pictures gallery



China, 1989: The Days of Defiance

Revolutionary Worker #1009, June 6, 1999


Beijing, China, Spring 1989. Anti-government protests in Tiananmen Square had been growing for several months. By Monday, May 15, tens of thousands of student protesters occupied the square. Then, within a few days, the crowd grew by leaps. Monday's crowd of 150,000 doubled and by Thursday, an estimated one million were gathered.

Workers from many factories and workplaces made banners and signs and marched over to Tiananmen--sometimes without permission from the managers, sometimes with their silent agreement. Workers had joined student demonstrations before, but now they came out in much larger numbers and in contingents with banners boldly proclaiming where they came from.

Work at many places came to a grinding halt. One news report quoted "a graying, heavily callused worker" from Beijing's No. 2 Chemical Factory: "You can call it a strike and it will continue until the government responds to our demands. We're terribly angry, because the government won't agree to a meaningful dialogue with the students. What kind of a government do we have? We're putting pressure on the highest authorities to change their minds. And if they won't change their mind they must resign. Otherwise, the situation will deteriorate."

Many others came out as well. Groups of teachers, younger school children, office clerks, government employees, journalists, and even some from the army. One older police officer was heard talking to a group of high school students and workers: "The student movement is terrific! If the government commands a crackdown, will I obey their order? No, I will go against it."

In the middle of the vast crowd at Tiananmen was the group of students whose determined hunger strike had moved many others into action. People constantly came up to them to offer encouragement, donations, and supplies. After several days many of the hunger strikers were very weak, and medical workers rushed about, keeping an eye on their condition. Every once in a while ambulances sped through a roped-off corridor that cut through the packed crowd and rushed those in gravest danger to the hospital.

The events in Tiananmen inspired and sparked demonstrations in at least two dozen other cities, including Shanghai, China's largest city and an important industrial center. Tens of thousands of students from other cities headed toward Beijing on trains, and railroad workers let them ride for free. Traffic on a main railway corridor near Wuhan, a big industrial city in central China, was disrupted for several hours by protesters.

Trade unions in Beijing circulated leaflets declaring that a general strike would start unless the government listened to the students. The government answered with a hard line. On the night of Friday, May 19, Premier Li Peng spoke before a gathering of officials and time after time, the word "crackdown" came out of his mouth. He demanded that leaders at all levels "be tough" with the protest movement, which he called a "riot," and that "normal order" be restored. He ordered the workers to "abide by work regulations" and the students to "go back to classrooms."

Behind this tough talk by China's rulers, there was fear and panic at the movement of the people rising up from below. The state president, Yang Shangkun, moaned, "If we continue this situation, the capital would not be the capital."

The growing "crisis situation" in Tiananmen revealed the deep discontent and anger among the people. People from all sections of society were carrying on discussion and debate about the sickness of Chinese society. The determination and size of the revolt took the revisionist Communist Party leadership by surprise and seriously called into question its ability and mandate to rule.

Heading and Preparing
for a Showdown

The demonstrators in Tiananmen Square sensed that a showdown might be coming. But Li's speech, which was blared out in the square over giant loudspeakers, did not intimidate them. In the predawn hours of Saturday morning, May 20, protest leaders mobilized the crowds to form human barricades and block nearby intersections. And truckloads of workers headed out to try and stop incoming troops.

The government ordered Tiananmen cleared, declared martial law for parts of Beijing, and called on army units to move into the capital. But instead of resulting in swift military action, the order revealed a possible split in the army. The 38th Army, normally responsible for guarding Beijing, refused to move. The 27th Army stationed north of Beijing had to be called in.

When news of troop movements spread, thousands of protesters rushed to the main roads into Beijing and stopped army trucks and personnel carriers from heading toward Tiananmen Square. Demonstrators organized themselves into shifts so they could surround the troops and keep watch on them day and night. In predawn darkness, thousands of workers and others came out to the staging point for the army troops about five miles outside Beijing. People surrounded the convoy of army trucks to prevent them from moving forward, climbed onto the hoods, and called on the soldiers to stand on the side of the student protesters. They used kitchen knives to puncture the tires on the army trucks or simply let the air out of them.

Several hundred city buses were taken over by protesters and used as roadblocks on main streets in Beijing. And when people heard that troops might come by train, thousands rushed out to the railroad station, ready to block any units that might come that way. Some student leaders tried to convince others to leave the Square, but they were voted down. Many students left the Square to go throughout the capital to conduct street-corner agitation and went to outlying areas to help stop the troops.

At the universities final exams were coming up, but campus life was in an uproar. Students boycotted classes, and most teachers went on sympathy strikes, not preparing any exams. On campuses across China there was support for the students in Tiananmen. And there were anti-government demonstrations in many other cities all across China.

When day broke on Saturday, May 20, hundreds of thousands still occupied Tiananmen Square. Standoffs between people and troops continued, but some troops were making their way closer to the square. Confrontations between police and protesters broke out at the edges of the square, and some people were clubbed and arrested by cops.

Mao in Tiananmen

The student protesters were very influenced by bourgeois ideas of democracy. But the point of unity for everyone streaming into the square was opposition to the government and in particular, Deng Xiaoping. And as workers and others joined the students in much greater numbers, other class forces and political currents brought to the scene their point of view and demands.

