history: Remembering Tiananmen Square, eye witness in China

Fifteen years after the massacre we remember what the workers and students were fighting for.

Fifteen years ago this month the Stalinist Chinese Government killed thousands of students and workers as they made a stand for democracy in Beijing. Socialist Party member Stephen Jolly was on the ground in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Here he recalls his discussions with the Chinese students and workers and outlines what they were fighting for.
See also Steve Jolly’s pamphlet "Eye witness in China", first published in 1989.

Remembering Tiananmen Square,
eye witness in China

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was the most magnificent thing I have experienced in all the time I’ve been in politics.

I arrived in Beijing on the Sunday prior to the massacre. I headed for Tiananmen Square where there was a massive march taking place. Because of this, getting to Tiananmen Square was a battle in itself!

It was a march of about 200,000 people. Being Sunday, many workers were taking part in the march. It was along an eight-lane highway, which was a mass of red flags for kilometres on end. There were delegations representing the steelworkers, universities, teacher’s colleges and many others. All were shouting slogans against the government and singing the Internationale.

Once I got to Tiananmen Square I started discussions with groups of Chinese students, who were all putting their lives on the line through hunger strike and the risk of repression.

I was at first apprehensive, not knowing if I had anything to offer. The first tent I approached belonged to a group of students from Shanghai, who luckily spoke English. They asked if I was a journalist.

I responded that I was a Marxist, and as a Socialist from the West I was there to find out first hand what was happening. I wanted to exchange experiences and offer any help I could. I was told, “We are getting a lot of money from overseas and that is great. But we want more than money. We want ideas. That is the best way you can help us.”

What I said to the students from Shanghai that day, and to the other people I met was, “the .fist lesson you need to draw out is the importance of this student movement being linked to the workers, that the students cannot win the struggle on their own.”

I explained the power of the working class, the reason why the workers have to lead this struggle, and why it is important for the students to try to make links in every possible way. I pointed out that the students should support any attempt at forming an independent trade union movement. We talked about the revolution in Russia in October 1917 being led by the working class, and how this was different from the Chinese revolution of 1949, which was not led by the working class.

The second point we discussed was the demands; the programme that was necessary for the workers’ movement, and for the students’ movement, having already agreed the need for these two struggles to be taken forward together. We went on to talk about Lenin’s points to counter bureaucracy: the election of all officials, officials to earn no more than a skilled worker, the need for a free press, opposition to a one-party state and of the right of all people to organise.

There were some terrorist illusions amongst the students, more out of frustration than anything else. We stressed the need for the workers to be armed, not on an individual basis, but an armed people.

Democratic reform under stalinism?

The most difficult point we debated was whether it is possible for a strong workers’ or students’ movement to win democratic rights in Stalinist countries such as China, the Soviet Union and East Germany. Many people I spoke to explained they believed this could happen:” We think that is possible. Look what is happening in the Soviet Union today. Look at the Polish elections at the moment. And look at also the West: you have got capitalism which is a worse system than we have, yet you have got democratic rights Surely we can have it here in a so-called socialist government?” I answered these questions theoretically, starting with the basics.

Incidentally, the students had quite a lot of information about the outside world, even through the official press. Insofar as the bureaucracy comes into conflict with US imperialism it is in their interest, for example, to outline the situation facing blacks in America, mass unemployment and the division between rich and poor. Though that will go side by side with a sympathetic analysis of the Pakistani regime, or the Chilean dictatorship – because the Chinese bureaucracy supports those regimes. The government papers also just reprint a lot of material from the capitalist press internationally.

Chinese bureaucracy

In the state-controlled media, there was a lot of information on the developments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Deng and the bureaucracy saw it as in their interests to highlight the problems that glasnost and perestroika were facing. They thought it would have a good effect on the consciousness of the masses in China. About two months before Deng had made an important speech to the elite of the bureaucracy. He basically said “We have two choices here. We can go along the road of Gorbachev. But in a country of one billion people that would be playing with .re. Look at the problems Gorbachev has got. He has unleashed a movement of opposition, which is going to blow up in his face. He thinks he is being smart but he is not. In China we have no alternative, except to keep our heads, and hold things down. So what if we have to kill a million people, we have got a billion.” It is the same contempt for the people that the old Chinese Emperors displayed.

