Eyewitness in China

Eyewitness in China

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The Events in Tiananmen Square May-June 1989
The following pamphlet was written by Stephen Jolly in 1989 after the world famous events in Tiananmen Square.

Stephen visited China on behalf of Militant (the forerunner to the Socialist Party). This pamphlet has recently been republished and is available from SP National Office for $3.

Editorial Introduction: What is happening in China?

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chinese Revolution of 1944-49 was the greatest advance in history. A quarter of the world’s people threw off the yoke of imperialism, of landlords and capitalists, and advanced into the modern age. But there was an important difference in the way these two revolutions took place.

In Russia, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party, the working class took power at the head of the peasantry and established a regime of workers’ democracy in October 1917. The landlords and capitalists were overthrown, but to transform backward Russia to socialism – to a society of prosperity, freedom and equality for all – it needed to be linked to revolution in the industrialised west.

However, the European revolutions of that time failed. Soviet Russia was isolated, and ravaged by invasion and civil war. Out of this arose a bureaucratic dictatorship, headed by Stalin, which strangled all that remained of workers’ democracy after Lenin’s death, and mercilessly imprisoned and slaughtered the Bolshevik Left Opposition, which Trotsky valiantly led.

Stalinism based itself not on capitalism, but on state ownership – on a system of nationalised property and planning which the workers’ revolution had made possible. Stalinism claimed to be “socialism”, but suppressed all freedom and built up enormous privileges for the bureaucracy while it developed industry enormously at the same time.

It is the crisis of this bureaucratic system which has now burst into open conflict in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – and which has given rise to Gorbachev and his reforms intended to save the bureaucracy from overthrow at the hands of the working class.

A sophisticated industrialised economy is incompatible with bureaucratic rule. A modern planned economy needs democratic decision-making and control just as the human body needs oxygen. The bureaucracy cannot give up its power, however, and is split between those who want to reintroduce the capitalist market, and those who demand the old rigid centralisation and control.

Although as yet without clear ideas and goals, it is towards workers’ democracy, i.e. towards a democratic socialist order of society that the mass of the people are striving.

* * *

China too, has a long revolutionary history. The workers’ revolution of 1925-27 was defeated and butchered, mainly because of the disastrous policies of Stalin who made the Chinese Communists submit to the capitalist Chiang Kai-Shek.

Following this defeat, Mao rebuilt the Communist Party not on the basis of the working class but on the basis of a peasant war. The victory in 1949 was the victory of a peasant army. The working class, unlike in Russia, never held power in China. The regime of Mao was built on the same lines as Stalin’s dictatorship – although the two bureaucracies, pursuing rival national interests in the world, soon became bitter enemies.

Despite their different origins, however, Chinese and Russian Stalinism have come to face essentially the same crisis – a crisis of bureaucratic rule – and are threatened with overthrow at the hands of the working masses who hate bureaucratic privilege and tyranny. The events in China in May-June 1989, recounted in this pamphlet, mark the beginning of the political epoch of political revolution in China.

* * *

Nationalisation and the planned economy have had enormously beneficial effects for the people of China. Starvation has been eliminated and industry has developed on a scale unparalleled in the capitalist ex-colonial world.

In 1952 China produced 1.8 million tonnes of steel; in 1985 it produced 46 million tonnes. In 1952 it produced 7.3 billion kilowatts of electricity; in 1985 it produced 410 billion kilowatts.

Average life expectancy was less than 40 years at the time of the 1949 revolution, but by 1981 had risen to 66 years for men and 69 years for women.

Whilst the Chinese bureaucracy is not yet an absolute fetter on the development of production and society, in the way that the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy has become, it has still held back the progress of the planned economy. This was most marked in the period of Mao’s so-called Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when extreme centralisation, attempts to develop Chinese society in isolation from the world economy (autarky) and the destruction of productive forces, led to stagnation.

After the death of Mao, Deng brought in reforms. Decollectivisation, and the introduction of market forces to the distribution of foodstuffs, initially increased grain production by 25%. Gross output during 1978-85 exceeded the total for the previous 21 years. Per capita income in rural areas grew by 17%.

However, Deng’s policy of incentives for private entrepreneurs – “to get rich is glorious!” – has led to big problems. There has been a switch away from grain production towards more profitable crops. No longer self-sufficient in food, China is having to import millions of tonnes of grain from the west.

At the same time, decollectivisation resulted in social polarisation and 120 million peasants being made redundant. 70 million of these were re-employed in rural industry organised in “specialised households” which produce 40% of gross value of rural output. But 50 million became unemployed “wandering people”.

In the towns, food prices have rocketed. Inflation in urban areas in 1988 was officially 21% but unofficial figures are as high as 35%. Workers, especially those moving from rural areas, are facing increased exploitation in the private industries which have grown up, owned by foreign companies, and by a new breed of Chinese millionaires.

Integration with the capitalist world market has temporarily stimulated growth (industrial production grew by 18% in 1988), but has also led to a trade deficit of $7.7 billion and a foreign debt of $40 billion. As the bureaucracy struggled to control these problems, and counteract the overheating of the economy, industrial production plummeted by 11% in the first half of 1989.
These problems, along with the enormous waste caused by corruption and mismanagement, caused a paralysing deviation within the bureaucracy over economic strategy.

The reform wing of the bureaucracy, led by Zhao, argued that the reforms, which had been restricted to agriculture and the service and light industries, should be extended to basic industries such as steel and energy production, and accompanied with further drastic attacks on workers’ living standards. The conservative wing of the bureaucracy argued that the reforms had gone too far and there should be a return to centralisation in both industry and agriculture.
The dramatic account of Steve Jolly of the events in Tiananmen Square show the speed with which the forces of the political revolution, as yet barely developed, burst through the fissure created by the division in the bureaucracy itself.

Now the movement has been brutally crushed. A new dark night of Stalinist tyranny seems to be descending. It might take a period of years before once again a movement on the scale of these events breaks out in China. Nevertheless, there is no way the bureaucracy can solve the crisis at the root of its system of rule. The contradictions will develop and inevitably burst to the surface. The political revolution has begun.

June 1989

Eyewitness in China

I went to China to hear and see at first hand this movement in the most populous country in the world, with one quarter of the world’s population. I went to exchange experiences, political and organisational, with the cream of the students in Beijing and Shanghai and the cream of the proletariat.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was the most magnificent thing I have seen in all the time I’ve been in politics. I arrived on the Sunday prior to the massacre, the last Sunday in May. After settling down I headed for Tiananmen Square. 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 (some of the students, I later discovered, were quite disappointed it was not larger). Many workers, it being a Sunday, were not working and had joined the march. It was along an eight-lane highway, which was absolutely packed for kilometre after kilometre with a mass of red flags with Chinese writing. There were delegations representing the steelworkers, representing universities, representing teachers’ colleges, etc., shouting slogans against the government, and all singing the Internationale.

If there is one theme to what I am saying today it is to counter the lies put out by the Chinese Stalinist government, and taken up by the capitalist press internationally, that this movement of the masses in China was “counter-revolutionary” or “pro-capitalist”. Because from the beginning to the end I never met one person – student, worker or even peasant – who had any illusions that the way forward for their struggle was to move towards capitalism in any way, shape or form.

Tiananmen Square

After about three hours I managed to get to Tiananmen Square and that in itself was a sight to behold. There in the centre of Beijing is this monstrous Stalinist Square architecturally speaking. It is massive, probably about the size of four or five cricket ovals or five or six soccer fields. Flat smack in the middle is this obelisk, the Monument of the Peoples’ Heroes, which is quite historic.

Many speeches by Mao, many big rallies in the past have been held there. The vast majority of the square was taken up by tents – some locally-made tents, some that the students received from Hong Kong and from the West. Some of the tents still had hunger strikers in, although most of the hunger strikers had finished their strike.

