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Revolution and counterrevolution: remembering Tiananmen 34 years later

Amanda Yee

Jun 10, 2023

This June 4 marks the 34th anniversary of what is known in the United States as the Tiananmen “massacre.” The story we are typically told in the West is that young student activists had gathered in Tiananmen Square, uniting around the liberal demands of democracy and freedom, bravely defying the repressive Chinese government. After weeks of these ongoing protests, the Communist Party of China had had enough and cracked down on the peaceful protesters. As the story goes, in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, People’s Liberation Army tanks rolled into the square. They were said to be indiscriminately shooting and mowing down innocent, unarmed protesters, killing thousands.​To put it simply, this particular understanding of a “massacre” of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4 is a fabrication, the mythology of which has been exploited by the West for over 30 years as evidence of the ruthless, authoritarian nature of the CPC to justify imperialist aggression against China.





​The iconic “tank man”


Even the story of the “tank man” — the most iconic image to come out of the event and has become a metonym for the Tiananmen massacre itself — has been deliberately manipulated by the U.S. media machine in the service of its anti-China propaganda effort. For one, the photo was taken on the morning of June 5, not June 4, so the military tanks were actually leaving the square. And second, the man in the photo was not run over by the tanks as implied by the image. The full video shows that after a few seconds of the stand-off, the tank attempts several times to swerve around the man, but he manages to keep stepping in its way blocking its path. Finally, the man climbs on top of the tank, looks to speak to the driver for a few minutes, before finally climbing off and eventually jumping in front of the tank’s path again. The standoff continues for another few seconds, before the man is finally pulled away by a group of civilians.​The truth of the 1989 Tiananmen protests is far more complex than the simple rendering of an authoritarian Chinese government cracking down unprovoked on pro-democracy protesters — it’s a story of societal divisions unresolved from the Cultural Revolution, which bled into the “reform and opening up” policy implemented under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, finally erupting into the the seven-week long occupation of Tiananmen Square. It is also a story of the internal and external contradictions the Communist Party of China found itself navigating as it embarked on economic development.


​1966-1976: The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution


To fully understand the Tiananmen protests, we need to lay out the economic conditions and emerging ideological undercurrents which laid the foundations for them. In 1966, Mao along with close allies in the leadership of the Communist Party, like Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, Zhang Chunqiao, and Yao Wenyuan — known as the Gang of Four — launched what is known in China as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This triggered a decade-long struggle within the CPC between their faction — which sought to prevent China and the international communist movement from going down the path of what they saw as Soviet revisionism that strayed from the revolutionary principles of Marxism — and who they called the “capitalist roaders” led by Deng Xiaoping. It’s important to note here that both factions of the CPC feared counterrevolution and recognized the necessity of economic development in order to overcome the legacy of its century of domination by colonial powers, but differed in their assessment of how to achieve it. Mao favored the continuation of a fully planned economy. He feared a new local bourgeoisie would develop as a result of opening up China to the global capitalist economy, and that it would bring with it counterrevolution. Deng, on the other hand, recognized these risks, but was willing to take the gamble. By granting access to its domestic market and cheap labor pool, China would in exchange receive access to Western technology, allowing it to develop the productive capacity of its economy. Deng saw no other option but to walk that tightrope to achieve modernization.Mao saw the Cultural Revolution as a continuation of the class struggle. The ten-year campaign not only targeted those seen as revisionists and counterrevolutionaries both inside and outside the party, but also attempted to bridge the divide between the rural and urban populations. The political tumultuousness and social upheaval of the period is well known, but less acknowledged are its achievements, particularly in education reform and expansion of medical care into the rural sectors of society. At the time, 80% of the Chinese population lived in the rural areas, and most of them were illiterate. The Cultural Revolution saw expansion of primary school education and development of railways and other infrastructure to these areas. During this period, college entrance exams were suspended, and instead, high school graduates were sent to the countryside to do work and learn from local populations. ​Despite these achievements, the rural-urban class divide still remained, and these antagonisms would intensify in the lead-up to, and during, the Tiananmen protests.


