Tiananmen Square and the threat of counterrevolution

The following article is reprinted from the Winter 2008 edition of Socialism and Liberation: “China: Revolution and Couterrevolution”

For partisans of socialism—and especially for those who want to defend the efforts of those trying to build socialism in the countries where revolutions have displaced the political rule of the capitalist class—recognizing counterrevolutionary efforts is essential. Since 1848, when socialism first appeared on the world stage, history has shown that the capitalist class never permits revolutionaries a moment’s rest in trying to extinguish the working class’s efforts to advance its rights.

It would be easy to spot counterrevolutionary efforts if they always appeared as evil villains, CIA agents and rich corporate executives. The class struggle is not so simple, however.

The faces of counterrevolution in Chile in 1973 were “normal” middle-class housewives. The face of counterrevolution in Poland in the 1980s was a “union” leader named Lech Walesa. In 1991, the face of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union was a Communist Party functionary named Boris Yeltsin.

It has been nearly 20 years since the Chinese government suppressed a mass student demonstration in Tiananmen Square, Beijing’s main plaza, in 1989. The image of that event is still used to this day as evidence of the sinister character of the Chinese government.

In spite of the massive propaganda campaign against the Chinese government in the aftermath of the Tiananmen demonstrations, the facts of the events are generally recognized today to be in accord with the Chinese government’s description. More importantly, the political character of that demonstration was clearly aimed at the overthrow of the Communist Party of China—and its replacement not by a more progressive government of the working class and peasants—but by a U.S.-oriented clique of relatively privileged students and bureaucrats who hoped to restore capitalism in China.

International context

The world context for the Tiananmen Square demonstrations was the shift taking place within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the general secretary of the CPSU. Responding to the tremendous pressure to match U.S. imperialism in military spending, Gorbachev announced a program of reforms beginning in 1986. The political reforms became known as “glasnost” (openness), and were touted as an effort to break out of the CPSU “orthodoxy.” The economic reforms were known as “perestroika” (restructuring), and amounted to efforts to introduce market mechanisms and de-emphasize economic planning.

Gorbachev unfolded his program between 1986 and 1989 to the cheers of world imperialism. In 1984, shortly before Gorbachev took office and while he was a Politburo member, conservative and viciously anti-labor British prime minister Margaret Thatcher tipped her hand by declaring: “I like him.” He was named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1987 and again in 1989.

Politically, Gorbachev’s program energized pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist elements inside and outside of the ruling communist parties in Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union. The U.S. government and media, as well as pseudo-private groups like George Soros’ Open Society Institute, took advantage of Gorbachev’s reforms to engineer mass support for counterrevolution.

Impact in China

China had severed political ties with the Soviet Union long ago. Despite the fact that communist parties governed both countries, the political struggles between them beginning in the late 1950s had effectively broken any bond between them.

Nevertheless, Gorbachev’s economic reforms shared many common features with the reforms that began nearly 10 years earlier in China. Both relied on elements of the capitalist market, both relied on a de-emphasis of economic planning and a reliance on enterprise profit as the criteria for investment.

There was an important difference, however, between the Soviet and Chinese experience.

The Gorbachev leadership lost control of the process and was overthrown by pro-capitalist elements inside of the Soviet leadership. Boris Yeltsin was the spokesperson and organizer of this trend inside the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. As a leading member of the Politburo, he was brought in by Gorbachev as an advocate of perestroika. But Yeltsin’s goal was to eliminate socialism altogether.

The Chinese version of perestroika was implemented within tight bounds administered by the Chinese Communist Party. The Soviet policy of glasnost had the effect of emboldening those who saw the reforms as a way to overthrow the existing government and replace it with a regime of unfettered capitalism.

The same phenomena repeated itself in China—but with a far different outcome.

China’s version of Boris Yeltsin was Secretary General Hu Yaobang, who was widely seen as a proponent of pushing the reforms ahead at a faster pace until his resignation in 1987.

The death of Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989, was one of the factors that triggered the protests in Tiananmen Square that ultimately led to the government crackdown on June 4, 1989.

Despite the fact that the Chinese reforms were more cautiously implemented than those in the Soviet Union, they created the social basis for the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. They had allowed many elements of the CPC, who had been purged during China’s Cultural Revolution as rightists, to return to privileged positions. Many of China’s youth had been sent abroad to study, exposing them to intense bourgeois propaganda in the privileged setting of elite U.S. and European universities.

The Tiananmen events

Two events triggered the Tiananmen Square protests. On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang died. Pro-capitalist reform elements within the CPC used the mourning of Hu’s death as a public demonstration that was widely seen as an attempt to expand the reforms. Students at Beijing’s elite universities took up the call and announced protests in Tiananmen Square beginning on April 18.

Tens of thousands of students came out in the days leading up to Hu’s funeral on April 22. At that point, the main demands centered around “freedom” and “democracy.”

The second factor that fueled the demonstrations was Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing on May 15. It was the first visit by a Soviet leader to China since 1959. Those who favored the capitalist-oriented reforms saw the visit as a further chance to press their demands both within the CPC and in front of the world media.

Two days before the Gorbachev visit, students launched a hunger strike, hardening their position relative to the government.

During this time, the Tiananmen demonstration was becoming a focal point for general discontent. Workers joined the protests in limited numbers, raising demands against corruption, inflation and unemployment generated by the capitalist-oriented reforms. These demands, however, were demagogically tolerated by the counter-revolutionary thrust of the student leaders and their supporters within the CPC.

Martial law

After weeks of unsuccessfully trying to negotiate with the protest leaders, including visits by senior leaders to the square itself, the CPC leadership declared martial law on May 20. By this time, the number of students in the square was diminishing, with many of those who had traveled to Beijing from other parts of the country returning to their homes.

