Hong Kong: 48,000 gather to commemorate June 4, 1989, Beijing massacre

19th anniversary demonstration in the shadow of Sichuan earthquake

cwi Hong Kong banner

In a powerful invocation of the memory of the brutal 1989 Beijing crackdown, nearly 50,000 Hong Kong people gathered in Victoria Park on Wednesday 4 June. A torchlight vigil was held to remember the fallen and to demand democratic rights and an end to one-party rule in China and Hong Kong. Many youngsters took part in the demonstration alongside veterans of earlier memorials. Some of them were obviously not born in 1989 when, for six weeks, the youth and workers of Beijing held the entire world’s attention.

On the night of June 3-4, 1989, the rulers of China, headed by the mastermind of capitalist ’reform’, Deng Xiaoping, sent the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army to crush protests by the youth and workers of the capital. The 1989 movement’s main demands were for greater democratic freedoms and an end to governmental corruption. The regime decided to smash the protests, after mass gatherings in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square had spread to 130 cities around China, and workers had begun to join the protests, building the first independent trade unions and raising their own distinct demands within this movement. No accurate estimate of the numbers killed has ever been given, but certainly the death toll ran to several hundreds. Some sources claim that as many as 3,000 died.

The crushing of the movement, which coincided with the the beginnings of the collapse of the one-party Stalinist regimes in Russia and eastern Europe, proved a seminal event in Chinese history; it accelerated China’s embrace of neo-liberal capitalist policies. Today all mention of these events is strictly forbidden inside China. A generation of young people have grown up in complete ignorance of this movement. Internet sites are policed by 100,000 full-time regime censors using equipment specially developed for them by top US technology companies such as Cisco and Microsoft to prevent any mention of June 4. Still, however, tens of thousands of cryptic messages, some referring to "our 19th birthday", have been published, though quickly deleted by the authorities.

Sichuan Earthquake

This year, the mood surrounding the anniversary has been influenced in a big way by the Wenchuan earthquake, which has so far claimed 70,000 confirmed deaths and left more than five million people homeless. People in Hong Kong, as in the rest of China, and many other countries around the world, have been moved to contribute generously to relief funds. Over 43 billion yuan has so far been collected in China and worldwide. But this mood of solidarity with the many millions of earthquake victims also coincides with a nationalist tide in China in the wake of the March revolt in Tibetan areas (some of which lay in the immediate quake zone) and controversies surrounding the Summer Olympics. The ruling ’communist’ party has seized upon these events to boost its own standing and appeal for ’national unity’ under its leadership. Some similar processes were seen in tsunami-hit countries three years ago. In Thailand, for example, Thaksin Shinawatra was re-elected in 2005 with a crushing majority, heavily influenced by the tsunami tragedy and his government’s perceived successful handling of the relief operation.

In China, the current mood for national unity has particularly affected the middle layers of Chinese society i.e. those who gain most from the government’s pro-rich policies. Many who even describe themselves as ’democrats’ in China and Hong Kong today argue that the Chinese regime is ’moving in the right direction’ even though it is hard to find any factual support for this statement. They argue that criticism of the regime is ’divisive’. A typical comment was in an editorial in the bourgeois ’democratic’ South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English language daily which dealt with the 19th anniversary under the headline ’Time to heal wounds over June 4 crackdown’:-

"However, it is undeniable that Beijing has won back political legitimacy – seriously eroded after the crackdown – for the economic reforms it has accomplished and the resulting improvement in the livelihoods of ordinary people… The events of June 4, 1989, will always be remembered. But as we look to the future, it is hoped that they will not continue to be a source of pain and division".

What this paper and other capitalist mouthpieces are saying is that, so long as China’s ’communist’ dictators continue to offer fat profits for the capitalists, it should not be too strongly criticised for using dictatorial methods. The newly elected president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, took the back-slapping of the Beijing regime to new levels when he said, in reference to the 1989 events, that the Chinese regime should, "continue to promote freedom and democracy". Ma’s Koumintang party (the pre-1949 rulers of China) have immediately, after re-assuming office, opened negotiations with Beijing which they hope will lead to closer economic links and a resultant boost for the Taiwanese capitalists.

"Governments everywhere are using the earthquake issue to apologise and make amends with the Chinese regime ahead of the Olympics," Hong Kong socialist legislator ’Longhair’ Leung Kwok-hung told chinaworker.info. "They need China’s dollar reserves and market because of the crisis in the US banks and economy, so they can’t afford to upset the regime," he said.

"End one-party rule!"

Yet despite the events of the last few months, there was no mood to ’forgive and forget’ evident on the Hong Kong vigi – far from it! The significance of the Hong Kong demonstration is that it this the only city in China, due to its special legal status arising from its colonial history, where such public demonstrations are possible. The demands for an end to one-party rule, heard again and again on Wednesday night, would be unthinkable anywhere else in China at this stage. An opinion poll conducted last week showed a small shift in attitudes of the general population in Hong Kong from a year ago. The number demanding a reversal of the official stance on the Tiananmen movement, branded as a "criminal" and "counter-revolutionary" rebellion, have fallen this year to 49 percent from 55 percent a year ago. But still, according to this poll by the University of Hong Kong, 58% of people say the Beijing regime "did the wrong thing" on June 4.

Some feared that the turnout this year would be affected by these factors, especially with the earthquake tragedy dominating people’s attention. Organisers of the vigil linked the two issues, turning this into a night of remembrance for the victims of both events. Speaking at the event, Szeto Wah of the ’Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements’ declared, "We cannot escape natural disasters like earthquakes, but man-made ones like the bloody crackdown are not inevitable".

The excellent mobilisation on Wednesday was extremely significant against this background. It shows the deep imprint on popular consciousness that June 4 made. The aspirations for democratic rights and an end to dictatorship have not been extinguished either by grief over an unfathomable natural disaster or the pro-regime nationalism surrounding the billion-dollar Olympic project. Next year’s symbolically charged 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre will be a day of dread for the Chinese regime.

Struggle for democracy; against capitalism

Increasingly, even from the earthquake zone in China, critical voices are being raised about official corruption and the government’s handling of the crisis. Particularly, protests by bereaved parents who lost their children in more than 2,000 collapsed schools are becoming an explosive issue. Ten such protests have occurred in the last three or four days and the regime, praised by the global capitalist press for its ’openness’, has just issued orders banning all public gatherings near collapsed school buildings. New press restrictions are also being enforced as the regime fears that ’openness’ has gone too far. Foreign and Chinese newspapers that show photos of Premier Wen Jiabao visiting ruins are one thing; but photos of distraught parents holding photographs of their dead children, or, as on Tuesday 3 June, being physically dragged by soldiers from a protest outside local government offices – this is another thing altogether! These critical voices are set to multiply in coming weeks as the enormity of the task of reconstruction becomes clearer. It is estimated that the rebuilding of collapsed homes and infrastructure in Sichuan will take eight years. Without an injection of central government funds of ’Olympian’ proportions – which, so far, the government has not indicated – new ’tofu’ (faulty) construction and delays in re-housing the homeless are inevitable.

cwi Hong Kong paper

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and chinaworker.info had a successful intervention in the June 4 demonstration. This was the biggest demonstration in East Asia that the CWI has participated in. Our material highlighted workers’ struggle, state repression from Tiananmen to Tibet, and the need for independent democratic trade unions. By stressing in our publications that the struggle for basic democratic rights is today, by its very nature, also a struggle against capitalism in China and internationally, we played a unique role in this year’s June 4 commemoration.

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June 2008