To the north of Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, with a big poster of Mao looking down. I don’t know what he would have been thinking if he saw what was in front of him! (By the way, that is the only poster of Mao left in Beijing. And, among the youth, there are few illusions in Mao. Obviously there was a massive political campaign by the bureaucracy against Mao after his death. The experience of the Cultural Revolution discredited him. And his wife and the “Gang of Four” are absolutely hated, by the government and the people. For older workers who remember pre-1949, and the early years afterwards, it is different, because they remember when the bureaucracy was more restrained and less corrupt, in comparison with today, when the big bureaucrats and army leaders drive around Beijing in beautiful cars.)

Also in Tiananmen Square are three monstrous big buildings to the south, to the west and the east. But they just looked tiny compared to the mass of the people in the square itself.
I felt as if I was at the centre of the world. Because you had the eyes and ears of workers, students and peasants round the world on this Square, every day, on the radio, in the newspapers, on the television – looking at the Square and hearing what was going on. You had the cream of the world’s capitalist journalists there. But, much more importantly, you had the cream of the students and the proletariat of one quarter of the world’s population, just there protesting.

Once I got there I thought obviously I’ve got to go and start discussing with people. In the beginning I was quite apprehensive: how would I be taken? You hear at school about the “Bamboo Curtain”, and you wonder what can you offer, somebody from the other side of the planet. What do you know about China? Because obviously these people weren’t playing. They were putting their lives on the line, through the hunger strike and through the risk of the repression they were feeling at the time and were to feel in a much greater degree a week later.

But as soon as I started approaching the tents any apprehension went right out of the window. I went up to the first tent and met some students who had come all the way from Shanghai. They had been there for some days. And, luckily enough, some spoke English. I sat down and they asked me: “Are you a journalist?” I said “No, I am a Marxist. I am a socialist from the West. I am here to listen to what you have got to say, because we don’t want to depend on the capitalist newspapers to hear the demands of your struggle. We want to hear from you yourselves. I want you to know, you have captured the imagination of workers and youth all over the world with your struggle. We want to learn from you. You are showing us a way forward. But we would also like to exchange some experiences. Because maybe some of the experiences that we have learned overseas, politically and organisationally, might be of help to you.”

Absolute Joy

Once I made some points like that you could see the absolute joy at the fact that somebody had come over to support them. They put out a little chair, sat me down, they would be forcing cigarettes down my throat – of course I gallantly fought them off! – and cold drinks and so on.
And you should know how poor those students are. Even if you are at university over there – and I’ll come to this later – you are not, economically speaking, part of a privileged elite. These people, some of whom had been on a hunger strike, were just sitting there and were treating me as a king almost, because I was a socialist there, and willing to support them.

As soon as I started talking, tens of people came around. At one stage 50 people were around the tent. There would have been more, only because I was sitting down so low inside the small tent it was not possible for people to hear what I had to say. What it reminded me of was John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World. It was even more fulfilling than that because we weren’t there just to be journalists. We were there to learn of course, but also to assist the development of that movement with Marxist policies and Marxist organisation.

In the discussions they would outline to me the experiences of the past few weeks in China as far as the student movement was concerned, and their ideas as to the perspectives and the next step. What they basically wanted from me was what I had to offer. They said a lot of times: “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.” That was said to me time and time again in other discussions.

What I said to these Shanghai students that day, and in most of the other discussions I had, went this way. “Well”, I said, “the first 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.” And I went into the question of 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 – and if there was any development towards an independent trade union movement they should support it and nurture it. Because that was their key to victory – not only for the workers, but for the students themselves. We went over the whole question why the revolution in Russia in October 1917 led by the working class was different from the Chinese revolution of 1949, which was of course not led by the working class.

The second point we would go onto then, once that point had gone home, 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 would go on to Lenin’s four points to counter bureaucracy: the elections of all officials, officials to earn no more than a skilled worker, and so on; the need for a free press, of being against a one-party state, of the right of all people who stand on the basis of a planned economy to be able to organise themselves. We would stress the need for the workers to be armed – not on an individual basis, six or seven workers armed to pop off Deng or Li Peng, and I must say that there were some terrorist illusions amongst the students, more out of frustration than anything else – but the need for everybody to be armed. Not a “People’s Liberation Army”, but an armed people, that’s how we would pose it.

Democratic reform under Stalinism?

The third point that we discussed … and I must say that this was the most difficult point, where we had the most trouble in winning acceptance from some of the students and workers, although nine times out of ten we won agreement in the end. It was this: is it possible in a Stalinist country like China, or indeed in the Soviet Union or East Germany, for a strong workers’ movement or a strong students’ movement, with the right programme, to win democratic rights from a Stalinist government? Because what those Shanghai students, and other students and workers I spoke to, said to me was “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?” These questions would have to be answered and explained theoretically right back from square one.

Incidentally, the students have 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, of mass unemployment, 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 particular, there is a lot of information on developments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Deng and the bureaucracy see it as in their interests to highlight the problems that glasnost and perestroika are facing. They think it will have a good effect on the consciousness of the masses in China. About two months ago Deng made an important speech to the elite of the bureaucracy. It was reported in the Hong Kong newspapers. “We have two choices here” he said, more or less. “We can go along the road of Gorbachev. But in a country of one billion people that would be playing with fire. 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 in 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.

But, nonetheless, despite its refusal to go the way of Gorbachev and glasnost, the Chinese bureaucracy is faced with a movement all the same.

Anyway, 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 Labour government, even a left-wing Labour government, even a left-wing Labour 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. For example, what is going on in Australia at the present time?

That is possible in the capitalist world, I would say in the discussions, but only if you have a strong labour and trade union movement – and I had to go over all the points about that. And then point out that democratic rights existed only for 15% of the population in the capitalist world, living in the capitalist countries. And that they are won only through struggle. I would discuss, for example, the history of the suffragettes’ movement: how women workers won the vote in Britain. And the question of the Eureka Stockade in Australia which is how the vote was won in the 1850s for the working class there. The vote wasn’t given on a plate.

I would discuss how the issue was totally different in the Stalinist world. Why? Because of the nationalisation of the economy – in China as a result of the 1949 revolution, and in Russia because of the 1917 Revolution – all the bureaucracy has got is state power. The state controls the key levers of the economy, and therefore if the bureaucracy lose state power they lose their privileges, they lose everything. As far as Deng is concerned today, 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 student movement in China.


Once that question was discussed and agreed theoretically then we had to ask what conclusions we draw from this. The conclusions are very simple. That our number one demands at the moment must be the transitional demands, Lenin’s four points and so on, the nurturing and development of the independent trade union movement, the further development of the student movement and its links to the workers and so on. But at the same time, as far as the leaders of this movement are concerned, both workers and students, and indeed as far as the rank and file of the movement are 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 can be won and secured from the Communist Party and its government. It is absolutely impossible.

But what about the reformist wing of the Communist Party, the students would say, what about Zhao Ziyang? The illusions in him are not half as much as what the capitalist press is saying, especially amongst the active layers of workers and students, but they do exist. So we would discuss the situation in Poland: that the elections do not represent the beginnings of a democratisation of Polish society. The only reason they have taken place is (a) because the Solidarity leaders like Walesa were tamed by Jaruzelski and the Polish regime and (b) because they represent very limited democratic reforms, not real democratic rights and power to the people. It is a question of the bureaucracy giving limited reforms from above to try to prevent revolution from below. I would also point out that in the Soviet Union, side by side with glasnost is the repression against the Georgian masses, and so on. That had to be drawn out, and to stress the lesson that the conclusion of any programme for the students and workers as far as China was concerned had to be for a new government, a new revolutionary government, a political revolution, as we would say as Marxists. In other words, that the workers and students needed to take power. That was the only way that reforms could be implemented and made permanent as far as the Chinese masses were concerned. Once that question was agreed on then you could go on to the organisational conclusions that needed to be drawn from it.

This was all made easier because most of the students and the workers had a good knowledge of the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Although none of them knew anything about Trotsky. Sometimes it was possible to get round to a discussion of Trotsky by discussing the effects that Stalin’s political counter-revolution in the Soviet Union had on developments in China itself. How it was the wrong policies of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, influencing the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, which led to the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27. And how then Mao retreated from the working class in the cities to rely on the peasantry, and so how the 1949 Revolution had not been led by the working class. But that didn’t mean that the ideas of genuine Marxism had been completely lost. There was Trotsky in Russia – I explained his leading role with Lenin in the 1917 Revolution – who had held the flag high. I explained the position he had taken in regard to the Chinese revolution and the world revolution in the 1920s and 1930s.

