On the evening of 15 April 1989, the day of Hu Yaobang's
death, the campuses of Beijing's university district were already
stirring to political activity. 1 At the very same hour, around
the revolutionary heroes' monument in the centre of Tiananmen
Square, ordinary citizens began to gather, mourn, and talk
politics - much as they had during the 'April 5th' movement of
1976. 2 From a few dozen who gathered there in the first hours
after dusk, the crowd grew to well over a hundred by midnight. In
the darkness, small knots of people talked together under the
cover of anonymity - about inflation, official corruption, and
victimization within work units. Around 4 o'clock in the morning,
a group of about twenty workers from the Ministry of Textiles
marched into the square and placed a commemorative wreath at the
base of the monument. 3
For the next several evenings, ten to twenty young workers - all in their twenties and thirties - met after work at the monument to discuss the situation and decide what to do. As they told tales of their treatment within their work units, of the effects of inflation on themselves and their friends, and cursed the corruption and incompetence of China's leaders and bureaucrats, they discovered that they all had similar experiences and points of view. By 17 April, as university students began their marches in the streets of Beijing, 4 these workers discovered that the students were denouncing the officials' speculation and corruption - the same kind of things they had been griping about. By the 18th, as more joined in their discussions, they began to talk of forming their own organization, and some advocated going back to their work units and carrying out the movement there. They resolved to talk over the issue of a new organization with their co-workers during the day, and they pasted up wallposters in the city asking citizens whether they would welcome an independent organization for workers.
On the evening of 19 April and the early morning hours of the 20th, students staged a sit-in at the Xinhuamen entrance to the Zhongnanhai compound, which contains the residences of many of the nation's leaders. Some of the workers stood among a large crowd of bystanders. After the protest was eventually broken up by military policemen swinging belts and clubs, rumours spread throughout the city about the 'bloody incident of 20 April'. 5 Enraged, one of the workers made a fiery speech at the heroes' monument denouncing the army, and the group issued two handbills challenging the Party leadership, their economic policies, their personal corruption and that of their families. The gauntlet was thrown down in the name of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation (hereafter referred to as gongzilian ). 6
Thus was born - at least in name - an organization that played, outwardly, little visible role in the democracy movement until shortly before the declaration of martial law on 19 May; and one that received almost no media attention until it staged protests at the Beijing Bureau of Public Security over the arrest of three of its members on 30 May. 7 At its height in the week preceding the carnage of 4 June, the union had mobilized some 150 activists working continuously in the square. It issued calls for a general strike, but since the union had no organized branches in places of work, these calls went largely unheeded. Its membership was decimated in the bloodletting and arrests of June.
From the perspective of the Polish workers' movement a decade before, the political significance of gongzilian appears limited indeed. In an assessment written shortly after the events, we observed that gongzilian 'was more a result of the upheaval than a cause', a movement that took advantage of the political space created by a much larger student movement, the disunity of the government, and the resulting paralysis of the regime's political apparatus. 8
Such an assessment appears, after more sustained research, to underestimate the significance of gongzilian in two distinct ways. First, the organization played an increasingly pivotal role in the mobilization of street protests after the declaration of martial law; as the student presence in the square dwindled in the last days of May, the membership of gongzilian grew, its organization reached a high state of readiness, and it took a high profile in organizing the resistance to martial law. Moreover, while gongzilian lacked formally organized branches in places of work, it had a number of important informal ties to workers and work units throughout the city, from whom it enjoyed steady moral and material support until the rifle shots began to ring out. Unlike the student movement, the workers' movement had picked up momentum after martial law and appeared to gain confidence and strength as May turned into June.
The more lasting significance of gongzilian , however, is to be found not in its size, organization or activities, but in the mentality and political orientation of its membership. Gongzilian represents the emergence of a new species of political protest in the People's Republic. It does not fit the mould of worker activism in the Cultural Revolution or the mid-1970s, where factions of political leaders mobilized their local followers for political combat.9 Nor does it conform to the traditional model of intellectual remonstrance that dissident Chinese citizens (and students) have shared with elite intellectuals - as exemplified by the educated working youths who, as relatively literate essayists, led the 1974 Li Yizhe protests in Canton or the 1978-79 Democracy Wall Movement in Beijing. 10 The workers of gongzilian were quite ordinary working people, often sharp of mind and tongue, but with limited education and writing ability (as their wallposters and handbills make evident). They displayed a kind of anti-elitism and populism that was earlier seen, in a quite different form, during the Cultural Revolution, but which on this occasion was expressed as part of an unabashed working-class trade-union mentality. This attitude was apparent from their first pronouncements of mid-April, and it was reinforced and further developed in the course of strained relations with the elitist and self-absorbed student movement that held the square for much of May. Gongzilian held attitudes toward the Party, the Party's reformers, the reforms of the 1980s, and even toward the student movement, that are quite different from the more highly publicized views of China's students and intellectuals - and in many ways consciously opposed to them. Such attitudes are widely held among China's working people, and under the right circumstances they could play a significant role in the country's uncertain political future.
In this essay we shall therefore recount, in turn, two separate stories about gongzilian . The first is the story of its development and activities as an organization; and the second is that of the emergence and articulation of a distinctive and novel political mentality.
