Twenty years and the best part of a couple of weeks ago I was praising the Chinese government to the skies. There was a prolonged demonstration in Tiananmen Square which coincided with a visit from Gorbachev and the government was patiently sitting it out.
"You see," I enthused to friends with the four students shot dead at Kent State University in Ohio by President Nixon's tin soldiers sharp in my memory, "if this was America they'd have sent in the National Guard". Instead, they were allowing the dissenters to make their point peacefully. It was as if Chinese communism had come of age and the new generation of leaders, remembering their debt and responsibility to the masses, had their welfare uppermost in their minds.
My father had promised us that the People's Liberation Army would never be turned on its own. The protest would probably peter out with some arrests to save face but also some positive steps taken to ensure grievances were addressed.
Then June 4th happened and ripped a hole in the universe.
You can't look at the photo above and not be awestruck by the guy's bravery and the potent symbolism he created. Neither should we forget the courage of the General heading the first incursion into the Square who refused to open fire, especially as his own daughter and her student friends were there. Or the ordinary people who gave sanctuary and medical assistance to unarmed protesters being mown down by a fully tooled-up army.
Andy at Socialist Unity has written an excellent piece that deals with the complexities of the situation at the time. This was certainly no straight forward Manichean good versus evil struggle that the western media would have us believe. The protest was comprised of a range of dissenting forces, from those who demanded an accelerated rush to capitalism and the further erosion of workers' rights that we've seen taking place ever since, to demands with which I am much more sympathetic — for a end to corruption and an increase in genuine democracy.
There were concerns that:
... economic liberalism would clash with the economic and social interests of the working class, (and to a much lesser degree the peasantry) who benefitted from the full employment, price regulation and social benefits of the “iron rice bowl” ... adventurist price reforms that deregulated the cost of basic necessities, at the same time as getting workers to sign agreements that cut their wages, and factories were laying off workers. So the economic reforms were experienced as a direct attack on the working class.
Anyone taking comfort that the protest sought a return to Western-style capitalism should remember this:
Left intellectual Wang Hui argues that the working class majority in these protests were not “pro-democracy” but anti-capitalist. They wanted an end to the price reforms, an end to growing inequality and the conspicuous wealth of the new entrepreneurs, they wanted to defend the social safety net of the Iron rice-bowl, and they wanted to defend full employment. ... Paradoxically therefore the June 4th Movement expressed polar opposites of political objectives, and the working class were demanding the cessation of the process that the students were arguing should accelerate.
It is somewhat nauseating to see Western media making propaganda capital out of these events when their own side has done so well out of the Iraq war and other adventures with very little comment. You wanted capitalism back in China? Well done. You got your wish and now 6,000 billionaires have been made in the country that once looked like it might create a fair and equitable society based on need, not greed.
Perhaps the best commentator on this hypocrisy is Ron Paul.
" I wonder how the US government would respond if China demanded that the United Nations conduct a full and independent investigation into the treatment of detainees at the US-operated Guantanamo facility? ... It is hard to exercise credible moral authority in the world when our motto toward foreign governments seems to be 'do as we say, not as we do.'"
Thanks to Splintered Sunrise for the Ron Paul link
See also this article by Liang Guosheng in Green Left Weekly (1996)