Vengeance in China

While China’s leaders try to assure the outside world and themselves that “everything is back to normal,” the national problems that existed before the June 4 crackdown have become much worse. China’s students and intellectuals were already demoralized by the periodic ideological campaigns against them and official corruption as well as by increasing inflation and low salaries. They have now become more disillusioned than ever with the Party, with Deng and Company’s leadership, and the Communist system itself. The political and military leaders who share power with Deng have become more deeply divided. Many of the city workers and the private entrepreneurs who owed their jobs to Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms recently have been complaining that inflation, corruption, wage reductions, and national economic controls have become worse. Such workers and business people, moreover, were the first to feel the force of the June crackdown, even before the intellectuals and students.

As soon as the army had established its control over Tiananmen Square, the leaders of the Beijing Workers Federation, a nonofficial union established during the demonstration, were arrested. So far only workers have been executed. Twenty-eight have been officially named as executed, but other reports suggest that more than one hundred people may have been killed. In earlier demonstrations during 1986 and 1987, students had not allowed workers to join the protests and, at the beginning of the spring 1989 demonstration, the students had physically locked arms to bar them from taking part. In both cases the students believed that participation of the workers would make repression by the government more likely; they believed as well that workers would be joining the demonstrations mostly for material reasons and could not be counted on as allies in the struggle for democracy. But by mid-May, as the movement began to run out of steam, the older intellectuals who joined the demonstration at that time urged the students to allow the workers to join them; and as Party bureaucrats, professionals, and even units of the military joined the movement, workers literally forced themselves into the demonstrations. On May 17, the demonstration expanded to over one million people, the largest number ever to have taken part in a mass protest in China. Along with the workers, other parts of the urban population also joined in, gaining the support of most of the Beijing population.

The regime’s harsher treatment of the workers may be attributed not only to the higher status in China of students and intellectuals but to its fear that a movement resembling Solidarity will emerge in China. Since the early 1980s, Deng Xiaoping and the other elderly leaders who helped him suppress the students have worried that workers and intellectuals might form an alliance against the regime, as in fact did happen. But Deng’s speech on April 25, 1989, during the early days of the demonstration, showed him to be much more concerned about the contagion of the East European and Soviet reforms than of Western political ideas. “Those people who…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.