The student leaders who remained in the square were pushing for a harder line with the government. On May 28, Chai Ling, who many of the students acknowledged as the “commander-in-chief” of the Tiananmen demonstrations, stated that the student leadership’s goal was to provoke the Communist Party into attacking the demonstrators.

“I feel so sad,” Chai sobbed to U.S. reporter Philip Cunningham. “How can I tell [the students in the Square] that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed, the moment when the government is ready to butcher the people brazenly? Only when the Square is awash in blood will the people of China open their eyes. Only then will they be really united.”

The bloodshed Chai and her fellow leaders hoped for did in fact take place. But it did not have the intended impact.

On June 2, unarmed People’s Liberation Army troops were called in to regain control of the square. Students left the square to confront the troops in the streets leading to the square. Some of the unarmed troops were taken hostage.

On June 3, the soldiers were issued arms—“though under orders to avoid violence” as reported in a June 5 article in the Wall Street Journal. On June 4, however, demonstrators resorted to violent attacks on soldiers as protesters grabbed hold of army equipment and seized weapons.

The Chinese government denounced the attacks as counterrevolutionary and ordered the People’s Liberation Army to retake the square. Although there were clashes with troops in the streets leading up to the square, most students left the square peacefully before the PLA troops arrived to establish order. The Chinese government reported that some 300 people, both students and PLA soldiers, had been killed in the clashes outside the square.

The pro-imperialist media responded by unleashing a wild propaganda campaign condemning the Chinese government. Every big-business media outlet in the world blared reports of the PLA killing “tens of thousands” of demonstrators. The media created a story of a “massacre” of innocent, peaceful student protesters run down by tanks in the square.

Setting the record straight

It took several years to set the record straight, although reports of the true extent of the incident began to come out within weeks.

Television footage of the days’ events shows rioters taunting soldiers, taking their rifles, firebombing tanks and buses with soldiers still inside, pulling soldiers out from trucks and severely beating and killing them.

A June 12, 1989, article in the Wall Street Journal reported, “Aerial pictures of the conflagration and columns of smoke have powerfully bolstered the [Chinese] government’s arguments that the troops were victims, not executioners.”

On June 13, 1989, New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof reported, “there is no firm indication that troops fired on students” occupying the Square itself, but rather the fighting had taken place in the streets outside the square.

In a Jan. 16, 1990, article by Kristof, students and pop singer Hou Dejian, who were present on June 4, admitted seeing “no one killed in Tiananmen Square.” According to Dejian, the 3,000 students remaining in the square were negotiating with the troops and decided to leave in the early morning hours. In the same article, it was declared that 300 people were killed in fights in the streets leading up to the square, many of whom were soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

Of course, these accounts came after the Western media had repeatedly characterized the events in Tiananmen Square as a “massacre of students.”

The political character of the Tiananmen demonstrations

There were a large number of students involved in the demonstrations, but it is important to note that China’s university students at the time made up only 0.2 percent of the country’s population of 1.1 billion. And while there were many political trends within the student movement, there was a dominant leadership group. The goals of this group had nothing to do with democracy for China’s vast majority of poor and working people.

Some claim that the student protesters had vague demands. But one force that understood the students’ orientation very clearly was U.S. imperialism. Their signs were in English. Their symbol, the so-called “Goddess of Democracy,” bore a striking resemblance to the Statue of Liberty. Many expressed their hope of founding a new student organization on July 4—Independence Day in the United States.

None of the students spoke in the name of internationalism, socialism or communism.

Wang Dan, one of the central leaders of the student movement, was quoted in the June 3 New York Times: “The movement is not ready for worker participation because the principles of democracy must first be absorbed by students and intellectuals before they can be spread to others.” In a June 2, 1993, interview with the Washington Post, Dan goes further to say that “the pursuit of wealth [was] part of the impetus for democracy.”

Clearly, he was not talking about workers’ socialist democracy, where the needs of the people are met first and foremost. The quote—like those of other student leaders—gives a hint as to what they meant by “freedom”: the freedom for China to open its market to capitalism, and consequently the freedom of the capitalist world market to exploit Chinese workers.


Much has changed since 1989. Gorbachev’s policies led to the destruction of the socialist camp in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Millions of workers in those countries now live like their counterparts around the world—facing unemployment, poverty and insecurity.

There was some hope that the Tiananmen Square protests would be a sign to those in the Communist Party of China that the reforms needed to be reversed. That has not happened. Instead, the reforms have accelerated to the point that a sizeable capitalist class now exists in China—far stronger than it was in 1989.

That raises the prospect that this new capitalist class will again raise its head in a bid for political power.

Whether the Communist Party of China still has enough credibility in the eyes of the Chinese workers and peasants to resist such an attempt will be seen in the course of the struggle. One thing is clear: The impact of a full-scale counterrevolution in China would make the misery that is sweeping the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe pale by comparison.

Imperialism will stop at nothing to put an end to the Chinese Revolution. For them, capitalist market “reforms” are not enough. They want unrestricted access to Chinese resources, markets and labor. Along with the growing bourgeois class in China, imperialist forces are intent on undermining whatever remains of the Chinese workers’ state.

It is the duty of socialists and progressive people around the world not to be fooled by imperialist propaganda and to defend the achievements of the Chinese Revolution—regardless of disagreements with the CPC leadership. It would be the greatest crime to stand aside as over 1 billion Chinese workers and peasants were once again thrown to the mercy of unfettered imperialist exploitation—the inevitable outcome, under the current political circumstances, of the overthrow of the Chinese government.

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