The workers who joined the protests seemed to have a more realistic appreciation of what the stakes were and what they were up against. It was widely reported that, as one journalist put it, "while students have organized road barricades, speeches and anti-government posters, it is workers...who have resorted to overt violence." Some workers formed groups that pledged to put their lives on the line for the movement. One group of 300 called themselves the "desperadoes" and seemed to be made up mainly of single workers willing to go right up in the face of the troops and authorities. There were also the "kamikazes" who roamed around the capital all night looking for army convoys, carrying knives to slash the tires of army trucks.

Crowds of people at Tiananmen Square could often be heard singing the Internationale, the revolutionary anthem of the international proletariat. Groups of workers carried portraits of Mao and symbols closely identified with the Cultural Revolution, like badges and the famous Red Book, Quotations from Chairman Mao. Among some, there were intense discussions of Mao's writings, with people reading out loud to each other from the Red Book. Some people went further to argue that what China needed now was another revolution, that they had done this before in their history and that Mao was the leader who had the understanding to accomplish that. They emphatically remarked that the point was not just to get rid of Deng Xiaoping, but Deng's line, which has dominated China for the last decade.

Newspapers reported that throughout the country, there was a surge of support for Mao, along with widespread discontent over inflation, income inequalities, crime, and corruption that accompanied Deng's market-oriented capitalist reforms. Workers and peasants around the country were wearing Mao buttons. And in one town in northeastern China, hundreds of people surrounded a statute of Mao to protect it when officials threatened to take it down.

Bloody Sunday

Martial law escalated in Beijing as 200,000 troops surrounded the capital. Further restrictions were put on journalists and a number of worker activists were arrested. At Tiananmen several thousand protesters refused to end their occupation.

Then in the dark, early hours of Saturday, June 3, army units were spotted marching down a main street leading to Tiananmen. Thousands of workers, students and others, alerted by motorcyclists going around the city giving out warning, came out to keep the soldiers from moving forward. Most of these troops were unarmed, and as daylight came groups of soldiers, some with torn shirts and others limping without shoes, made their way back to the barracks as people cursed and scolded them.

Confrontations heated up later on Saturday. A few blocks from Tiananmen a crowd gathered around a troop bus left by the soldiers who retreated earlier. Several protesters on the roof of the bus showed off rifles left by the troops. The crowd was attacked by troops using tear gas. Later in the square, troops grabbed some protesters and beat them with clubs. Many young workers fought hand-to-hand with the troops.

That night government announcements on TV ordered people to "stay at home to protect your lives" and to stay away from Tiananmen. Later on a huge convoy of army trucks and armored personnel carriers rumbled through the streets. At an intersection to the west of Tiananmen troops opened fire on crowds of protesters who blocked army access to the square.

It was in these residential districts, about two miles west of Tiananmen Square, that the bloodiest battles were fought as workers and others rose up against the troops in defense of the students. In these neighborhoods on the night of June 3, the army carried out mass, indiscriminate killings of unarmed civilians. Similar attacks occurred as troops invaded from the east. This was where the greatest bloodshed took place--out of view of foreign press and TV crews.

There are different accounts about the scale of fighting that took place on June 3-4, both in the vicinity of the Square and in other parts of the city. As casualties mounted, people fought back heroically. Workers, students, and youth armed themselves with rocks, iron pipes, and wooden sticks, and some threw gasoline bombs. Some people delivered street justice on soldiers. One group grabbed a soldier who had shot an old woman, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. A number of army trucks and armored personnel carriers were burned. Some youths ran alongside personnel carriers, threw bricks and other objects into the treads until the vehicles stopped, and threw firebombs on them. Teenagers with scarves around their mouths drove buses right at lines of troops, who shot at the buses with machine guns.

As Sunday morning approached, the army took control of Tiananmen Square with military helicopters flying overhead. Protesters sang the Internationale. Eventually, several thousand protesters peacefully withdrew following negotiations between troop commanders and student representatives. Some were run down by tanks as they left. About a hundred defiant students stayed behind. Some eyewitness accounts tell of heavy firing on the Square and of tanks flattening a tent headquarters.

No one knows how many people were killed in those early days of June. Estimates by various observers at the time range from 2,000 to 7,000. The vast majority of the casualties were workers. But whatever the exact toll, the army acted with brutal efficiency. As one account described it, "After the night of June 3-4, Beijing resembled a city occupied by a conquering army." People in other parts of the country responded angrily--with strikes, demonstrations, riots and sporadic clashes with the military.


In 1966, 10 years before Deng Xiaoping seized power, Mao said: "If the Rightists stage an anti-communist coup d'etat in China, I am sure they will know no peace either and their rule will most probably be short-lived because it will not be tolerated by the revolutionaries, who represent the interests of the people making up more than 90 percent of the population."

The brutal killings in Beijing and crushing of the 1989 mass upsurge revealed to people around the world the brutal and repressive nature of the Deng Xiaoping government. And it underscored the profound truth that only socialism can save China.

Just after the massacre, while government soldiers were shooting at practically anyone who even looked defiant, a woman rode her bicycle down the streets. Tears were streaming down her face as she rode from street corner to street corner drawing a crowd as she tried to explain what had just gone down. Through a bullhorn she cried,"This regime is fascist. You can all see it now. It's a fascist regime. We need another socialist revolution in China. They're killing our children. Don't you see them killing our children."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)