Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics.

Twenty-five years later, this principle is still robustly enforced.  Activists who oppose corruption and abuse of power are harassed, lawyers who seek to defend activists are debarred, and scholars who advocate open government and constitutionalism are sentenced to jail on trumped-up charges.

And in the world of labor, independent trade unions are still forbidden. The official organization, the All China Federation of Trade Unions, rarely advocates effectively for workers’ interests. Instead it tries to persuade workers to cooperate with management. As a result, the ACFTU has helped sustain China’s distinctive form of state capitalism, which is based on crony-like cooperation between entrepreneurs and local governments. The state controls the main factors of production – land, labor, credit, transportation, and energy – and hands out these assets to favored enterprises, which may be state-controlled “national champions," local capitalists, or foreign investors.

Much of what these enterprises do is to assemble imported raw materials or components into finished products for export. The largest part of the value-added is labor. But labor has reaped the lowest returns. As the GDP has gone up, so has economic inequality, as have other “externalities," such as pollution, corruption, and land seizures.

Some regime apologists praise the Tiananmen crackdown for creating the conditions for China’s “economic miracle." They are half right; the authoritarian crony capitalist model that the nation has pursued depends on labor repression. But China would still have enjoyed economic growth if, in 1989, it had chosen to liberalize instead. Indeed, it would have enjoyed what economists call better “quality” growth, with a more consumption-driven growth model, more equity, less pollution, and less corruption. Properly speaking, the legacy of the crackdown is not growth, per se, but a particular model of growth, one that hurts workers’ interests and is unsustainable.

Workers in China are demanding more – empowered partly by a tightening labor market and partly by their growing knowledge of their rights under China’s labor law. But worker repression remains key to the Chinese model. Protest is dangerous. The help of outside organizations, such as the China Labour Bulletin and the New York-based China Labor Watch remain essential to the fight for labor rights.

For our part, we can recall today the courage of the Tiananmen Square democracy activists, and remember as well that the heirs to their legacy continue, at great risk, to stubbornly advocate for worker rights and basic political freedoms for all in China.

-Andrew Nathan