In the late 1980s China lived a sprint in the capitalist market reforms that the Stalinist party, led by Deng Xiaoping, carried forward from 1979 [1]. 

The right to strike had been removed; the power of the managers of state owned enterprises had been extraordinarily strengthened; the creation of private enterprises had been allowed to them and the party-state bureaucracy; “special economic zones” for foreign investment were created …

Fighting against capitalist restoration

The enrichment of the “communist” bureaucracy followed, at the end of the decade, an economic boom which generated significant inflation, which on the other hand benefited the same bureaucracy that had implanted a dual pricing system : the “planned” prices and the “market” prices. This gave them the opportunity to buy products with the “planned price” currency and resell them at “market prices”, which generated a great social unrest.

The democratic movement began on April 15, 1989, when students in Beijing (Peking) started to protest. Branches of workers soon began to participate and brought their class vision to the movement, which until then had been limited to exposing corruption, demanding democratic freedoms, in particular the freedom of expression and the claim to dialogue.

The workers join the Democratic Movement

On April 17th, some workers took the initiative to organize themselves independently from the official union and decided to form the BWAF, the Autonomous Workers’ Federation of Beijing, which visited factories and demanded, besides freedom, salary, price stabilization and transparency of all authorities’ income and possessions.

On April 26th, in response to the students’ demands to dialogue, the People’s Daily (CPC’s official newspaper) denigrated them, triggering outrage. The next day 200,000 students demonstrated and a million Beijing residents came out to support them. On May 15th, 600,000 people took to the streets. Between 17th and 19th May, millions marched in support of the students. Large groups of workers carried banners with the names of their companies.

The social pressure was so strong that the rank and file and intermediate sectors of the official trade union (ACFTU), unhappy with their bosses, demanded dialogue with students, democratic rights, punishment of corrupt leaders and union self-administration.

Massive demonstrations erupted involving workers in the big cities of the country. Workers Autonomous Federations were established in several cities spontaneously. At that point, there was no attempt to unify the movement.

On May 19th, the BWAF announced its official foundation and declared that, in case the demands of the students were not accepted, it would call a general strike. But the CPC’s Politburo declared the martial law and announced the arrival of troops and tanks into the city. The martial law made the population so outraged that they took to the streets spontaneously.

On May 21st, the BWAF issued a “Manifesto of the Workers” saying: “The proletariat is the most progressive class of society. We have to show that we are the central force in the Movement for Democracy. The working class is the vanguard of the Popular Republic of China. We have every right to oust dictators. The workers know very well the value of knowledge and skills in production. We can’t allow any harm to be done to the students.”

The dictatorship responds with a massacre

On May 19th, when the BWAF threatened to call the strike, the Autonomous Association of Students of the University of Beijing (SFA) called not to do it. Only in late May, when the government violence escalated, it allowed the BWAF to join the movement.

On June 3rd, the official trade union (ACFTU) of Beijing denounced the BWAF as counterrevolutionary and called on the government to suppress it. The same day the troops advanced towards the city. Several hundreds of thousands of workers and students stood in the way of the 100,000 troops to prevent them from entering Beijing.

When the workers rose in support of the students, with the threat of a general strike, the dictatorship of the party-state responded with the slaughter. On June 4th, several thousand people (there are no official figures) were killed. The Democratic Movement was unprepared to fight back the violent response from the government and was drowned in blood.

The brutal repression became a “model” to stifle resistance throughout the period. During the worker’s protest in the oil fields of Daqing in 2002, the authorities sent tanks to crush them.

After the Chinese working-class defeat, the capitalist restoration moved forward unstoppable

In 1992, the 14th Congress of the CPC, with the working class and the Democratic Movement massacred, pushed the capitalist restoration rapidly and brutally and the opening of the country to imperialist investment. They called it “socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics”. A search of the full integration into the imperialist division of labor, the Chinese dictatorship massively privatized small and medium state enterprises, for the benefit of former managers and party bureaucrats, while large state enterprises were converted into stock companies related in many cases to foreign multinationals and a network of private subsidiaries. As a result of the privatization wave, between 1996 and 2001, 30 to 40 million workers were dismissed and their working conditions, achieved through the 1959 socialist revolution, largely dismantled.

At the same time, a huge new section of the Chinese working class has been created from rapid industrialization, largely linked to the imperialist foreign investment and exports: more than 200 million rural migrant workers under social apartheid don´t have the rights of urban residents and are subjected to extreme exploitation in a system of working in barracks.

The awakening of the Chinese working class

But the sign of the times is not of defeat but of recovery of the fighting, particularly among migrant workers. The recent strike by workers who manufacture major footwear brands, from the Yuen Yuen factory, or foreign automakers such as Honda and the giant Iphone makers (Foxconn) workers who also stroke before, contribute to this awakening. The Chinese workers struggle for democratic and labor rights, the defense of environment and the end of the one-party dictatorship deserve our support and have universal significance in the struggle for socialism.

[1] – The primary data are taken from the book China’s rise: Strength and Fragility, Au Loong Yu (Ed Merlin). The author is a senior Chinese Hong Kong activist, Marxist and defender of workers’ rights and freedoms.