Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The struggle continues: fighting back after Tiananmen

Sixteen years ago, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 left the blood of the Chinese democracy movement on the streets of Beijing. Now China’s new economy is claiming more lives. But the workers are fighting back.

December 1, 2005
6 min read

It is now more than 16 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June 1989, in which the People’s Liberation Army crushed thousands of unarmed protestors in the streets of Beijing. Following the events of that dark day, the Chinese government began a nationwide crackdown to punish those who’d had the temerity to speak out against corruption and injustice. To this day, we still don’t know how many people were killed that night, or how many are still languishing in prisons and labour camps for their participation in what the government calls merely the ‘Tiananmen incident’.

For 16 years the Chinese authorities have done everything in their power to whitewash those events, but the world still remembers. And, more importantly, China itself remembers. There are those who point to the economic gains that China has made over the past decade, as if to say: ‘Perhaps the government was too harsh then, but don’t the ends justify the means?’ I ask such people to take a closer look at China’s ‘economic miracle’, at a country rife with corrupt officials getting fantastically wealthy through the abuse of power and authority, while the people for whom they ostensibly work languish in poverty. While actively working to suppress democratic reform in China (‘because the Chinese people are not ready for democracy,’ they claim), these same officials are throwing the door wide open to any business, regardless of its nature. And so the morally corrupt and ethically bankrupt are rewarded, while many of those who strived in 1989 to bring China into a new era of social justice and accountability are still behind bars or under police surveillance.

In November last year, 166 coal miners were killed in a horrific gas explosion in Shaanxi Province, at the Chenjiashan coalmine in Tungchuan city. On 14 February this year, in the Fuxin coalmine in Liaoning Province, a further 214 miners died in a similarly appalling explosion. These events are not anomalies: they are happening with increasing frequency across the country today. But who accepts responsibility for the deaths of these workers? Sadly, in today’s China, the answer is nobody. From the owners of the mines, who place personal profit ahead of human life, to the corrupt government officials who accept bribes from the owners in exchange for looking the other way, the real culprits in the deaths of these workers are the same evils that so many gathered in Tiananmen in 1989 to fight against: official corruption, cynicism and the blind pursuit of profit.

In many ways, things have become worse. Public health policy in China is failing dismally. How many retired and unemployed workers die daily, unable to afford increasingly expensive medical treatments that might save their lives? And how many more workers have died, and are dying, of occupational diseases that could be minimised – or in many cases avoided entirely – by improving basic workplace health and safety? Worse still, how many of these victims of occupational diseases wind up intentionally misdiagnosed by corrupt, bribe taking, government-run occupational health agencies so that the companies whose criminal negligence caused their illnesses can avoid paying compensation? Such things are daily realities nowadays for countless Chinese people.

Though told in different accents and dialects, the stories coming from all over China are remarkably similar in nature: workers are losing their health because factory owners are able to bribe their way out of providing adequate health and safety protection. Children from rural villages are forced by rising school fees and skyrocketing living costs to work in factories to help feed their families. Their parents are being mangled and even killed, all because of the bosses’ criminal negligence.

But despite continuing suppression, the victims of injustice and corruption are once again refusing to keep silent. The past few years have seen migrant workers across the country struggling for their rights and slowly advancing their causes. And there have been real victories. In October 2004, tens of thousands of farmers in Hanyuan city, in Sichuan province, were dislodged from their land by a government-sponsored hydroelectric project and corrupt local officials confiscated their compensation money. The farmers’ mass protests actually succeeded in stopping construction of the dam, despite an attempt by the local government to quell the protests by sending in the military police.

In Zhejiang province, farmers blocked the entrance of a factory and covered the surrounding area with industrial waste. The factory owner called on cronies in the local government to quell the disturbance, and the government again responded by sending in military police. But the farmers were fighting for their very lives, and in their struggle for survival they didn’t merely hold their own but actually blocked the military police from entering their village. Similar scenes occurred in towns in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces and elsewhere when villagers refused to roll over and accept being cheated out of their land by corrupt local officials hoping to sell it for a quick profit.

In cities, the peaceful struggles by ordinary Chinese citizens against oppression and corruption are also multiplying. Joining the list of workers fighting against poor working conditions, wage arrears and unfair dismissal in recent years are workers at the Daqing petroleum factory in Heilongjiang province; workers at the Ferro-alloy factory of Liaoyang city; textile workers in factories in Suizhou and Xianyang; electronics and shoe factory workers in Shenzhen; and teachers in Shandong, Hubei and Guangxi, to name but a few. The government responds by handing out longer prison sentences to organisers, as in the case of the Ferro-alloy factory workers, two of whose leaders are now serving prison sentences of four and seven years.

But in the cities, too, there have been victories. After 50,000 retrenched Daqing workers staged a three-month protest, the local government finally promised increased payouts for workers made redundant and promised to hire the children of retrenched workers. And at the Japanese-owned Uniden electronic factory in Shenzhen, workers demanded to be allowed to set up a trade union to fight for legal working hours and reasonable wages. After a large and well-publicised protest, the factory owner caved in. Sixteen years on from 4 June 1989, the social struggle that took such a bloody turn on that day has continued to deepen and intensify, in the face of all the efforts to suppress it.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali