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Ghosts of Tiananmen


Another year, another June 4th; another slew of tears shed and candles lit in darkness.

The annual attempts to mourn the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong, one of the only places in China where public commemoration is legally tolerated, have always had an air of the pathetic. What purpose are they meant to serve? Obviously not to morally persuade the CCP to accept responsibility for the massacre, for that is accepted by most participants to be next to impossible. Nor have they proven particularly effective in rousing people in Mainland China to demand justice for the act from their government. Indeed, in recognition of this futility, since 2014 a growing number of young people in Hong Kong have been indifferent to or even outright opposed to attending the annual vigil (many, unfortunately, due to a parochial “localism” – Hong Kong nationalism)[1].

Over the past four years, the hopelessness of the situation has only compounded as even in Hong Kong public commemoration of June 4th has been severely restricted, if not outright banned. Yet, there are many who desperately continue to implore the public to commemorate the massacre, even risking cruel and unusual punishment to do so[2]. But why? – “To keep the memory alive.”

This is not an unsympathetic motivation, especially considering the CCP’s paranoid efforts to bury all historical record of the massacre. But what memory is being kept alive, exactly? The memory that the CCP is capable of great brutality? But any number of heinous acts can be pulled from the historical record to prove this, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution. It could be said that these events differ from the Tiananmen Square Massacre in that the CCP has officially acknowledged them to be a “catastrophe”[3] (though one suspects that most hysterical anti-communists continue to be unaware of this), yet there still remains more recent acts to draw upon, such as the corruption that aggravated the devastation of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, the crackdown on COVID-19 whistle blowers or the Uyghur concentration camps, most of which have arguably resulted in more suffering than the Tiananmen Square Massacre where (only) an estimated 1,000 people were killed[4]. If the measure of brutality is the sole reason to keep the memory of the massacre alive, one is just digging out rotting 30-year-old corpses from a macabre mountain to make a point which could just as easily have been made with fresher bodies. Rather than remembered, the massacre is thereby liquidated onto the slaughter bench of history.

Yet something makes the corpses of 1989 particularly politically profound, namely that they represented a Chinese pro-democracy movement, and really it is the memory of this movement which is at stake in the memory of June 4th. The Tiananmen Square protests were supposedly the last great fight for democracy in China, a highpoint before the decline of Chinese liberalism ever since. Three essential points lie in this pro-democracy account of the 1989 protests: 1) that the Tiananmen Square Movement can be reduced to a struggle for “liberal democracy”; 2) that the conflict in 1989 was between “liberal democracy” and the “tyranny” of the CCP; and 3) that a “democratic revolution” was possible in China in 1989. But is even this memory adequate?

For one, in the period immediately prior to 1989, both the Chinese democracy movement and elements within the CCP agreed on the need for liberal-democratic reforms. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had failed spectacularly to overcome the economic backwardness the CCP had inherited in China following the 1949 Revolution, thereby invalidating Mao Zedong’s military-style autarkic methods to force through the country’s industrialisation. Thus, after Mao’s death in 1976, both the Chinese people at large and reformers within the CCP desired to deviate from this path, and were subsequently united behind the project of advancing elements of “liberal democracy” in China: “liberalisation” in the form of market reforms, privatisation and the opening up to the world economy in order to free civil society to prosper economically and invite much needed foreign investment and technology; “democratisation” in the form of popular support for the CCP reformers so that they could push through their “liberalisation” program against the opposition of the Maoist faction still remaining within the CCP. The alliance between reformers within the CCP and the Chinese people for “liberalisation” and “democratisation” was most clearly seen in that forgotten Tiananmen, the popular 1976 Tiananmen riot upon the death of Zhou Enlai that protested the Maoist Gang of Four and supported the reformers, and which bestowed the reformer Deng Xiaoping with the popular legitimacy to crest into power and introduce a host of “liberalising” economic reforms.