1976-1978: death of Mao and path to reform


After a decade, the Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976. In December 1978, at the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee, the CPC met and adopted the “Resolution on certain questions in the history of our party since the founding of the People’s Republic of China” to reckon with and correct what they saw as the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution, and to officially set the party on the path to reform. Recognizing the Cultural Revolution as a “severe setback,” this resolution placed the responsibility for its excesses on Mao, but did not repudiate him. It argued Mao made grave mistakes during the later years of his life, but what he contributed to China and the CPC far outweighed whatever missteps he took.​With this resolution came a reevaluation of the priorities of the revolution. Whereas Mao had previously identified the class struggle — of which the Cultural Revolution was the culmination — as the principal contradiction, the CPC now contended that China had advanced past this stage, as the “exploiters have been eliminated as classes.” While elements of class struggle still remained, the principal contradiction was now of backward social productivity versus people’s material needs. This resolution concluded:

After socialist transformation was fundamentally completed, the principal contradiction our country has had to resolve is that between the growing material and cultural needs of the people and the backwardness of social production. It was imperative that the focus of Party and government work be shifted to socialist modernization centering on economic construction and that the people’s material and cultural life be gradually improved by means of an immense expansion of the productive forces. In the final analysis, the mistake we made in the past was that we failed to persevere in making this strategic shift. What is more, the preposterous view opposing the so-called “theory of the unique importance of productive forces,” a view diametrically opposed to historical materialism, was put forward during the “cultural revolution”… All our Party work must be subordinated to and serve this central task — economic construction. All our Party cadres, and particularly those in economic departments, must diligently study economic theory and economic practice as well as science and technology.

Thus, the CPC embarked on the road to combine its planned economy with a market-based one in order to, in Deng’s words, “liberate the productive forces and speed up economic growth,” so that the people of China would one day achieve common prosperity.


1980-1989: Reform and Opening-Up era


Under Deng’s leadership, the CPC officially launched its “Reform and Opening-Up” program in 1980 to reboost an economy devastated by the Cultural Revolution and speed up modernization to build its productive forces. During this period, China integrated itself into the world economy abroad, while scaling back social welfare programs and implementing economic liberalization policies domestically.The “reforms” included domestic policies to boost economic productivity. The government’s “iron rice bowl” safety net was gradually chipped away, jobs were no longer guaranteed by the government, and the centrally planned economy was transformed into more of a market-oriented one, while retaining some level of state control. In the rural areas, communes were decollectivized, with the collective farming system converted into a “household responsibility system,” which “allowed households to contract land, machinery, and other facilities from collective organizations.” The households could make independent operating decisions within the confines of their contract, which allowed farmers to financially benefit from their crops. Farmer incomes and agricultural prices were raised to encourage consumption in the rural areas and help further close the rural-urban income gap. Crop yields increased significantly during this period, adding another major boon for farmers. Urban reforms included decentralizing state industrial management and reforming state-owned enterprises to grant them some level of business independence and autonomy, and the lifting of price controls on staple foods and agricultural commodities.The “opening up” included the implementation of Deng’s “Open Door Policy,” which allowed for foreign business investment into the country in exchange for access to China’s cheap labor pool and the promise of super-profits. A degree of risk was always present in the pursuit of these economic policies. They opened up China to foreign investment and foreign technology transfer to allow it to overcome its poverty and underdevelopment, but as predicted a capitalist class emerged. Along with that came a new bourgeois ideology, producing social forces hostile to socialism. Now a segment of society, particularly students and intellectuals, increasingly looked westward to the United States and its institutions as an aspirational political model. Liu Xiaobo — one of the most vocal activists during the Tiananmen protests who later won the Nobel Peace Prize — relayed such pro-colonialist aspirations in a 1988 interview when he firmly stated, “To choose Westernization is to choose to be human.” In another 1988 statement, Liu similarly asserted, “It took Hong Kong 100 years to become what it is. Given the size of China, certainly it would need 300 years of colonization for it to become like what Hong Kong is today. I even doubt whether 300 years would be enough.”Of this political shift among China’s intellectuals, Li Minqi, a Chinese political economist who also participated in the Tiananmen protests as a student, wrote, “[A]mong the intellectuals, there was a sharp turn to the right … Many regarded Mao Zedong himself as an ignorant, backward Chinese peasant who turned into a cruel, power-hungry despot who had been responsible for the killing of tens of millions. The politically active intellectuals no longer borrowed discourse from Marxism. Instead, western classical liberalism and neoliberal economics, as represented by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, had become the new, fashionable ideology.”For his part, Deng anticipated and warned of these kinds of bourgeois ideological undercurrents, which would later feature so prominently among the student protesters at the 1989 Tiananmen protests. In 1985, he stated matter-of-factly, “Since the downfall of the Gang of Four an ideological trend has appeared that we call bourgeois liberalization. Its exponents worship the ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ of the Western capitalist countries and reject socialism. This cannot be allowed. China must modernize; it must absolutely not liberalize or take the capitalist road, as countries of the West have done.”Though Deng saw the necessity of employing “the mechanisms of the marketplace to develop its productive economy” for the time being, the goal of socialism remained. Deng argues that the development of production would in time lead to common prosperity for the people.