All this was the meat of most of my discussions with the students. But, after these particular discussions with these Shanghai students they took me up to the Monument of Peoples Heroes, which was the base where all the leaders live, along with the capitalist journalists. I met, on that particular day, many of the student leaders. I would have to say they were not as interested in theory as the rank and file. But this was not because they were living any differently from the rank and file. It was more because they felt they had a battle to lead. They were more interested in whether I could give money, organise some tents, organise international solidarity through my links with the Western labour movement if they had anybody in jail: practical questions like that.

I must add that there was a semi-conscious sense among the students of the leaders being under the right of recall, living no better than the rank and file, and in fact, sticking their necks out even more than the mass of the students. And these leaders were extremely brave. The first lot of leaders had all gone on hunger strike. I met some of those who had been on the initial hunger strike. Some of them had suffered brain damage. It was like talking to a child; it was terrible actually, discussing with these heroes who had given up their brain and become like vegetables. They were able to hold a conversation, but they were extremely disturbed, tense, and nervous. They would constantly go off on tangents, and they will never recover.

I wouldn’t have a bad word said about any of the leaders. Because a lot of them are now dead. And they were real martyrs, real heroes. Many knew that as soon as they decided they were going to lead that movement, they were basically signing their death warrant: they knew what could happen to them. They were people of a calibre that I’d never met outside the ranks of the Marxist tendency, I’ll put it like that. It was a fantastic privilege to meet these comrades, because that’s what they were.

By the way, there was never one single organisation leading the students. Even at the Monument, there were five or six student groups. Earlier on in the struggle some of the leaders were quite active as Communist Party Youth League members. At first they saw the movement just as a support to Zhao in his struggle with the ‘hard-liners’. But that illusion didn’t last. Before I arrived there had been a more militant group that wanted to stay in the Square taking over from a group that wanted to leave it. They all agreed theoretically on the need for a central students’ organisation. But getting it together in the absence of theory and a programme was even more difficult. As the movement started to ebb, in fact, certain conflicts developed among the different groups, not politically, but over distribution of the tents, distribution of the money, etc.

Thirst for Theory

On the next days I had further discussions with the leaders and many discussions around the tents. And time and time again – it was something I have never experienced in political work in the Western world – I would just go up to a tent, start discussing, and once I explained who I was, immediately people would gather round, and offer cold drinks, cigarettes, pat me on the back, want my autograph as if I was some kind of pop star! But it wasn’t done from a sycophantic “it’s nice to know a Westerner”, point of view, but because “you are the very first Western socialist I have ever met, and it’s a real privilege to meet you.” Of course, really the privilege was mine, not theirs. And I cannot overstress that there was a real thirst for theory, if you want to put it in one sentence, as far as the students were concerned. And over and over again, in these discussions, we would end up in complete agreement on ideas and the way forward.

One thing that should be said was that there was a very good cultural level among these students: an absence of swearing, of drugs, of alcohol, and of sexism. In the Square female and male students would lie amongst each other, together, to sleep, without any hassles at all. People of different sexes treat each other with great respect.

At the end of Tuesday some of the students organised for me to speak at a meeting of the leaders. At that meeting I was privileged to be given the badge of Tiananmen Square. It’s a badge of which only limited numbers were made for those students who had done heroic duties. To them it was like the equivalent of the Victoria Cross so far as British imperialism was concerned. I felt very privileged to be given this. A lot of the students I was meeting with hadn’t got one and I think they were a bit jealous that I had! And that badge is one thing I’ll never part with, unless perhaps someone offers $1000 to the Fighting Fund of the Australian Militant, then I might consider it! But short of that, I’ll keep it forever.

Independent Trade Union

At the end of Monday something happened which was absolutely tremendous. Some of the students said: “Why don’t you come with us and we’ll introduce you to some workers who want to start an independent trade union movement.” So they took me through the Square to the Forbidden City. Now I don’t know if you have ever seen the movie The Last Emperor, but that film shows how the Forbidden City was identified with the old rule of the Chinese Emperors. So now I was taken to it, and there was this huge locked gate, about 10 meters high, in front of which were not students but workers, looking at the gate trying to get in. On the other side were six workers armed with baseball bats, a small workers’ militia I suppose you could say, guarding the gate. Behind them were thirty workers’ leaders who were preparing for the formation of an independent trade union, what they deemed to be Solidarity, Polish-style.

So my guide/translator and I, with a security pass from the students, pushed our way through the workers wanting to get through the gate, and when we got to the fence, the workers’ militia looked at us very sternly. Probably they thought I was some kind of journo trying to get in for a story! But once they understood who I was they opened the gates to let us in – and all the workers tried to get in behind us, and had to be held back, such was the enthusiasm for the formation of an independent trade union movement, and to find out what was going on.

By the way, talking of enthusiasm to know what was going on, just walking down the streets, you would find groups of people gathered around a telegraph pole. At first I thought, this is very odd, what are all these people looking at a telegraph pole for? But when you got there, you would see underground newspapers taped onto the pole, or lamppost, and everybody would be reading these, and fighting their way to the front to do so. It was like something you read about the Russian Revolution in 1917. It was absolutely tremendous. And anybody who came out with leaflets was literally mobbed. It was like handing out 10 dollar notes in Sydney. I mean people would just come up and grab them off you. People would read almost anything. I happened to get my hands on a capitalist Hong Kong newspaper and even that was ripped to shreds. People were begging me for photographs from it, and so on. Such was the thirst for information and ideas.
So … we got to the Forbidden City. And once these workers’ leaders found out who I was and what I was doing there, they literally went into a sort of frenzy. I have never seen anything like it. It was even better than the students, the response. They were saying “This is fantastic”.

They pulled up six chairs, for me, for my translator, and for four of the workers’ leaders. Not for bureaucratic reasons but because of a slightly more disciplined attitude than the students, they insisted only six people could come to that meeting … and later I could talk to the rest of the thirty. The other workers were so annoyed that two of them burst into tears because they weren’t allowed to sit with us to discuss the ideas.

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 slowly through my translator). We discussed for three hours solid, mainly on the questions of the lessons of Solidarity in Poland. The workers, because they were very serious, quickly copped onto what I was saying. “Basically what you are saying is that 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, by the way, but results from the class nature and role of the workers in society. Also, a lot of these people had families. They were literally putting their whole families’ lives on the line.

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”. I said: “You mean it’s like an investment for the future”. So he said, “That’s exactly what it is!” It reminded me of some of the reports I’ve heard from South Africa as to how workers look 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, even full agreement on the full programme. With the workers, once it got to the question of overthrowing the Communist Party, and a new workers’ and students’ government, they weren’t willing to swallow that unless they were totally convinced that I was serious in what I was saying. It was all very well for me to come from overseas and mouth off about that, but it was them who would have to implement it. So the discussion came back time and time again to the question of whether it was possible to win their demands within the framework of Communist Party rule. They needed to be convinced time and time again that it was impossible. And it was not easy to explain this lesson against the apparent example of something like Solidarity in Poland. But at the end of the three hours we had had a tremendous discussion. They said: “Tomorrow we are going to form our trade union. Would you like to come and speak at the founding meeting? Come back to the Forbidden City and we’ll talk.” I thought fine, I’ll come back and offer our solidarity with this development, and discuss its future with these thirty workers. And I went away to have more discussions with students.

When I came back the next day, three of the four leaders I had spoken to had been arrested the previous night, and with their notebooks. This got me a bit worried to be quite honest! Why had they been arrested? In fact, over those days, discussion was going on within the bureaucracy about what they should do. “Should we crush the movement, should we send in the army, or should we let it wither away?” And in my opinion it was once they got wind of the potential development of an independent trade union movement – knowing from the experience of Solidarity how such a movement could develop quickly – that was the turning point. That was the point, in my view, when they decided, look, we’ve got to put the boot in here, we’ve got to clamp down. So the arrest of those three workers’ leaders was no coincidence, because none of the students had been arrested at that stage, at least as far as Beijing was concerned. But these workers were arrested absolutely immediately, as soon as the bureaucracy got wind of what was taking place.

