The Radical and Transnational Legacy of the Tiananmen Workers
On June 7, 1989, three days after Chinese soldiers massacred protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Hong Kongers were about to launch what would have been the biggest general strike ever in the city. Throughout the 1980s, China’s market reforms had exposed deep contradictions in Chinese society, and students flocked to Western liberalism. The death of General Secretary Hu Yaobang, a proponent of economic reforms, led to weeks-long sit-ins in Tiananmen Square and in cities across the country. The military cracked down, and after the June 4 massacre, grieving Hong Kongers called for mass action against China. But on the eve of the general strike, Szeto Wah, a pro-democracy leader of the Tiananmen solidarity movement in Hong Kong, called it off, after hearing that militant protesters were planning to target Chinese financial institutions in the city. He feared the protesters would go too far and get out of control. Tens of thousands of Hong Kongers marched, but without organized support from pro-democracy leaders and organizations.
This missed opportunity to build a mass movement that could energize workers from Beijing to Hong Kong against British and Chinese rule has been largely forgotten, but it points to the conflicting legacies of Tiananmen. Especially in the West, the Tiananmen Movement serves as a symbol of dashed hopes for the expansion of civil rights in China. The massacre, as some scholars observe, helped spawn a tough and punitive approach by the US Congress to China. The dissident anti-communist diaspora has joined forces with right-wing hawks, and over the years they have made the Tiananmen tragedy part of a larger narrative promoting US containment policies. Initially, the economic interdependence between the United States and China created challenges for this trend to consolidate, but as the US-China rivalry grew, a powerful anti-China lobby in the United States gained influence. .
But only a particular faction of the Tiananmen Movement, that of elite student leaders, provides the ideological framework for the US establishment’s strategy toward China. Many protesting students viewed Western democracy – guaranteed by Western institutions – as the only antidote to Chinese authoritarianism. But to imagine a foreign policy based on genuine democracy, we can go back to the more radical legacy of the Tiananmen workers that many in the West have forgotten.
Oith China’s market reforms in the 1980s, students and other intellectuals began to see Western ideas of human rights and democracy as solutions to the country’s political and economic ills. In public writings and at academic conferences, many dissidents argued that liberal reforms would be fundamentally incompatible with Chinese culture. Writer Liu Xiaobo estimated that China would need 300 years of Western colonialism to recover. The students’ view of democracy became increasingly associated with notions of human rights and freedom of expression that were divorced from mass political action. As Samuel Moyn of Yale Law School argues, human rights discourse without mass politics fails to redistribute power, playing only a “defensive and minor role in pushing back the new political economy”.
University of Wisconsin-Madison historian Maurice Meisner reported that “in the early weeks of the movement, student protesters often marched with linked weapons to exclude workers and other citizens, thereby preserving, they believed, the ‘purity’ of their unique nonviolent crusade.” And student leader Wang Dan said The New York Times that “the movement is not ready for worker participation because the principles of democracy must first be absorbed by students and intellectuals before they can be disseminated to others”.
As Beijing arrested Tiananmen protesters and top leaders fled overseas, much of the student diaspora believed that Western intervention and enlightened liberal intellectuals could impose human rights on China. . Tiananmen student leaders have testified before the US Congress, established NGOs, and produced civil society writings and programs to raise awareness of human rights in China. Former student leader Wu’er Kaixi, in a speech to the Congressional Executive Committee on China, called on “American democracy” to help “correct the mistakes of the past to create a better future.” In the 2000s, Liu touted the long-term US goal of “integrating China into a free world with the United States at the helm,” while supporting US military intervention in Iraq. And so, the Tiananmen students contributed to a discourse on the “clash of civilizations”. The so-called Tiananmen sanctions in July 1989, which limited arms sales to China among other economic restrictions, were weakened under the George H. W. Bush administration, but served as a prototype for anti-China legislation to come. As Chinese leftist Zoe Zhao observed in 2020: “Most of the discussion surrounding June 4 does not genuinely value its history and memories of exile, and instead is designed to reinforce a wartime rhetoric. coldness of Western “democratic” exceptionalism in the service of the American interior. and foreign policy regimes. That is, the June 4 speech and commemoration are reduced to mere instruments: Tiananmen is only put on the table when it can serve the agendas of dominant establishment figures.
This approach limits Chinese liberation to lobbying diaspora activists for Western regimes to militarize the Pacific so it can oppose the Chinese Communist Party. The Strategic Competition Act of 2021, for example, frames US support for democratic rights in Hong Kong as part of its strategy to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to the military in East Asia.
What many have forgotten is that there was another group of protesters in 1989 who were uncomfortable with this mainstream legacy. Drawing on the scholarship of Andrew Walder and Gong Xiaoxia, left-wing writers like Zhang Yueran and Christopher Wong have recently called for a reassessment of the role of workers in Tiananmen. Millions of self-organized Chinese workers, brought together by groups like the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (WAF), formed the backbone of the city’s mobilization against the state. Workers linked factories with different workplaces to execute a general strike and erected barricades to defend the city against the army after martial law was declared two weeks before the massacre. Zhang describes different types of decentralized self-organizations, from picket corps to quasi-militias, which clashed with the military and supplemented the nonviolent sit-ins in Tiananmen Square.
More importantly, the workers’ strategy harassed the state infrastructure and undermined the CCP’s propaganda. An editorial in the Hong Kong Socialist Magazine Sun Miu (later Pioneer) shortly after the massacre recounted that the workers’ strike “had plunged the whole of Beijing into a state of partial paralysis…. traffic police drove buses to block military vehicles; some workers repurposed their factories to produce defensive weapons for protesters; and railway workers refused to transport military personnel. Most notably, WAF pamphlets at the time accused the CCP of misappropriating the authority of the people to manage its own economic resources and demanded that the CCP cede power to workers to determine the course of the country’s productive industries.
This labor movement, taken up by the demand for a general strike by Hong Kongers, cultivated transnational mass power to weaken the state and seize the means of production. This was the biggest threat to the CCP. This philosophy offers a different political horizon than the dominant narrative of the Tiananmen protesters. Rather than buy into inter-imperial rivalry, the left can build worker power by encouraging self-organization to disrupt what University of California-Santa Barbara scholar and activist Charmaine Chua calls the “leviathan.” logistics” that underpins the American and Chinese economies.
For years, the liberal Tiananmen paradigm has exacerbated the divisions drawn by power. In contrast, the legacy of the Tiananmen workers prompts us to ask another set of questions: how to identify the source of ruling class power, and what kinds of campaigns and demands would best allow activists to resist it?
By limiting themselves to the framework of the struggle for human rights, activists are missing an opportunity to rethink what international solidarity can look like. Instead of allying ourselves with geopolitical blocs, we can empower and connect the work of activists resisting the free trade regimes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement between the nations of Asia- Peaceful. Such efforts can complement current waves of worker organizing and other forms of industrial action, such as port blockades.
The Tiananmen workers modeled a more ambitious kind of politics than that crafted by the liberal Tiananmen students and the American establishment. The workers called for a radical transformation of our political and economic structures. Student politics infantilized the Chinese masses as in need of rescue, while dangerously reinforcing consent to the West’s destructive foreign policy regime. More urgent than ever, the hope for an egalitarian future lies neither in American militarism nor in the Chinese “multipolar” alternative, but in the role of an independent labor organization redefining the possibilities of struggle.