1989: the Tiananmen Square protests


It was these legacies of the Cultural Revolution and the economic liberalization reforms, which would provide the social basis for the Tiananmen protests. On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang, former General Secretary of the CPC and one of the more radical advocates of the free market program, suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. Hu was one of the leaders of the “Boluan Fanzheng” (translated as “to eliminate chaos, and return to normality”) campaign, which reversed many policies of the Cultural Revolution. It was the Boluan Fanzheng policy which saw the reopening of universities closed during that ten-year period, as well as the reopening of college entrance exams, granting students a pathway to higher education again. He also exonerated a number of intellectuals persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. For these reasons, Hu was a beloved figure among students and intellectuals.Over the next few days, university students mourned Hu’s death and held rallies in his honor, marching to Tiananmen Square to place flowers for him at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. These rallies then evolved into protests for further economic and political reform, turning into an occupation of the square, which lasted seven weeks until June 4, in what we now know as the Tiananmen protests.The demands in the beginning of the protests were mostly related to the lifting of price controls, inflation and labor market competition. The lifting of price controls led to price hikes on staple foods and commodities for those in urban areas. This was a boon to rural businesses and farmers, but in the cities this intensified an existing inflation and cost of living crisis. Urban workers’ wages were not keeping pace with this inflation, which had reached a staggering 18% by 1989. It was for these reasons that a significant number of workers eventually joined the students in the protests in Tiananmen.Demands also revolved around ending corruption within the CPC, as some party members used their political leverage to become the earliest capitalists, enriching themselves. The student protesters especially resented those in the party who with the right connections were able to attain the few higher level jobs that existed. While the 1980s saw an expansion of higher education, most jobs at that time were still in low-end manufacturing, which didn’t appeal to university students.But sharp class divisions were evident among those in the square, and tensions existed between student and worker protesters. Though they were eager to grow their numbers and enlist support, the student protesters shunned and looked down upon the urban workers, and the two segments were often segregated at Tiananmen. Student leaders insisted that the workers stay off the main part of the square, in order to keep the democracy movement in their eyes “pure.”The student leaders of the protests were not shy in voicing their contempt for the workers. In an interview for The New York Times, Wang Dan, a 20-year-old history student at Beijing University who was one of the most prominent student leaders in the square, stated bluntly that the movement was not yet ready for worker participation. According to him, “Democracy must first be absorbed by students and intellectuals before they can be spread to others.”​Li Minqi similarly wrote of these elitist attitudes felt among the students in his later reflection of the protests:

As the student demonstrations grew, workers in Beijing began to pour onto the streets in support of the students, who were, of course, delighted. However, being an economics student, I could not help experiencing a deep sense of irony. On the one hand, these workers were the people that we considered to be passive, obedient, ignorant, lazy, and stupid. Yet now they were coming out to support us. On the other hand, just weeks before, we were enthusiastically advocating “reform” programs that would shut down all state factories and leave the workers unemployed. I asked myself: do these workers really know who they are supporting?

