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.