The Tiananmen Square protests therefore cannot simply be opposed to the CCP over the question of whether liberal-democratic reforms should have been advanced in China. Indeed, consciously or not, the Tiananmen Square protests were as much motivated by discontent over the consequences of liberal-democratic reforms than with the abstract desire for “liberal democracy”, for in China between 1976 and 1989 a real, palpable contradiction had emerged in the struggle for liberal-democratic reforms: liberal-democratic reforms were appearing to undermine themselves. “Democratisation” had seemingly taken place with Deng Xiaoping’s popular rise to power against the old bankrupt Maoist order, and yet the very same Deng Xiaoping had used his newfound “democratic” legitimacy to crush the Democracy Wall Movement in 1979 after it criticised him even before ordering the fatal crackdown in Tiananmen Square. “Liberalisation” too had seemingly advanced with economic reforms, eventually producing unprecedented growth in the Chinese economy, and yet those very same economic reforms rocked civil society in the 1980s with economic chaos, inflation, corruption and new forms of poverty as a very old problem reared its ugly head once again: simultaneous unemployment and overwork, as well as the dilemma between investment in the value of labour-power and the value of capital. Indeed, though now long forgotten by the pro-democracy camp, the severe problems produced by “liberalisation” were of significantly greater concern than the problems of “democratisation” to the majority of participants in the Tiananmen Square protests – inflation in 1989 was as high as 18%, with stagnating wages and frequent shortages in everyday goods, linked intimately to the corruption of the party cadre[5].

The contradictory situation in 1989 therefore posed a question, one vastly different from the choice between “liberal democracy” and “tyranny”: were liberal-democratic reforms even leading to progress in freedom in China – indeed, to greater “democratisation” and “liberalisation”? Or were they leading to regress and simply laying the seeds for new forms of domination? This was what made the CCP, even the reform faction, so fearful of the protests, for the contradiction posed a task to the Tiananmen Square Movement – the task of not only obtaining ever-more liberal-democratic reforms, but, more importantly, of exercising leadership over those reforms. This was the question of politics: not only what is to be done, but who is to do it? Could there be an alternative leadership to the CCP to manage the consequences of liberal-democratic reforms in a way that didn’t undermine themselves, in a way that resulted rather in the unfolding of freedom?

The reason pro-democracy advocates today – namely the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong – in their memory of June 4th forget this question of politics and reduce the Tiananmen Square protests into a mindless Manichean battle of good and evil, of righteous “liberal democracy” versus despicable “tyranny”, is because they are descended from the student leadership of the Tiananmen Square protests that failed to meet this political task. The student leadership never sought to challenge the CCP’s political leadership, let alone make a revolution. Indeed, as Wang Dan, one of the famous student leaders involved in the protests, proudly wrote on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in an all-too-clever rebuttal to the argument that the protesters would not have ruled China better than the CCP, “The students who took to the streets in 1989 never mentioned replacing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or proposed taking power ourselves. Regardless of the events of June 4, there was never any possibility of the student leaders becoming national leaders”[6].

Rather, the students’ sole intention in 1989 was to back and pressure the reform faction within the CCP, represented by the recently deceased party leader Hu Yaobang and the reformer general secretary Zhao Ziyang. This amounted to a doubling down on demanding liberal-democratic reforms from the old CCP reformers, ignoring the crisis those inherently contradictory reforms had produced over the preceding decade and thereby evading the task of providing new political leadership. Even had Zhao Ziyang won out in the power struggle against the hardliners who carried out the massacre, the contradictions of liberal-democratic reform under CCP leadership would have persisted. Like Deng Xiaoping before him, Zhao Ziyang’s “democratic” appeal to the students was born out of a desire to bring them under his leadership and to use them against the hardliners before the protests spiralled out of his or anyone’s control. Indeed, in his famous speech at Tiananmen Square the night martial law was declared, often touted as evidence of his solidarity with the protesters, Zhao was actually imploring the students to end their hunger strike to open for “dialogue” with the CCP[7]. Zhao Ziyang’s economic reforms too were simply more of the same market policies, privatisation and opening up to the global economy that had generated the crisis by 1989 and demanded new political leadership. Would the satisfaction of this goal of the student leadership really have been a victory for “democratisation” and “liberalisation”?

Every crisis is an opportunity for the birth of something new, but it is also an opportunity for the status quo to reassert itself under a new guise. 

At any rate, Zhao Ziyang’s political leadership was too weak in the CCP, his appeal undermined by the contradictions of the very expanded liberal-democratic reform he proposed, and since the pro-democracy students refused to offer their own, that left only one leadership capable of resolving the crisis of 1989 to prevent the endless insoluble social strife the protests were otherwise heading towards: the hardliners. The rest is a history of blood and iron.

This brings us to the Left’s memory of June 4th. Those sections that celebrate the Tiananmen Square Massacre as a victory over “counterrevolutionary elements” notwithstanding, the Left is generally critical of the Tiananmen Square student leadership, which it justifies through a so-called “class analysis.” As Hong Kong-American Leftist Promise Li writes in The Nation, the “elite student leaders” of the protests were “[b]ut only one particular faction of the Tiananmen movement”; rather there supposedly exists a “more radical legacy of Tiananmen’s workers that many in the West have forgotten.” In other words, the Left largely asserts that the workers involved in the Tiananmen Square protests expressed the true revolutionary potential of that event, which could have led not only a “democratic” but even a “socialist” revolution. “The Tiananmen workers modelled a more ambitious kind of politics than the one crafted by the Tiananmen student liberals… The workers called for a radical transformation of our political and economic structures”[8].

Nevertheless, this attempt at a counter-narrative by the Left to the dominant pro-democracy account of the Tiananmen Square protests ultimately amounts to just so much wishful thinking. The Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation that was formed amidst the protests which many a Leftist has fawned over was merely a tiny minority, only reaching 20,000 registered members by June 3rd, of which “[t]he core group… [was] about 150 workers from different work units.” Moreover, the Federation operated overwhelmingly as a propaganda group, never testing or steeling itself in the execution of any serious labour action before it was easily smashed by the CCP after June 4th. But the Left’s obsession with this exotic piece of microhistory aside – suitable perhaps as the subject for yet another tome of “New Labour History” hot off an academic press, but not much else – the fact remains that the vast majority of worker bystanders during the Tiananmen Square protests supported the student leadership throughout without ever even attempting to produce their own independent leadership.

The Chinese working class’s trailing of the students should come as no surprise, since even a cursory glance at the demands of the workers reveals that they were of exactly the same kind as the students, namely liberal-democratic demands. During the Tiananmen Square protests, “workers were aroused by fears about job security, decent housing, control in the workplace, rising prices, pensions, and futures for their children”[10] – all liberal-democratic concerns, what Lenin once termed “trade union consciousness”[11]. That workers tended to place more emphasis on economic demands than the students, and at times displayed more belligerence towards authority, does not change the fundamental fact that workers like the students sought to assert their bourgeois rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Even when an organisation like the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation directly criticised the students, this was over their accusation that the students were capitulating in the struggle for the “liberalisation” and “democratisation” of China, of which it was believed the workers were the most consistent upholders.

The Left, on the other hand, treats the demands of the Tiananmen Square workers as somehow inherently “socialist” or expressive of a spurious different “class interest” to the students; it cannot account for the overwhelming number of workers who supported the students as anything except fools or knaves ignorant of their “true class interest.” This proves an excellent excuse to ignore how the workers’ demands were just as contradictory as the liberal-democratic demands of the students. “Democratisation” in the form of working class participation in the state or the workplace, or “liberalisation” in the form of higher wages, lower working hours, and better conditions for the working class would only have raised the question of how production could be organised to achieve these aims, especially in the face of a mass of desperately poor peasants in the countryside willing to accept sweatshop conditions for survival in China. Over a century of experience of the labour movement in the West has also provided more than enough evidence that in the absence of adequate political leadership, the demands of the working class will only create a new bureaucracy and regime of domination to manage the crisis of capitalism.

Even granting its possibility, would it really have been desirable for a “socialist revolution” to have triumphed in 1989? The Left’s reverence for a non-existent revolutionary working class in 1989 belies a deeper condescension that the workers merely wanted a repeat of the 1949 Revolution, or worse the Cultural Revolution – a violent paroxysm of the “oppressed” against their “oppressors.” But even at its best a “socialist revolution” of this kind would have confronted exactly the same problem faced by the CCP in 1949 – the cold isolation from global capitalism in an economically backward country.

The Chinese working class in 1989 did not need sermons from Leftist intellectuals about the righteousness of their “class interest”, for any imbecile can open their mouth wide and yell “all power to the workers!” Rather, the task in 1989 was to confront the entire history of failure on the Left, not only in China since at least 1927 but internationally too. Only when the conditions for this global defeat are grasped and overcome can the call for a “socialist revolution” in China be anything but an insane hope to rewind history so the old horror can begin again.

