And in 459 violent confrontations with armed police, more than 2,230 people were injured. In Hunan province hundreds of workers from various state run firms like the pharmaceutical factory, electrical machinery plant and elevator factory marched through the province's capital, Changsha, with banners saying, "We want to eat", and, "We want to live." They blocked the road for almost two hours and were joined by laid off factory workers who had not received any redundancy pay for three months.

Rural areas are also affected, and there are widespread reports of peasants attacking government tax inspectors and officials. Millions of people are also leaving the countryside looking for work, creating a pool of often impoverished people in the burgeoning cities. Ordinary people's discontent has not just manifested itself in workplace struggles. Some 10,000 people staged a sit-in last month on the Communist Party leaders' doorstep in Beijing in a religious protest. No one can predict whether and when the class bitterness in China will erupt into widespread revolt as it did a decade ago. But that it will do so is the nightmare haunting those at the top.