When I arrived at the Forbidden City on Tuesday, I was told of the arrests. Obviously I did all in our power, so far as having international links was concerned, to organise solidarity action to get these three released. By the way, they were released the following day – although most of them have been killed since then, but I’ll get to that later. Developments were overtaken by events.
When I got to the Forbidden City that evening everybody was packing, preparing to leave. I said: “What’s going on with the meeting.” They replied: “The meeting’s not going to be here. We are having it across the road.” So I said: “Oh”. We sat there for a couple of hours, till it began to get dark, and at about 7-8 o’clock we walked across the street from the Forbidden City into Tiananmen Square. It was night time, after work. And posters had gone up all around Beijing in the previous 24 hours, saying that an independent trade union was going to be set up tonight. So half a million people were in the square by 9pm. I would say a good 40=50% of them were workers.

Half a Million People

We pushed our way to the front, to the Monument of People’s Heroes. From there it was a sight to behold really. You could just 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 have thrown off the shackles of everyday life where you just think about making a couple of bob to get by to feed the family, just sitting there with politics as their first and foremost interest. It was pitch dark. Somebody would take a flash photograph. Someone else would light a cigarette. Little lights would flare up. It really made you feel humble, that here was the power of the working class, or at least the latent power of the working class, there right in front of you. And to know 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… Most interestingly, a 98-year-old woman, very very infirm, 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 here, 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. And I can say quite honestly that it brought tears to my eyes to see something like that. She was given absolutely rapturous applause.

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 have big loudspeakers attached to all the telegraph poles. And all the day, constantly, especially since the movement started, they blared out constant ‘news’ commentary, muck like the movie 1984. In mocking tones they would talk about “the dregs of society”, “chaos”, “counter-revolutionaries” – at the same time you could see, right in front of you, the cream of the world’s youth, of the proletariat of China, fighting for genuine socialism. But in the Square itself the students had their own network of loudspeakers, and they would blare out still louder the Internationale. In was directly 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

So at about 10 o’clock the union leader got up and read out to the assembled crowd the demands of the union, why it was set up, the preamble and so on. 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 which had taken place in Beijing and other cities of China over previous weeks. And then I outlined the programme which in some ways the students had taken on unconsciously: the need for the election and right of immediate recall of all officials, for all officials to be on the wage of a worker, and so on. I went on to the question of the Communist government. I said that any “communist”, or any “Communist” government that arrested workers, that stood against workers’ democratic rights, was not a real 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. And I can tell you that this statement went down very, very well indeed. That was what people wanted to hear. I spoke for about 10-15 minutes. It went down very well. After me, there were two more speakers.

People didn’t want to hear: “You’ve got to take the road of the West”, or “We’ve got great democratic rights in the West, that’s the way you’ve got to go.” 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.”

The capitalist journalists made a lot of the so-called “Statue of Liberty” that the students put up in the Square. But to the students that wasn’t a symbol of support for US imperialism, or of wanting a return to capitalism. It signified support for democratic rights. And a lot of students were doubtful about having it there. “If we were in South America”, they would say to me, “we don’t think this would go down so well.” Along with this statue being there, the Internationale was being played all the time. There was no question of wanting to return to capitalism.

This is because of all the benefits of the planned economy – such as the health service – are there for everybody to see. To take a small example, to go for the whole day to the Beijing Zoo, which is probably the best zoo in the world, costs the equivalent of 1 Australian cent. Subways, buses, rent, and so on – are cheap, almost free. There is a charge, but it is a very low percentage of your wage. It’s the inflation affecting food and clothes that is the big problem for workers.

One student said to me: “When we look at the West, we’re not stupid. We know that only a minority of people in the West live in countries like Japan, Australia and Britain. And even then we know that the blacks suffer in America. We know there are a lot of people unemployed in America. We know most people in the so-called West, the capitalist world, live in Africa, South and Central America and so on”. The people knew what was going on. They wanted to maintain the benefits of the revolution of 1949, in other words the nationalised and planned economy, and the other cultural, social, and economic benefits. But they believed that these benefits were being limited, that the great latent initiative inherent in one billion was being stifled by bureaucratic rule.

The bourgeois press sees Chinese workers as “lazy”, because there’s a lot of what looks like overstaffing. I mean if a time-and-motion study man came from MacDonald’s Hamburgers to China he would have a field-day! But it’s not “over-staffing” as such, or that Chinese people are “born lazy”. The fact that everybody has a job is precisely one of the benefits of the planned economy – though of course the so-called “market socialists” in the bureaucracy are trying to put an end to that. But why should you work harder when you know that no matter what you do, you are not going to get any more benefit, and when you feel that you’ve got no say in the running the government that’s supposed to be your own government? It’s little different from working for a capitalist firm. Here, if you work harder, and finish your work at 2pm when you’re only supposed to go home at 5pm, you’re not going to be allowed to leave three hours early by the boss. You will be given three extra hours of work. Unfortunately it’s almost the same in these so-called “socialist” countries. This is the reason that the enthusiasm in the workplace to increase production is not the same as in the initial years after 1949. It’s because of the bureaucracy, not because of the people. And they are quite aware of that.

Even in the government press prior to the clampdown there were articles pointing out how investing was coming in from overseas, but being held back by bureaucratic mismanagement and corruption. A company would come in, but in trying to get raw materials, moving goods from one province to the next, it is almost like feudalism. Unifying the nation was one of the historic tasks of the bourgeois revolution. But on the basis of Stalinism, the Chinese revolution has not even achieved this. To move something from Canton to Beijing you have to go through several provinces with different tax systems. You have to fill in forms, everything in triplicate. If you want to buy a box of matches in Beijing you get a receipt … in triplicate, not even in duplicate. It is absolutely mad bureaucracy. Even in the colonial world it is nothing like that.

“Socialism in one country” is strangling the economy. You had a letter in paper from a scientist in Shanghai. Look at Siberia, he wrote. It needs to be developed. There is a shortage of Soviet workers willing to go to Siberia; they’ve got to be paid three or four times the average wage. We have got an excess of people in north-east China, in Beijing. They would love to go to Siberia, because even at half what the Soviet workers are getting, they would earn more than they do now in China. Surely since we are both countries, surely now that Gorbachev has come to visit, we can sort something out? That’s what he proposed. But, of course, on the basis of bureaucratic rule that’s impossible.

Dinosaur-Style Government

Other letters in the press complained about the level of pollution, which is absolutely desperate, particularly in Beijing, because it is inland. They put the blame on the bureaucracy, and that is important. All these things indicate the frustration, particularly expressed by the intellectuals and students, but reflecting a deeper more widespread unconscious mood. Everything was moving and opening up, with movement around the country allowed, ability to study overseas – but they were still being dominated politically by the same bureaucratic elite, in much the same fashion as at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Combined and uneven development all the time, archaic political structures side by side with very advanced technology. In Beijing and especially Shanghai, you could be walking in London. There are nightclubs, restaurants, like any Western city centre. But there is a dinosaur-style government at the top, living in the past, talking about “a million people being expendable”, or “the new generation have forgotten the morals of the Long March. They never liberated the country, we did.”

There is a total contradiction between the economic and the political and that had a big effect on the intellectuals. When such people saw the political opening up in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary and so on they said – well, we want that! It wasn’t a movement from below against economic degradation, it was an intellectual movement to start off with. And that is why it took some time before the workers began to see it as important for them to involve themselves in the struggle.

But it had massive support among all sections of society. Not only among workers, but more widely – amongst big layers of the bureaucracy itself. On the day I arrived, for example, one of the delegations on the march was from the official People’s Daily, which is the most widely-read paper on the planet. This paper would report daily what was going on. To try to dodge the censors, the journalists would start: “In Tiananmen Square today some very bad things happened.” Then they would outline in great detail exactly what happened. And after that they would say “Premier Li Peng said it was outrageous.”! They got a fantastic response from the people on the march. The developments were even reported in muted form on government TV. In this way people in other cities, and even in the countryside, were able to follow what was going on. But the most effective way that news was spread was the “bush telegraph”, as we call it in Australia. There are very few restrictions of movement as far as urban dwellers are concerned. The trains were packed full of students travelling to and fro from Shanghai, etc.