But the Left to this day refuses to take up this intellectual task; it condemns the “elite student leaders” in Tiananmen Square for failing to give carte blanche to the workers, rather than for their abdication of intellectual responsibility to critique the workers, to warn them of the inevitable obstacles confronting their struggle. As a result, the lessons the Left believe are to be learned from the Tiananmen Square protests – lessons which it believes make it superior to the pro-democracy movement – end up being of the most banal kind. The “radical, transnational legacy of Tiananmen workers” of which Promise Li writes so passionately is ultimately mobilised simply to oppose China hawks in the US state, which amounts to taking one side or another in the foreign policy of the US ruling class. Never mind that US doves were the ones immediately and directly implicated in apologising for the massacre in the name of continuing Deng’s reforms[12].

Indeed, the “radical” Left evinces even more political irresponsibility than the pro-democracy movement. Promise Li treats Hong Kong trade unionist Szeto Wah’s decision to call off a general strike in the city after June 4th as some kind of smoking gun, proof of the pro-democracy movement’s betrayal of the revolutionary working class. But one cannot betray something that does not exist, least of all because the Left has refused to build it, and what does not exist is no match for the bullets and tanks of the People’s Liberation Army. Where the student leaders walked blindly into the massacre, the Left wishes it could dive in headfirst in the name of “radicalism”!

Here is the rub of the issue with all contemporary memory of June 4th, an issue that goes far deeper than any ignorance of historical facts or figures: the memory serves no critical purpose. Neither the pro-democracy camp nor the Left in the present are tasked by the memory of June 4th. Both see in the Tiananmen Square protests already the highest stage of the struggle for freedom – a struggle represented by the student protesters in the case of the pro-democracy camp, and by the workers for the Left – instead of what it really was, the expression of what is now a century of defeat on the Left. We are thus left with mere moral affirmation of this or that side of the Tiananmen Square protests which continues to the present, simply the converse of the moral condemnation of the CCP we began with. The mindless call of “once more unto the breach!” proves fatal for any new political theory and practice to change the world that could learn from and advance the struggle for freedom beyond the manifest contradictions of the Tiananmen Square protests.

As it currently stands then, all the attempts to keep the memory of June 4th alive do nothing of the sort, for they fail to preserve the memory in a way that could even potentially emancipate the present. Indeed, in its current empty state the memory of June 4th even becomes apologetic to present-day CCP rule, for, after a brief lull, the CCP continued its liberal-democratic reforms post-1989, even meeting most of the original demands of the Tiananmen Square protesters[13]. “Liberalisation” has advanced with a massive private sector and expanding international trade; even “democratisation” has continued apace in the form of village elections and the toleration of small-scale protests with a variety of grievances: between 1993 and 2005 the number of such “mass incidents” grew from 8,700 in 1993 to over 87,000 in 2005[14]. There remain thousands of individuals in China today who participated in the 1989 movement and thus remember June 4th despite the state censorship, most of whom presently live as middle-class professionals and have experienced the sweetest fruits of Chinese growth, who would call this “progress.” Consequently, most of them have without any feelings of guilt either accommodated themselves to or actively support CCP rule.

The Left too, no matter how hostile a pose it strikes against the CCP, is implicated in these apologetics. The idea that a revolutionary working class existed in 1989, and by extension that 1989 has somehow left a “revolutionary legacy,” a model to follow, allows the Left to abdicate its intellectual responsibility to grasp the problems and defeats within the entire course of modern Chinese history, let alone its political responsibility to provide political leadership. It really has nothing to say to the Chinese working class besides cheerleading them in their endless struggle for supposedly “socialist” reforms, but there is only one possible organised force that could exercise political leadership over such reforms: the CCP. Meanwhile, new crises and regress develop from these very reforms – unemployment and overwork, conflicts between the needs of capital and the needs of labour – new discontents with and yet new demands for “progress.” The contradictions within reforms go unrecognised, impotent protests sprout which refuse to produce new leadership, the Left praises the workers to high heaven from the side lines, the CCP remains the default ruling power, and the cycle continues.

  4. Of course, many more were arrested or executed in the days and months following June 4th. The number who died the night of June 4th and morning of June 5th has also never been confirmed.
  5. Craig Calhoun, Neither Gods nor Emperors (1994), p.248. In a survey conducted with random bystanders in Beijing in 1989, an overwhelming 82% of respondents agreed with “An end to corruption” as one of their demands; by contrast, only 25% shared the demand of “Free elections.” “It was neither the desire for democracy per se nor the idea of following one’s own feelings that linked the students most strongly to the general population of Beijing. The goal they shared most was bringing an end to corruption.”
  9. Ralf Ruckus, The Left in China (2023), p.69.