Nonetheless, despite its refusal to go the way of Gorbachev and glasnost, the Chinese bureaucracy was faced with a opposition movement.

The way we tried to answer this point about the possibilities of democratic reform under Stalinism was like this. First of all, things are different in the West. The capitalist class has economic power through its ownership of the means of production. It also has political power, through its state. In the face of a strong workers’ movement sometimes the capitalists are forced to allow a Labor government, even a left-wing Labor government, to come into office – as long as they still have economic control of society and can dictate to that government what it can and cannot do. I used the example of what was going on in Australia at the time.

I made the point that this was only possible in the capitalist world if there was a strong labour and trade union movement. I explained that democratic rights were only won through struggle. I used the history of the suffragettes’ movement and how women workers won the vote in Britain as an example. I told them about the Eureka Stockade in Australia in the 1850’s, and how it won voting rights for the working class, to further illustrate my point.

The issue was totally different in the Stalinist world because of the nationalisation of the economy. In China this was as a result of the 1949 revolution, and in Russia because of the 1917 revolution. All the bureaucracy had was state power. The state controlled the key levers of the economy, and therefore if the bureaucracy lost state power they lost their privileges – they lost everything. Deng knew if he lost state power, he would be strung up from the nearest lamppost. Consequently the bureaucracy will fight to the bitter end against genuine democratic rights for the working class and the students movement in China.


We concluded that our demands must be the transitional demands, Lenin’s four points including the nurturing and development of the independent trade union movement, the further development of the student movement and its links to the workers. At the same time, as far as the leaders of the movement were concerned, both workers and students, and indeed as far as the rank and .le of the movement were concerned, it would be absolutely mistaken to try to dodge the terrible fact it was necessary to face: that none of the demands of the workers and students in China could be won and secured from the Communist Party and its government. It was absolutely impossible.

Late on the Tuesday some of the students organised for me to speak at a meeting of the leaders in the Forbidden City. When I got there and the workers’ leaders found out who I was and what I was doing there, they went into a sort of a frenzy. I have never seen anything like it. It was an even better response than that of the students.

One difference from discussing with the students was that all the workers took notes.

They all had notebooks, and they took down every single word I said (because less of them spoke English than the students, I was speaking through my translator).

We discussed for three hours solid, mainly on the questions of the lessons of Solidarity in Poland. The workers quickly understood what I was saying: “We’ve got to overthrow the Communist Party”, they said. The penny dropped much more quickly than with the students. That’s no indictment of the students, but was the result of the class nature and role of the workers in society.

One of the workers told me that he gives 80% of his salary towards the independent union. He said: “It’s all I’ve got in life”. It reminded me of some of the reports I’d heard from South Africa about how workers looked towards their union as the escape route from apartheid and capitalism.

With the students it was much easier to get basic agreement over the basic ideas and even full agreement on the full programme. With the workers, it was more difficult. They needed to be convinced time and time again that it was impossible to win their demands within the framework of Communist Party rule.

They invited me to speak the following day at the formation of their trade union. I decided to come back and offer my solidarity and discuss its future.

Half a million people

That night I returned to the square. We pushed our way to the front, to the Monument of People’s Heroes. From there it was a sight to behold. You could see half a million people in front of you, desperate for ideas, desperate for organisation, desperate for guidance as to the way forward to win their struggle. It was a tremendous sight to see: half a million people who had thrown off the shackles of everyday life, just sitting there with politics as their first and foremost interest. It was pitch dark. It really made me feel humble seeing the latent power of the working class right there in front of me, and knowing that if this movement could be married with Marxist ideas, no power on earth could stop it.