But for all this, the working class had not come to the forefront of the movement, or even stamped its mark on it in the form of strikes. At the peak of the struggle, before I arrived, workers would come off their sites, their factories, and come on the demonstrations. But even this wasn’t like an organised strike. On the day after the massacre, when a general strike was called, there was a total stoppage of transport. Hotel workers came out. But the building industry, for example, still worked. As far as the workers were concerned there was a fear that if they intervened in this movement, with no guarantee of victory, they would just lose their job. That was the problem that the union leaders raised when I was discussing with them.

Workers’ Mood

The fear in the factory was that this movement could come to an end, 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 come out we won’t end up with the same bastards directing us in our work, or in society as a whole” i.e. the Communist Party bureaucracy. This was the kind of thing workers were thinking. Until they were confident that there would be some change workers were even very hesitant about getting into the independent trade union itself.

As a matter of fact, 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, from cars down to foreign cigarettes. It is not like Poland. Moreover, while there is a system by which the bureaucracy and foreigners have special money, different from the money that ordinary people have, that system is breaking down, again and again. If you take a taxi ride, you have to pay in foreign currency, with which they can buy consumer goods.

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 gains were being eroded away by the inflation. There is no way that these layers of workers want to go back to the strict centralisation of the past, to the repression associated with the Cultural Revolution. Like the students in a way, they are saying, we’ve had “economic reform”, now what about 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 it was formed with the student movement already ebbing. The mass of workers, those feeling they had the most to lose, were not confident enough to become actively involved in it. But next time there is a movement, when it bursts out again, there is no doubt that an independent trade union will arise at its beginning.


On the day after that meeting – historic because it launched the first independent trade union in China since the 1949 revolution – I went to Shanghai. There I had some excellent discussions at the university with the students.

I must just say a couple of points on the lifestyle of the students. You might have the impression that students in China are in some sense a privileged elite who have moved into struggle because they are disgusted about the conditions they see around them, rather than conditions they experience they experience themselves. That is a false impression. Most students at Shanghai University live on campus – and in dormitories that are terrible. They live 10 to a dormitory, with no carpet or even tiles, but a concrete floor, concrete walls. There’s not even any paint. There is no heating. And the food that they are given … the smell was the worst. I mean you could swallow it, but the smell was such that it was very difficult to eat. And the grant that they get from the government as university students is extremely low. They do experience a lot of economic hardship. Any privilege they have is just the privilege of having a chance to study and learn.

In the evening the students organised a meeting for me to speak at, with a hunger striker who was due to leave for Beijing the next day. It was a 500-strong meeting, surrounded by students armed with sticks, because the university administration had banned the meeting. I outlined the links between the struggle in China and the struggles in the other Stalinist countries, in Poland, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. Once again the internationalism of the students came out. As soon as I internationalised their experiences, that was when the real response came out. They weren’t interested in candle-light vigils outside the Chinese Embassy in London or New York. They wanted ideas, they wanted some kind of direction as to the way forward for the movement. That was worth a thousand tears so far as people from overseas were concerned. At least, that was the impression I got from them.

Little did I know that while I was talking to what I thought was a protected meeting of 500, the speech was being broadcast live over the student radio to the 50,000-strong numbers at the university! So the following day I went back to Beijing – very quickly, I must say. And on the Saturday I was back in Tiananmen Square … the day before the massacre. As before, on that day I had some excellent discussions with various groups of students, similar in content to the previous discussions.

Saturday, June 3

Towards the Evening I went back up to the Monument, just to sit down. It was a warm, balmy night. There were thousands of people around. It was Saturday night and everybody was having a bit of a rest. Tomorrow would be a new day … and the workers always came down on Sunday.

Everything seemed to be fine. Early in the evening, there was some slight tension in the air. The students immediately sent for what they called “lumpen-youth”, ex-jail birds as they said, who supported the students, but were really rough and ready. Real nice kids, actually. They came down armed with pitchforks and batons. They were sitting down near me. They didn’t speak English. But one of them gave me a drink of water, and I took it … and it turned out to be like Irish poteen, it wasn’t water at all, it was the strongest drink I’d ever had in my life! Thinking it was water, I had a good sip. But I didn’t cough, so they thought, “he’s all right, you know”!

At the same time, during the course of the Saturday there were a few things that happened that gave me some of the students the idea that something was going to happen that night. First of all the government had sent spies into the square. Now the Chinese government hasn’t reached the sophistication in repression that, if you have read The Great Game or Out of the Night, or have visited East Germany, you would know. The repression is cruder, bloodier. For example these spies all had green khakis and white shirts! They were obviously instructed to walk separately, but once they hit the square they were so scared that they stood together! What happened was that the students would capture them and drag them up to the Monument of Peoples’ Heroes and beat them up. They wouldn’t kill them, just beat them up. Then they would stick them in front of a microphone, and you would hear “huh, uh, huh, uh … ooh … I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do this, I was forced to come hear”. Then they would give them another beating and let them go. It was quite good tactics.

The students and workers in the Square weren’t armed. In previous days and weeks, workers from the armaments factories, who had been on strike, had offered guns to the students. The students refused. On that Saturday itself, as the 27th Army was moving towards Beijing on the west, two armoured personnel carriers – actually full of arms, not personnel – stopped and offered the students those guns. The students again refused. The students only had batons. A few students had handguns, but they perceived themselves to be terrorists. They wanted to shoot Li Peng. They weren’t interested in sharing their guns: it was like a privileged thing, they were sort of proud of the fact they had a gun. And they only had 6 or 7 bullets.

Just before it got dark, around 5pm, about 3,000 troops moved into the Great Hall of the People, to the west of Tiananmen Square. They took over the building. Behind it they all sat down in a circle, different layers of a circle. Most were unarmed, but some in the middle were armed. All the students surrounded them, and discussed with them. Some of the discussions went quite well. Some of the soldiers were crying, and saying “we don’t want to be here”.

An important point that must be made about the army, the whole army, is that it is a peasant army. As at all times of Chinese history, it is a peasant army. From a factory of a thousand workers, for example, three will be called up. You are very unlucky if you are an industrial worker to have to go into the army. If you go to university you are almost certain not to be called up. But most peasants want to go into the army, because after you serve for three years you are allowed to live in the cities – which is not the case for peasants in general. So even the “Beijing troops” means peasants from the area around Beijing rather than Beijing industrial workers and students.

This is a conscious policy of the bureaucracy, not to base the army on the industrial workers. But even so, on the previous occasions when soldiers (unarmed) had been sent in to try to clear Tiananmen Square, the peasant troops responded to the appeals of workers and students, who surrounded the troops and their vehicles, and persuaded them to go away.


So then, that Saturday evening, one student came back from the west of the city and said that soldiers had moved in with teargas. And, about a day before, an army vehicle had crashed into and killed three students. So the temperature was quite high. One student started throwing stones at the soldiers. And that was the first time I saw the barbarism that I was to see again several hours later.

Some of the soldiers in a posse ran out into the crowd and captured the student. They took him and placed him in the middle of the 3,000 troops. They stripped him naked. It was still very hot then, 32 degrees C. They got a wooden bat and they smashed his head. He was still standing up. They made sure he stood up. They split his skull open. He just stood there and he bled to death. About two hours later he dropped dead. It was a horrific sight. He was just forced to stand there naked with blood streaming from his head wound until he died.

