Beyond 4 June

Last week we published reflections on the 30th anniversary of China’s ‘May of the Masses’. Here Charlie Hore reflects on the massacre of 4 June and its aftermath.

‘Since the early 1980s, the Communist Party’s greatest fear had been of a Polish-style Solidarity uprising led by organised workers’ – A replica of the memorial in the Polish city of Wrocław depicting a destroyed bicycle and a tank track as a symbol of the Tiananmen Square protests. The original was destroyed by Security Service despite the fact that it was after the 1989 elections (via wikipedia)

Thirty years ago today, thick palls of smoke hung over Beijing from burning barricades and army vehicles. After a month of mass protests that had occupied much of the city, the army had entered like an invading force, in what has come to be known and commemorated as the ‘Tiananmen Square massacre’.

It’s right that we should mark the crushing of the most important mass movement in modern China’s history, but that remembrance should encompass the full scale of both the repression and the resistance to it. It wasn’t just Tiananmen Square, or even Beijing, and it wasn’t just 4 June.

In Beijing, the great majority of those who died were killed as the army broke through barricades in the west of the city, firing on demonstrators and into housing blocks, and in the days after 4 June as resistance continued. It was Beijing’s workers, rather than the students in the Square, who bore the brunt of the murderous attack.

Across China, the news of the massacre brought even more people out on the streets than during the May events. In the southern city of Hangzhou, students and others blocked the main railway tracks for most of three days[1]; in nearby Shanghai:

At least 200 articulated electric trolley buses and diesel buses were used to block most of the main roads into the city; with the co-operation of drivers they were parked across streets and their tyres deflated…Huge crowds massed at intersections day and night to listen to students addressing them under red flags.[2]

In the south-western city of Chengdu:

By nightfall on June 4, angry mobs were setting fire to anything belonging to the state, including buses and police vehicles. The crowds threw stones, tiles and gasoline bottles at a police station near the square where detained protesters had been beaten, and eventually set it on fire.[3]

Demonstrations, rallies and strikes spread to every major city. According to The Tiananmen Papers, between 5 and 10 June there were demonstrations in 181 cities. In north-eastern China, 15,000 car and textile workers walked out in Changchun to join a 100,000 strong demo, while in Shenyang 3,000 aircraft workers joined a memorial meeting of over 30,000.[4]

But in the absence of any co-ordination, the protests quickly tailed off. In most places the authorities simply waited them out, although Amnesty International reported at least 300 civilians killed in Chengdu and an unknown number in the north-western city of Lanzhou.[5] In the repression that followed, hundreds if not thousands of people were shot, often in secret, while up to 30,000 were arrested, many of who would spends years in prison.

The repression hit especially hard against workers who had taken an active part in the movement, most of all those who had tried to organize independent workers’ organisations. The biggest of these was the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation (BWAF), but there were reports of groups in at least 15 other cities[6], as well as other groups in Beijing. Since the early 1980s, the Communist Party’s greatest fear had been of a Polish-style Solidarity uprising led by organised workers, and the BWAF’s linking of political and workplace democracy shows why:

Why do a lot of workers agree with democracy and freedom? … (I)n the workshop, does what the workers say count, or what the leader says? We later talked about it. In the factory the director is a dictator, what one man says goes. If you view the state through the factory, it’s about the same: one-man rule…[7]

Could it happen again?

There is to this day no good overall history of the movement and its repression, so we still do not know the full reach and extent of the upheaval. And ever since 1989 the Communist Party has done everything in its power to ensure that the memory is excised: social media posts are scanned and deleted for any possible oblique reference to 4 June, Tiananmen, and 1989; activists are rounded up and removed from Beijing in advance of the anniversary; and security around the Square itself is tightened even further.

The ‘May of the masses’ didn’t come out of nowhere, and was about far more than just abstract calls for ‘democracy’. From mid-1998 onwards China’s economy underwent its worst crisis since the Cultural Revolution, as the first stage of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms produced widespread food shortages and the worst inflation since 1949. Student protests against official corruption provided the spark for millions of workers to join in attacking the government, with many looking back to the 1976 riots that had been pivotal in restoring Deng to power.

Thirty years on, the Chinese economy has changed out of all recognition, but runaway economic growth has been accompanied by a huge increase in the gap between rich and poor. As Louisa Lim put it in The People’s Republic of Amnesia:

Could a mass movement like Tiananmen happen again? Yes, it could. Rapacious land seizures, widespread official corruption and choking environmental problems are creating pockets of discontent among people who feel that they have little left to lose. As long as these remain localized, the likelihood of a mass movement is diluted. But these dots on the map are expanding in size and frequency.[8]

Nothing is inevitable – individual strikes, protests and demonstrations can win immediate gains without developing into anti-government protests, as they have almost continuously in the 30 years since the massacre. But their very frequency shows that the roots of revolt have not withered, and that there is a confidence to take on employers and the local state which, given the right circumstances and trigger, could widen into a more general movement against the central state. China’s rulers did not see 1976 coming, nor 1989 – but they fear another such explosion, and they are right to do so.



[1] Jonathan Unger (ed.), The Pro-Democracy Protests in China – Reports from the Provinces (Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 1991) pp. 177-81.

[2] Unger (ed.), Pro-Democracy Protests, p 197.

[3] Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia – Tiananmen Revisited (Oxford: OUP, 2015), p. 189.

[4] Andrew J Nathan and Perry Link (eds.), The Tiananmen Papers (London, Abacus: 2002) pp. 524, 531.

[5] The report was originally published as a pamphlet Death in Beijing (London: Amnesty International, 1989).

[6] Jackie Sheehan, Chinese Workers – A New History (London, Routledge: 1998), p. 211.

[7] Andrew G. Walder and Gong Xiaoxia, ‘Workers in the Tiananmen Protests: The Politics of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation’, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs (1993), 29: 18. Thanks to Pete Gillard for the reference. **Note (6 June 2019): this article is available here. Thanks to Fleur Taylor in the Australian magazine Red Flag for the reference**

[8] Lim, People’s Republic of Amnesia, p. 210.


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