Indeed, the demands put forth by the protests overall were often diverse, and at times at odds with one another. Workers were critical of Deng’s economic liberalization policies as they bore the brunt of their negative impacts. Inspired by the emerging capitalist class in China, the students demanded an acceleration of these reforms, yet were also protesting the very consequences these reforms brought — corruption, inflation and skyrocketing cost of living. And of course, the vague demands of “democracy” adopted by the students and intellectuals reflected the nascent “bourgeois liberalization” political orientation that Deng had previously warned of.And while worker participation in the protests was certainly not insignificant, it should be noted that the political character of a movement is not determined by the individual ideologies of the participants — it is determined by the movement’s leadership. It was the student protesters with their pro-western orientation, signs written in English and cries for bourgeois democracy that received the most international media attention and the most resources. They refused to cede or even share leadership with urban workers. Over time due to this media amplification, it was the student leaders’ demands that became synonymous with the movement itself. Reporters from NBC, BBC, ABC and Voice of America had a consistent presence throughout the protests and covered them extensively. The U.S.-funded propaganda arm VOA, in particular, had an especially heavy presence in Tiananmen with one correspondent recalling, “VOA was extremely popular on the square, with students holding up radios so crowds could hear our Mandarin-language newscasts. Others transcribed our stories and posted them on electrical poles around the city.” As time passed, the actions along with the demands began to escalate as student leaders became more and more hardline and radicalized. In mid-May, the student leaders organized mass hunger strikes to coincide with the visit of Mikhail Gorbachev, then-leader of the Soviet Union. The hunger strikes prevented the Chinese government from welcoming Gorbachev in Tiananmen Square. The protests paralyzed the city and alarmingly created fissures and power struggles within the CPC. Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang openly expressed sympathy toward the student protesters even visiting them in the square as a show of support. Premier Li Peng finally declared martial law on May 20, further radicalizing the students.Many protesters defied martial law and chose to remain in the square. In late May, to further pander to western sympathies, the students built and erected a 30-foot “Goddess of Democracy” statue, bearing a striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty, attracting international attention. There was undoubtedly CIA involvement in the protests, but the full extent remains unclear to this day. According to a Vancouver Sun article from Sept. 17, 1992, the CIA had sources among protesters and within Chinese intelligence services, and it was assisting students in organizing the anti-government movement by providing support in the form of typewriters and other equipment. Chinese officials at the time also accused U.S. diplomats and CIA agents of “collecting intelligence aggressively” during the protests, and Zhao was later arrested and charged as having connections to U.S. intelligence.​Given what we do know about CIA involvement in other socialist countries during the Cold War, however, we can safely assume there was some level of U.S. intelligence at least attempting to steer the direction of the student demonstrations. Soon, what were demands to control inflation turned into calls to overthrow the CPC entirely, with some leaders even going so far as calling for bloodshed.​In a now infamous tearful interview, 23-year-old student protest leader Chai Ling, who was considered “commander-in-chief” of the square, tells a BBC reporter:

The students keep asking, “What should we do next? What can we accomplish?” I feel so sad, because how can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, for the moment when the government has no choice but to brazenly butcher the people. Only when the square is awash with blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they really be united.

It’s worth noting here that by the time of this interview, Chai had already secured a visa to the United States as part of the CIA’s Operation Yellowbird mission, which secretly smuggled hundreds of student dissidents out of China. She would not even be around for the bloodshed she was calling for. After their arrival into the United States, student leaders like Chai would then be thrust into the media spotlight, meeting with politicians and used as propaganda tools to cement the mythology around the so-called June 4th massacre.Up until that point, the response to the demonstrations on the part of the CPC had been remarkably restrained throughout. But It was clear that without decisive action, the protests had the potential to escalate even further, bringing about the very real threat of civil war or even toppling the Chinese government.


June 4, 1989: myth vs. reality


As the story goes, the protesters continue to defy martial law, and finally having had enough, the CPC orders the People’s Liberation Army to clear Tiananmen. According to this story, in the early morning hours of June 4, PLA tanks roll into the square, indiscriminately mowing down peaceful, unarmed demonstrators in a bloody crackdown. The “massacre” narrative is as sensationalist as it is incontestable: Supposed eyewitness accounts tell tales of student protesters linking arms only to be run over repeatedly by military vehicles, remains of protesters incinerated and then washed down drains, of students begging for their lives only to be bayoneted by soldiers. Some western reports estimate as many as 10,000 killed.But there was no such massacre in Tiananmen Square. By that time, most of the protesters had left the square, and the ones who remained left peacefully after negotiating with the army.A leaked diplomatic U.S. cable sent around that time confirms there was no such bloodshed in the square. “They [student protesters] were able to enter and leave the square several times and were not harassed by troops,” the cable reads. “Remaining with students by the Monument to the People’s Heroes until the final withdrawal, the diplomat said there were no mass shootings of students in the square or at the monument.”Other eyewitness accounts from on-the-ground journalists corroborate this. CBS News correspondent Richard Roth, who covered the protests later wrote, “There were some tanks and armored personnel carriers. But we saw no bodies, injured people, ambulances or medical personnel — in short, nothing to even suggest, let alone prove, that a ‘massacre’ had recently occurred in that place.”Likewise, Jay Matthews, who traveled to Beijing to cover the protests for The Washington Post, wrote in 1998, “The problem is this: as far as can be determined from the available evidence, no one died that night in Tiananmen Square. A few people may have been killed by random shooting on streets near the square, but all verified eyewitness accounts say that the students who remained in the square when troops arrived were allowed to leave peacefully.”Reporter Nicholas Kristoff, then-Beijing correspondent for The New York Times, similarly disputed the account, printed in the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po, of PLA troops attacking students in Tiananmen:

The central theme of the Wen Wei Po article was that troops subsequently beat and machine-gunned students in the area around the monument [Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen] and that a line of armored vehicles cut off their retreat. But the witnesses say that armored vehicles did not surround the monument — they stayed at the north end of the square — and that troops did not attack students clustered around the monument. Several other foreign journalists were near the monument that night as well and none are known to have reported that students were attacked around the monument.