But at that stage the workers and students were still confident. And I must say one thing, at this time the workers of the independent trade union took over the planning. They had maps of the city, and were saying: “The troops are here, the troops are there … we should send battalions of workers here, and there … the older female workers (who were the best at discussing with the troops and stopping them from shooting) should be sent there, because these are the most atrocious of the troops, who will need the most discussion.” They took over from the students as we got deeper into that Saturday night. It was as if they were thinking: “This is our battle now. You students have taken the movement so far, and that’s great, but we’ve got to take over now.” At the same time the independent trade union was only in its embryonic stages. It was still only several days old. And because it was formed when the movement was already ebbing and not at the beginning, a lot of workers were still scared to join the union or take a lead from it. But the union’s leaders did what they could, bearing in mind that they didn’t have a rounded-out Marxist programme, and that they weren’t armed.

Midnight was when it all happened. The 27th Army came from the west. These weren’t Beijing troops. They had fought in Vietnam. They had repressed the national rights of the Tibetan population. They had been on the Soviet border. They were troops used to killing. And, in the weeks before, you could see, even in the newspapers and on the TV, that the bureaucracy and the commanders had these troops in camps outside the city. They weren’t allowing them to read any newspapers. They were just lecturing them: “When you move into the city, the people confronting you are fascists, counter-revolutionaries. They are going to say things to you like the PLA can’t shoot the people and so on. But that’s only a trick. They don’t really mean that. That’s just propaganda.” So the troops were prepared for what students and workers were going to say to them. They were brainwashed.

There were rumours that they were given injections, drugs. They were told of course that Tiananmen Square was full of diseases, which it wasn’t. Before the clampdown official government newspapers admitted that traffic accidents and crime in Beijing – which was basically under workers’ control and management or with at least elements of dual power, put it like that – had dropped. There was not one policeman I saw in Beijing before the clampdown, except for traffic police, and they were redundant. They were just standing there while students were directing all the traffic. So anyway, it was rumoured that these troops were on the equivalent of speed or adrenalin boosters. A French journalist who had fought in Algeria told me that when they went out for 24-hour sorties they were all given shots to keep them awake and alert, and reckons these troops got the same.

Now, if what follows is less fluent, that is because I have seen some horrific things in the last week, terrible things that I would never like to see again. And the only guarantee against that is the marrying of the movement with Marxist policies. There’s no getting around that question.


At midnight, the troops moved in, in the following formation. First, there were those who threw tear-gas. Now there are different forms of tear-gas. This didn’t make your eyes water. Rather, it mainly gave you contractions in your stomach and chest. That night some of the students had gave me a tear-gas mask, and I felt very privileged, almost like receiving the badge, because there were very few of these masks. I didn’t want to take it but they insisted, it was just impossible to say no.

After the tear-gas there followed troops with batons. And this is very ironic: while the bureaucracy talked about the students being pro-capitalist and their government being a “revolutionary government”, these batons were from Taiwan. Capitalist counter-revolutionary Taiwan supplied the Chinese Stalinists with batons to beat up Chinese students and workers. And not just batons. These were electric batons, so that not only do you get a terrible thump on your head or wherever they hit you, but an electric shop at the same time.

That was the second layer. The third layer were troops, armed with guns. These were followed by tanks and armoured personnel carriers. And with the armoured vehicles were US-Second-World-War-style jeeps with large aerials, and the commanders in them. There were also helicopters but I don’t think they were very useful at night because they didn’t have floodlights. They were just to intimidate the people. But the next day they were very useful as far as the government was concerned.

Barricades of buses had been set up at about 6pm along the roads into the Square. The people in the Square set the buses on fire as soon as they saw the troops come. Now every street in the centre of Beijing has got a fence of about one and a half feet high. They dug up all these fences and put them either side of the barricades of burning buses. They dug up the pathways to create rocks. There was a lot of building construction taking place. All the bricks had been taken and split into halves so that they were throwable a long distance. It’s no use having a big brick if you can’t throw it. And some, but very few, workers and students had guns.

But the frontline of the battle was political. The frontline was the propaganda. Even when the troops came with the tear-gas people were running forward and shouting “You can’t shoot us, you’re the peoples’ army! How can you shoot the people?” Even on one night, there are stories how some of the troops refused to shoot and that officers had to threaten them with guns to get them to shoot. So, when it happened and they started firing, even I myself, as a Marxist, I believed they couldn’t do this. It might sound naive, but at the time, to see a massacre in front of your eyes, was really an absolutely shocking experience. You get influenced by the movement around you and the movement around me was convinced that they wouldn’t shoot. When it happened, it was a real shock to the system.


They just opened up fire, and bodies dropped. Bodies just dropped, time and time again. People would get up again and they would go forward, with red flags sometimes, sometimes with bricks, sometimes just shouting. They would go down again. They would get up again. The troops were shooting everybody.

I saw a three-year old with a bayonet through the chest. I saw a pregnant woman, who had been bayoneted to death in the stomach, and the embryonic baby was lying on the ground beside her. It was absolutely barbaric what they were doing.

I must say one thing. There was this half-hour convoy of an offensive army moving forward, fighting through the barricades against the students and workers. But they had formed up in the mid-afternoon in working class. And, as soon as they started moving – and they all kept together because none of the soldiers wanted to be isolated in the back – at the end of this half-hour convoy, there came thousands of workers, unarmed, including women workers, some of them on bicycles. And this mass of thousands of workers following the troops could not fight them, but they sang the Internationale. The troops at the back just didn’t know what to do. Occasionally they would shoot, and everybody would drop, and you didn’t know how many were killed because the people each time got up again, and the dead would stay lying among them on the ground. It was almost like waves on the beach just coming in, time and time again, just singing the Internationale.

As the night got deeper, the people got more bitter, they started shouting “fascists, fascists” at the soldiers. Anyone who has the gall to say that the movement was counter-revolutionary just had to be there for five minutes.

Even the bourgeois journalists couldn’t believe what they were seeing. And I must say, while some of these journalists were scared and ran away, some were quite brave. The journalists have more suss than the reformist leaders of the labour movement in the West because they are sent by their papers from flashpoint to flashpoint and they build up a world analysis, they see the world revolution taking place right in front of them. But even these people, some of them, couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

When the troops got to Tiananmen Square, the centre of the revolution, they surrounded it, and they all sat down. The students and workers were surrounded from the north, east and west. Only to the south was there a possible escape route. The troops gave the students one hour to get out. It was at that time that I left Tiananmen Square with three students who helped me escape to the south. And then a whole lot of the student leaders got together and formed themselves into a square bloc, like a Battle of Waterloo-style military formation, and walked through the troops. Of course as they walked through the troops they got a hell of a battering, but none of them were killed.

But some of the workers and students stayed in the Square. And the troops just mowed them down. They shot them dead. They just shot them. There were dead and wounded lying in the square. Then the tanks came in and rolled over them, and flattened them. And then the soldiers got these bulldozers, and picked up all the bodies and the tents, and put them in a pile and burnt everybody and everything there. Some of the people were still alive I’m convinced when they were burnt, though I’ve got no proof of that of course. And all of these people are officially classified as missing, not dead.

This was early Sunday morning. And right up to mid-day Sunday there was fighting through the streets of Beijing. When I went back towards Tiananmen Square about 6am on the Sunday morning I saw the other side of things, because it wasn’t a one-sided battle.


In one instance, the troops were tear-gassing students in the streets. The students fled, many trying to climb over a fence. Eleven of the students who got the brunt weren’t able to get over it. So a tank came up, and scraped along the side of the fence, and scraped them to death. They came out as flat as a matchbox, dead. But that tank got separated from the main body of tanks. And the workers surrounded it like ants on a dead rat. They wrenched off the lid. And inside there was a commander, not just an ordinary tank driver. They took him out, beat him up and burned him alive, there and then, as we saw in the 1984-86 uprising in South Africa. Then they strung him up to show him to the troops further down the road as a warning to them. In fact, once the massacre started, when people managed to get hold of soldiers they were ripping them apart, limb from limb. There was no alternative, absolutely no alternative to that at this stage.

I must say if the workers had been armed and if a few more examples like that had been made earlier on in the struggle, things could have been different. An example, I mean, not of every single person captured, not of every single spy who happened to be sent into Tiananmen Square and who was scared silly. There would have been no use in something like that. Obviously, in such cases, give them a bit of a beating, make them apologise, and make a propaganda thing out of it. But when troops are killing like they were killing then, randomly, barbarously, you have got to be brutal in response. This was revolution or counter-revolution taking place right in front of everybody’s eyes, and something like that had to be done.