Before the meeting started, various people came along to express solidarity: a Buddhist monk, a local pop star, and most interestingly, a 98-year-old woman came along who had been on the Long March, and who knew Mao. This was really sticking her neck out, at that age, especially when it was getting clearer there was going to be some form of clampdown (though nobody expected it to be as bloody as it was). I was given a rough translation. She said she had given her life for the 1949 Revolution, and that it didn’t give her any pleasure to have to stand up there, 40 years later, and still have to fight.

But she had to do it. She said she was given encouragement by the students, and she felt she was with them, and though she was going to die soon, the struggle must carry on. She received massive applause and her speech brought tears to my eyes.

At around 10 o’clock the meeting proper started. I just want to give a little background here. All over Beijing, especially in the centre, the government had big loudspeakers attached to all the telegraph poles. Constantly throughout the day, especially after the movement started, they blared out ‘news’ commentary, much like in the movie 1984. In mocking tones they would talk about “the dregs of society”, “chaos”, “counterrevolutionaries”.

At the same time you could see in front of you the cream of the world’s youth and the proletariat of China, fighting for genuine socialism. In the square the students had their own network of loudspeakers loudly playing the Internationale, as if to say: “Those are lies, we’re not counter-revolutionaries, rather we are the ones who stand in the best traditions of the international working-class movement.”

The launch of the union

At 10 o’clock the union leader got up and read out the demands of the union to the crowd. I was the second speaker. I got up and expressed solidarity for the union on behalf of the workers and students everywhere, whose imagination had been captured by the movement in China. I then outlined the transitionary programme, which the students seemed to have already taken on. I went on to the question of the Communist government. I said that any government that arrested workers, that stood against workers’ democratic rights was not really communist. I said that the only real communists in China – those following the traditions of Marx, Engels and Lenin – were those who supported this movement.

People didn’t want to hear: “You’ve got to take the road of the West”. As one student put it to me: “Look, if we went capitalist, it would be like India. It wouldn’t be like Japan. We’ve got a billion people here. If the capitalists came to China, they would rip us to shreds economically. We’re not under any illusions.”

Workers’ mood

The concern in the factories was that the movement could come to an end, and that the demands were still very vague: “We agree with the students’ demand for democratic rights, but they are not actually talking about power.

And we are not confident that if we offer our support, we won’t end up with the same bastards directing us in our work, or in society as a whole”, in other words, the Communist Party bureaucracy. Until they were confident that there would be some change workers were even very hesitant about getting into the independent trade union itself.

The economic reforms of the last ten years have had contradictory effects. Some workers have benefited. For example, there is no shortage of consumer goods, at least in Beijing or Shanghai. Moreover, there is a system by which the bureaucracy and foreigners have special money, different from the money that ordinary people have. At the same time, it was from among these better-off workers that the active support for the movement was coming.

The founders of the independent union, for example, were mostly in relatively highly paid jobs. Probably they felt more confident because of this – and at the same time their money was being eroded away by inflation.

In no way did these workers want to go back to the strict centralisation of the past or the repression associated with the Cultural Revolution. Like the students they were saying “we’ve had ‘economic reform’, now we need the democracy to go with it, democracy on the basis of a planned economy”.

If the independent union had been formed a month or even two weeks earlier, it would have grown very fast. The students had given confidence to the workers, but by this time the student movement was already ebbing. The mass of workers, feeling they had the most to lose, were not confident enough to become actively involved in it.

In thinking that by using the 27th Army – perhaps the most hated group of soldiers in the world at that time – he could keep down a quarter of the world’s population he was making his greatest mistake. It may take some time, but there is no way this movement will not rise again.

The job of Marxists internationally is to ensure that lessons are drawn from the situation in China in 1989, so that the next time the battle erupts, the ideas of Marxism are present to arm this movement in the most populous country in the world. Then we can say that those comrades did not die in vain, and that 1989 was really the first step, the 1905, of what will one day be a successful political revolution in China.

Socialist Party, Australia, web site (new window).

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June 2004