Street fighting on the night of June 3

While these journalists refute the narrative of a Tiananmen “massacre,” most of them do acknowledge that street fighting had occurred the night of June 3 in other parts of Beijing, albeit under different circumstances. This is consistent with Chinese government accounts of the events. On June 2, the CPC decided to clear Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 3, PLA tanks pushed into Beijing with clashes occurring in the neighborhoods of Muxidi, Gongzhufen, and along Chang’an Avenue. These clashes occurred outside of Tiananmen, so while there were some students involved, they were relatively few in number. Armed with Molotov cocktails, workers and civilians stopped and attacked trucks of soldiers, seizing weapons to use against the soldiers. Tanks were set ablaze by the rioters with soldiers still inside. Some soldiers were even lynched. A Wall Street Journal article from June 5, 1989, recounts: “As columns of tanks and tens of thousands of soldiers approached Tiananmen, many troops were set on by angry mobs who screamed, ‘Fascists.’ Dozens of soldiers were pulled from trucks, severely beaten and left for dead. At an intersection west of the square, the body of a young soldier, who had been beaten to death, was stripped naked and hung from the side of a bus. Another soldier’s corpse was strung up at an intersection east of the square.”Journalist David Aikman recalls, “In some places, soldiers were stripped almost naked, chased or struck by angry citizens. Other injured troops had difficulty getting to hospitals as mobs deflated or slashed the tires of military ambulances.”​According to official Chinese government figures, the number of people killed in these clashes totaled 241, a figure which includes PLA soldiers.


June 3 reveals historical legacies of Chinese socialist path


One might ask why these details matter. After all, people were killed during that time — what is the significance of the exact location, or how many? The details matter because they present a narrative not so easily co-optable by western press in the service of its imperialist aims. For one, the reality of the street fighting disrupts the popular understanding of the military attacking “non-violent” protesters — it is this characterization of “nonviolence” which is crucial to evoking western sympathy. The workers involved in these protests and clashes came from factories, steel mills, railway yards and construction companies, and they did not have the level of higher education that the student protesters did. They did not draw the same level of attention from western press as the highly educated, pro-western student leaders, who their university-educated counterparts in the United States could identify with and see themselves in. It is this status of untainted victimhood which mobilizes support for foreign intervention.The details also present a story of what were at the time the contemporary realities and historical legacies of the Chinese socialist path. The night of June 3 saw an eruption of class antagonisms and deep societal divisions from the Cultural Revolution never fully resolved — and in fact heightened — by the policies of the Reform and Opening-Up era. PLA soldiers, for instance, were mainly recruited from the countryside where the CPC drew a large base of support and where there were many beneficiaries of Cultural Revolution and reform policies. Many urban workers and middle-class students and intellectuals suffered many negative impacts of these policies — albeit unevenly — such as inflation, job precarity and high cost of living. These clashes then can be understood as spontaneous expressions of these long-standing divisions.​These deaths are a tragedy and are understood in China as such, but they should be recognized as part of the tragic complexities of a nation attempting to overthrow the yoke of a century of underdevelopment and subjugation, and to assert its own sovereignty. That the West manipulates the details and fabricates its own mythology around what happened only speaks to its own self-serving imperialist ambitions.


The Tiananmen protests as a counterrevolutionary force


Again, the class character of a movement is determined not by the individual make-up of its participants, but by its leadership. Workers may have been active during the demonstrations, but the student leadership had a bourgeois, pro-capitalist orientation. It’s clear from the students’ contempt for and behavior toward the workers at Tiananmen alone that their goals did not lie in advancing the interests of the broad masses of people. For western imperialists, Deng’s reforms were not enough: They wanted unfettered access to China’s markets and resources so that the country became a neocolony of the United States. Around the same time as the Tiananmen protests, anti-communist and counterrevolutionary revolts were spreading across Eastern Europe. One only needs to look toward the collapse of the Soviet Union just a few years later to understand the stakes of Tiananmen in 1989. If these anti-government forces had succeeded, China would have been thrust back decades in its economic and socialist development. An overthrow of the CPC would have resulted in the kind of “shock therapy” capitalist reforms that devastated the former USSR applied to China’s 1.1 billion people. The ensuing poverty, disease and starvation would have been massive.It was at Tiananmen that the unresolved contradictions from the Cultural Revolution and the Reform and Opening-Up period were unleashed — this much is true. But in the end, the final confrontation was between revolution and counterrevolution, and the outcome has had profound consequences that continue to shape the world today.


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