On that Sunday the mood was of anger not depression. It was a frustrated anger: “How can this be happening?” I felt the same. I had meetings organised for the Monday in the Square, and it took me a full six hours before I could convince myself that Tiananmen Square was cleared, that overnight what seemed to me the centre of the world revolution, had moved from revolution to counter-revolution, and that Tiananmen Square now was a blood bath full of the 27th Army butchers. And I considered myself to be a relative experienced Marxist, who had seen a lot of things, got around! But I felt like a fool, because it must have taken me six hours. I was saying to people: “But surely the students are still there. I have got to go on Monday for discussions”. And people were laughing at me and saying “Don’t be stupid. They are dead. It is gone. It is finished.”

And if I felt like that can you imagine how the Chinese workers and students felt who had put their lives, everything, on the line for what the movement in Tiananmen Square represented. It meant everything for them. And then to be crushed like that. But it all shows you the importance of ideas. All they needed was a clear programme based on clear perspectives. All they needed was clear leadership, and none of that need have happened.

As I was moving with the students in the streets of Tiananmen Square, I got myself a little bit tear-gassed. Now, obviously, since the minute that things hotted up I had felt scared silly. I would be lying if I said anything different. Anyone who goes to war and comes back saying it was great is a fool or a liar. We were all scared. But that Sunday morning it was different. We were getting shot at, we were getting tear-gassed. But because there were dead all around us, and because of the anger that we felt, all of us, even myself, would have done anything.

At least ten of the people I had been discussing with in the previous days were dead. And there was a girl that I had been talking to with the “lumpen youth” the previous evening. She was 18 years old with John Lennon-style round glasses and a black and white printed dress – a very slight girl. We were joking around and chatting. The next day I saw her dead body.

Because I was the only westerner in the streets at the time and I had my camera, the students were taking me from one dead body to another. “Take a photograph of this. What do you think of this? Can you go home and tell people what’s going on?” (In fact some students gave me the badge of this commander they had killed, and his buttons. That may seem bizarre, but it didn’t at the time. Some days later, when I was on the way to the airport, the troops were stopping cars and I thought … I’ve got photographs of this bloke getting killed, photographs of him dead, his insignia, a tear gas canister, as well as the badge of Tiananmen Square. So I dumped all except the badge in the road.)

The day of the massacre, in the course of moving in the streets I must have held about six or seven street meetings. Each time I said: “This day, the 4th of June 1989, will go down in the history books. Everyone who died today is a martyr for the world revolution. They will never be forgotten. Every worker and student over the world has learned a lesson, and that lesson is very simple. No longer will any thinking worker, any thinking student, anywhere on this planet, ever, ever again have any illusions in the so-called Chinese Communist Party government. It can no longer claim to be a revolutionary government. Any government that has got the blood of the Chinese workers and students on its hands is not a communist government. It can no longer claim to be a revolutionary government. And from today on the workers and the students of the world are going to be with the Chinese people.”

The response to this speech was absolute frenzy. Sometimes people tried to lift me up onto their shoulders. That is when I really got scared! There were bullets flying around then. But at that stage if I had stood up and said that what is needed in China is a mass revolutionary workers’ party based on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, you would have just mopped up left, right and centre. Any illusions at least in that wing the Communist Party had implemented this decision the night before had disappeared forever.

Party Cards Torn Up

The Communist Party, of course, has 47 million members – 5% of the population. A lot of the students in the movement were members of the Communist Party, especially its youth wing. Some of the workers involved were Communist Party members too. I saw two workers tear up their party cards in front of me the day after the repression. They said “We are not going to be identified with the government, after what it did last night.”

The Chinese Communist Party is not yet the same as the ruling party in, say, Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. There were still many people in the Chinese Communist Party, prior to the massacre at least, who still thought of it as a revolutionary organisation taking society forward. The bureaucracy in China economically speaking is still only a relative fetter on production. There wasn’t yet that total hatred towards the bureaucracy as you would see in Eastern Europe. If you were a member of the Communist Party you were not necessarily a hardened bureaucrat, or a scab. But today that situation has changes. I could not see any student or worker with knowledge of the events of the last weeks now joining the Communist Party with revolutionary illusions in it.

The rise of this movement meant the emptying out of the Communist Party. It has its cells in the factories and the local areas, and with the rise of the movement these cells took the official line against the movement. But, as many of the rank-and-file Party members gravitated to the movement, the Party became defunct at local level. In this sense it was like the collapse of the Communist Party when Solidarity arose in 1980-81. Now it will be difficult to re-establish the Party at local level in the same way. It will be a “Communist Party” purely of scabs and spies.
Of course we couldn’t say that all illusions n the CP have now collapsed forever. If a reformer like Xhao took over in the next period he might get some honeymoon period. But anyone identified with this repression – there are absolutely no illusions whatsoever in them. Things can never go back to where they were before the 4th of June. It is a major turning point in the Chinese revolution. The whole experience has been like China’s 1905.

For a considerable time street battles continued. The city was a battle zone. There were burnt-out trucks, burnt-out tanks, bodies, blood everywhere. Calls for a general strike on Monday appeared written in blood on the walls.

The courage of the people was unbelievable. As they were standing in the streets facing tear-gas, they wanted to know what I thought. Anyone who says that “theory is for the intellectuals” would have seen that that is an absolute load of rubbish. Especially at times of revolution people want theory.

But increasingly the counter-revolution got the upper hand. It became more and more risky for the workers, students, and even myself in the course of that time. It is a rather depressing story of killings, of increasingly one-sided battles. I won’t go into that.

The lesson for everywhere is the need to build the labour movement on Marxist ideas prior to the big explosions. Theory is the greatest weapon for the revolution. It has to come first. The question of arms, of tactics, strategy, organisation is second to theory. Of course the gun is the most lethal weapon in the working-class armoury. But it cannot be effectively used without the right ideas, without political guidance, just the same as anything else.

Some capitalist journalists at this time were suggesting that there would be a confrontation between sections of the army – with the 38th Army (of the Beijing region) moving in against the 27th Army. I think that was exaggerated a lot. It is true that the 38th Army was supposed to be identified with Zhao, with the reformist wing of the bureaucracy. And, with the movement crushed, sections of the masses too began to hope for “liberators”: they were hoping the 38th Army would come in and “liberate” the city.

The 38th army was deployed at the south of the city, and near the airport near the east of the city. But I think that this was in case the 27th Army had had to face a more successful fight-back from the workers, and in case the workers had exploded in Shanghai, which is the largest city in China, igniting an even higher degree of struggle. Then I think the 38th Army would have moved into Beijing, perceived as “liberators”, displacing the 27th Army, in order to restore order and maintain the rule of the bureaucracy. Under those conditions, Li Peng and Deng might have had to be replaced, as scapegoats.

But, given that the 27th Army had successfully crushed the movement, why would the 38th Army bother moving in? Their commanders are just as much part of the bureaucracy, and just as much identified with the repression in Tibet and other areas. They flexed their muscles only to say to the 27th Army, “OK, you’ve done the job, but don’t think now that you are the totally dominant part of the bureaucracy, and we are biding our time. If we had moved against you, we would have had the support of the people and you could have been lynched.”

Now Deng has succeeded in stabilising the situation. He will do everything necessary to try to eradicate this movement, and preserve the rule of the bureaucracy. There will be many many more arrests and killings. It is quite difficult for the students now to sustain themselves underground, because they are so well identified. The bureaucracy are showing pictures of the students on the TV, and then arresting them within days. There must be a certain layer even of the proletariat, who at the peak of the movement might have thought, well it might win, I might support it, or at least be neutral, who now will support the regime, and will inform on people around them. While 99% of society would have supported the movement at its height, it is a different situation now. The government is not totally isolated.

If necessary, the “Bamboo Curtain” will go up again. Deng is reported to have said “What’s the point of foreign investment if we are all strung up from lampposts.” Though they don’t necessarily want to cut themselves off from foreign investments etc. unless they have to. They may have to turn back to strict centralisation of the economy. Together with the repression, they may try to make some economic concessions to workers and peasants.

