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30 Years After Tiananmen, China Still Suspicious of Student-Labor Ties

A police vehicle is deployed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 2019.
A police vehicle is deployed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, June 4, 2019.

Each anniversary has given rights advocates an opportunity to press their demands for authorities to account for the incidents of 1989.

BEIJING — Tuesday marks three decades since China’s ruling communist leaders launched a bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in the capital of Beijing. It has never been clear how many were killed when soldiers were sent in to silence the protests in and around Tiananmen Square and discussion about what happened remains one of China's biggest taboos to this day.

Each anniversary has given rights advocates an opportunity to press their demands for authorities to account for the incidents of 1989. This year, answers seem to be more elusive than ever as authorities mount an aggressive crackdown on any hint of support by students for labor movements — highlighting the communist leadership's persistent fear of any collaboration between the two.

And for some, it has been a reminder of the role workers played in support of student protesters in the spring of 1989 and how little has changed over the past 30 years, despite communist party claims to the contrary.

China’s communist rulers have long defended the crackdown three decades ago, saying the progress Chinese society has made — especially its economic success — are owed to the actions of the government in 1989.

On Sunday, speaking to an international audience in Singapore, China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said the crackdown was “correct” and “justified” move to stop political turbulence.

Vital support

Like the student protesters in Tiananmen, workers came from all over the country to join the rallies. Their addition to the movement provided crucial support, helping swell numbers and give the student-led protests broader representation.

“The presence of the workers supporting the students, provided a lot of pressure in itself,” notes Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesperson at the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.

“The party depended on ordinary workers for a lot of its support, so the fact that workers were going out on the streets and protecting the students and demonstrating in support of the students must have been very worrying for them,” he said.

Workers were among those killed during and suffered great repression in the crackdown that followed June 4th. They also served as buffers between authorities and the students and played a key role in slowing the attacks, setting up barricades around the city that delayed troops as they moved in to clear the square.

Estimates of the number of demonstrators killed and injured vary widely from hundreds to more than 10,000. According to figures cited at the time by Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong, more than 3,000 citizens were injured and more than 100 killed, 36 of whom were students.

The government has never allowed for an examination of records, or a tally of those missing.

Political exclusion

Eli Friedman, a professor of comparative international labor law at Cornell University says understanding the role workers played in the protests is important because it helps give a sense of the broader societal and economic changes that were going on at the time, changes that had political ramifications.

One key decision that was made in 1989 was to politically exclude the working class from decision making. That lack of representation continues to this day, he says.

“If there had been a form of political change that took place at the time that allowed for more political participation of workers it is easy to imagine that the whole process of economic reform, China’s rise, could’ve been very different and could’ve been much more inclusive process,” Friedman says. “The privatization that followed the 1989 movement was a disaster for the old working class in large part because of the lack of transparency.”

In addition to calling for an end to government corruption, better pay and working conditions, workers also were also seeking the creation of an independent trade union. Three decades later China still has only one official trade union and that is the All China Federation of Trade Unions, which is tightly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

Powerful seize wealth

Han Dongfang was one of the leaders of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation, which was founded during the Tiananmen protests and was part of a short-lived effort to create China’s first independent trade union. Han tells VOA that the calls for equal distribution of wealth and more democratic representation in the workplace continue and are being manifest in strike after strike today in China.

“Over the past 30 years, corruption which used to be covered up has now been exposed,” Han says, who later went on to found the China Labour Bulletin. “The unfair allocation of wealth that industry workers face has made the saying to 'allow a few people to get rich first' obsolete and instead those who exploit others are justified while those who are exploited are powerless.”

Workers have been left with little option but to put down their rice bowl’s and strike, Han adds. “The public has seen that the wealth created through China’s opening up and reform has been taken away by those in power.”

Protests continue

Over the past year, nearly 50 students and activists were arrested while mobilizing to protest the arrest of workers at JASIC Technology, a welding equipment manufacturer in Shenzhen who were trying to establish a union.

The recent crackdown by authorities not only highlights the state’s opposition to independent unions, but any kind of alliance between students and workers, analysts note.

In 1989, Li Qiang joined protests in Sichuan province where he says the majority of those who showed up to put pressure on the government were workers.

“What the communist party fears the most is an organized working class,” says Li who is now the founder and executive director of China Labor Watch. “The party views the joining of hands of highly-educated students or intellectuals with ideology and the workers’ movement as a threat.”

Cutting ties

To cut those links, the government of President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, has been cracking down hard on academia for even mild criticism.

“Research units have been shuttered, and the scope of academic inquiry has been greatly limited,” says Friedman.

“He [Xi] is not interested in taking any chances with challenges from below and gaining control of the universities is an important front in that struggle,” he said.

Despite the risks in rallying against employers, China Labor Bulletin recorded 1,702 strikes in 2018, an increase of about 25 percent over the previous year. Recently, there has also been a backlash against high-tech companies over “996” — a 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. schedule six days a week that violates China’s labor laws and requirements for overtime pay.

As for workers other demands, the problem of corruption in the workplace continues and has in fact become even worse, says Crothall.

In the past, it was an issue of government officials going into business themselves and running off with public funds. Today, Crothall says, it is more a problem of private businesses buying government support that allows them to skirt labor laws and violate workers’ rights.

“Although there have clearly been improvements in pay and working conditions in the last 30 years, there are still a lot of problems with workers simply earning enough to earn a living wage, and that is still a problem for millions of workers across China,” he says.

Joyce Huang contributed to this report.