At the same time, perhaps there will have to be scapegoats eventually. Li Peng is very unpopular, even within the bureaucracy. It is strongly rumoured that he was shot twice on the leg on that Sunday, after the massacre, by one of his own guards. There is no way that even a successful counter-revolution can rule a billion people through the most hated figure in the country indefinitely. It wouldn’t be in their interest to get rid of him in the short-term, but at some stage I think he will be pushed aside.

I am sure that the heart and soul of every active worker and student around the world has gone out to those in China who have given the ultimate sacrifice over the past few weeks. And the greatest disrespect that we could ever pay to those martyrs of the world revolution is to allow them to die in vain – to allow them to die without drawing out the lessons for the next battle.
If Deng thinks that with the help of the 27th Army – the most hated group of soldiers it must be on this planet at this moment – that he can keep down a quarter of the world’s population, a billion people, he is making the greatest mistake. There is no way this movement will not rise again. It might take some time, but it will rise again.

The job of Marxists internationally is to ensure that the lessons are drawn out and 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 be a successful political revolution in China in the next years.

13 June 1989


Unrest Across China
Canton: Bridges blocked
Changchun: Demonstrations
Chengdu: Shops burned and looted, “300 died in protest.”
Dalian: Demonstrations
Harbin: Demonstrations
Hefei: Demonstrators defy troops.
Lanzhou: Tens of thousands block roads, hold up troops.
Nanjing: “Military forces moving in.”
Shanghai: Situation “worst for 40 years.”
Shenyang: Mourning students take to streets.
Wuhan: Train lines cut.
Xian: Roads blocked, troops poised to move in.

False Slanders Against the Chinese Students and Workers

Around the world, Stalinist governments and their official news agencies echoed the lies of the Chinese bureaucracy.

For example, the East German Communist Party newspaper, Neues Deutschland, on June 7th, wrote of the Chinese leadership’s victory over the “counter-revolutionary element.”

This was echoed by the official youth paper Junge Welt, which printed the picture of a soldier’s body under the headline “See the handiwork of the counter-revolutionaries who are endangering socialism in China.”

The state news agency ADN described the wave of mass protest against the massacre which swept China in these words: “A number of people, not understanding the real situation, are trying to hinder the soldiers from carrying out orders.”

Support for the repression was also given by Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, which, according to the British Guardian (6/6/1989): “blamed the bloodshed on counter-revolutionary elements.”

A Programme for Workers’ Democracy

In 1917 Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution, outlined the fundamental conditions for the inception of workers’ democracy which, he explained, is the basis for the socialist transformation of society:

• All officials to be elected and subject to immediate recall;
• No official to earn more than a skilled worker;
• Workers to rotate administrative duties, to combat the growth of a bureaucratic caste;
• No standing army but an armed people.
None of these conditions exist in China, the USSR or other Stalinist states. They remain central objectives of the political revolution to end bureaucratic rule and establish workers’ democracy in these countries
The Marxists today would also call for:
• An end to the one-party state, for the freedom to form political parties;
• For the formation of independent trade unions;
• For elected committees of workers, students, peasants and soldiers to take over control of production and every part of the state.

Chronology of Events

1919, May 4th: Demonstration of 3,000 students on Tiananmen Square, Beijing, against terms of Versailles treaty and in favour of “Democracy and Science”.
1921: Formation of Chinese Communist Party by youth from “May 4th Movement” who, inspired by example of Russian revolution, began the task of building workers’ movement in China as the only basis for national liberation.
1925-27: Revolutionary movement of the Chinese working class, CCP, under influence of Stalinist policies of Communist International, abdicated leadership to “National Democratic” Kuomintang movement, led by Chiang Kai-shek, which proceeded to murder their Communist “allies” and smash the workers’ movement. Following destruction of workers’ movement CCP turned to guerrilla struggle in the countryside.
1944-9: CCP led by Mao Zedong came to power at the head of a guerrilla army. Although committed to “100 years of Capitalism”, forced to carry through nationalisation of means of production as only basis on which national independence could be sustained. But, without the conscious active participation of the working class, power was from the start in the hands of a bureaucratic Stalinist dictatorship.
1958-60: “Great Leap Forward”. Attempt to develop industry in China by means of extreme centralization. Failed, and led to eclipse of Mao by reforming bureaucrats such as Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi.
1966-76: “Cultural Revolution”. Movement of youth, mobilised in “Red Guards” by Mao to remove reforming “capilalist-roaders” within bureaucracy and promote policy of rigid centralisation, autarky and collectivisation of agriculture. Movement of Red Guards eventually had to be put down by army.
1976: Death of Mao consolidated position of reform wing led by Zhao en Lai, Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping. “Gang of Four” led by Mao’s widow Jiang Quing put on trial for excesses of “Cultural Revolution.”
1978: “Democracy Wall Movement”. Mass movement of youth, especially students, initially encouraged by Deng, against “leftist” wing of bureaucracy and for democracy. However, movement went beyond control of “reforming” bureaucrats and threatened whole of bureaucracy. So Deng suppressed it, jailing 200.
1986, December – 1987, January: New movement of students. Hu Yao Bang, General Secretary of CCP, forced to resign by Deng as scapegoat for slowing down of economy as decentralising reforms loose their steam.
1987, November:CCP 13th congress. Deng “semi-retires”, appointing reformist Zhao Ziyang as General Secretary. Congress extends “reform” programme, but also marks beginning of regrouping of “conservative” centralist bureaucrats, lead by Li Peng.
1988, June: Murder of student at Beijing University sparks student protests, reflecting increasing discontent, especially in urban areas where reform policies led to inflation rates officially put at 21% (unofficial figure 31%).
1989, January: Student riots against African students.
April 15th: Hu Yaobang died, allegedly during heated debate in Politbureau, strengthening position of “conservative” wing of bureaucracy against Zhao Ziyang.
April 17th: 100,000 students demonstrate in Tiananmen Square in memory of Hu and supporting democracy.
April 21st: Students again demonstrate and keep control of Tiananmen Square over-night.
April 22nd: Demonstrations continue in Tiananmen Square alongside Hu’s funeral in Great Hall of People.
April 24th: Students in Beijing begin classroom strike.
April 27th: 50,000 students march to Tiananmen Square in defiance of authorities, drawing supporting crowd of 1 million.
May 2nd: Student Leaders ride bicycles to government and party offices throughout Beijing to demand that authorities negotiate with them.
May 4th: Students march to Tiananmen Square, crowd in square grows to 100,000. Students march in 10 other cities.
May 13th: 1,000 students begin hunger strike in support of demands for televised debate between students and government and other democratic reforms. Later another 2,000 students join hunger strike.
May 15th: Gorbachev arrives in Beijing, occupation of square now permanent.
May 16th: Gorbachev and Deng meet at Great Hall whilst demonstration, now of 250,000 continues in square outside. Protests in Shanghai and five provincial capitals.
May 17th: A million demonstrate in Beijing. Protests in seven other cities.
May 19th: Troops begin to move into Beijing. Three and a half hour televised debate between students and authorities in Shanghai.
May 20th: Declaration of Martial Law. Only Zhao opposes decision by politbureau. Mass mobilisation of students and workers organising blockades prevents troops from moving on Square. Hunger strike called off, but occupation continues. Demonstrations in 20 cities.
May 21st: Demonstrations continue. Military commanders in Beijing criticise declaration of Martial Law. One million demonstrate in Hong Kong. Widespread rumours of Li Peng’s resignation later proved to be false.
May 24th: “Reformist” chairman of National Peoples Congress, Wan Li, cuts short visit to USA to try and rally moderate forces. However, Li Peng wins support of army leadership.
May 25th: Demonstrations start to decline in size.
May 28th: Decline in movement in China, and consolidation of position of conservative wing of bureaucracy continues. But largest ever demonstration in Hong Kong and demonstration in Portuguese colony of Macao.
June 4th: Troops recapture Tiananmen Square, killing and wounding thousands. A week of mass protests, demonstrations and strikes follows across China.