The Emergence and Development of an Organization
The decision to form an independent union coincided with the outrage elicited by the beating of students at Xinhuamen. During the previous few days, the twenty or so participants in the evening discussions in the square had found that workers in their respective units were all saying the same thing: they were very dissatisfied, especially with inflation and their treatment by leaders of their units, and they were greatly interested in an organization that would speak on their behalf. When several workers spoke up at the monument on 20 April, they related not only their outrage at the authorities' actions, 11 but also raised a series of questions about special privileges and economic policy at a point when the student movement still restricted itself largely to mourning for Hu Yaobang. The several workers who spoke that day attacked the official trade union and denounced inflation for cutting into workers' living standards. In one of the handbills it distributed, gongzilian blamed the 'steady decline of people's living standards' and uncontrolled inflation on the 'long-term control of a dictatorial bureaucracy'. 'In order to safeguard the extravagant lifestyles of a minority', the statement continued, 'the rulers issue large numbers of bonds, like treasury bonds ... to take away forcibly what little income the workers have'. 12 The workers punctuated their inaugural handbill with demands to stabilize prices and to make public the incomes and expenditures of high state officials and their families. 13
The angered workers, in a second handbill, addressed a series of pointed questions to the Party leadership. The main theme was to condemn the privileged lifestyles of high officials: the workers asked how much money one of Deng Xiaoping's sons had bet at a Hong Kong race-track; whether Zhao Ziyang paid any money for the privilege of playing golf; how many villas were maintained for political leaders and at what cost; and (again) what were the personal incomes and expenditures of top officials. The workers also wanted an explanation of how the Party leadership viewed the 'shortcomings' of economic reform and why proposed measures to control inflation never seemed to work. They expressed fear about China's mounting international debt, asking how much this amounted to per capita and how its repayment would affect living standards in the years ahead. 14
The handbills and the commotion at the monument on 20 April attracted several dozen more workers into the fledgling movement, some of whom, most notably Han Dongfang, emerged from the crowd that day to give speeches and subsequently to play key leadership roles in the organization. The activists declared that workers interested in forming an independent union should henceforth meet daily at the western reviewing stand in front of Tiananmen where the organization did indeed take shape, remaining at that location until the very end of May. Despite the fact that their numbers quickly swelled to about 70 or 80, the activists still felt it was too risky to identify themselves as ' gongzilian ' during speeches, or to hoist a banner bearing that name. In fact, the activists on the square, who had come together singly or in groups of two or three from the same work unit, felt so insecure until mid-May that they remained, by tacit agreement, on a surname-only basis. 15
They were all newcomers to the activity of political dissent, and had among them very little education or experience in leading an organization. They tried fanning out to various large factories (not always their own) and to the most active university campuses to build contacts and gather information, advice and ideas. 16 Like many ordinary Beijing citizens, they also helped to clear the way for the students during the large demonstrations of 27 April and 4 May, and helped to provide food and drink for the participants.
Not until after the student hunger strikers marched to Tiananmen Square on 13 May, leading to the square's continuous occupation by several hundred thousand students and onlookers - and the withdrawal of soldiers and traffic policemen from the city centre - did the gongzilian activists feel that the time was ripe to unfurl a banner and declare their existence and aims. They set up a loudspeaker system, initially with a few megaphones, but by the eve of martial law one week later they had the use of microphones and large public-address speakers. On the wall at the base of the western reviewing stand, and on the ticket kiosk adjacent, they posted their pronouncements and requests for donations of materiél , and set up makeshift tents that they then occupied continuously. From here, they began to establish a loose leadership arrangement and an organizational structure to divide tasks among them. 17
The week of 13-20 May witnessed huge street demonstrations. Large numbers of workers from factories and other work units throughout the city for the first time demonstrated their vocal support for the emerging democracy movement. Gongzilian marched prominently in each of these demonstrations, driving several vehicles lent to them in response to their wallposter requests, and displaying their banner alongside those of delegations from the many state-owned work units in the city. 18 Large numbers of the workers who marched in these processions went over to the western reviewing stand afterwards to make contact with the fledgling union: scores of them joined and became activists themselves, and many more came to inquire, to offer encouragement and advice, or to volunteer to act as a liaison with their own work units or to help organize material support for the union's activities.
With the core of activists now swollen to around 150, and emboldened by the support garnered during and after the large street processions, gongzilian decided to attempt to establish itself as a legal organization. Members went for help to the offices of the All China Federation of Trade Unions, but despite the official union's public support for the students in the square, it refused to assist them. They went to the municipal government offices, but were stopped at the door with the verdict that their organization was illegal. They went to register with the Beijing Bureau of Public Security, but were rebuffed as troublemakers. 19 Undaunted by their inability to gain official recognition, the group nonetheless formally declared itself established. From the midst of a huge crowd at the square after the massive demonstration of 18 May, one of gongzilian 's leaders hoisted a megaphone and announced the union's official inauguration. The next day, with rumours of impending martial law in the air, gongzilian hastily issued a brief proclamation which ended with the words, 'Let the workers of the entire nation know that we workers of Beijing are now organized'. 20
The week of the hunger strike also saw a marked escalation of gongzilian rhetoric. At a time when many students and intellectuals were seeking to strengthen the hand of the moderate and reformist elements within the Party, gongzilian articulated a fundamentally different definition of 'the movement'. Even before martial law, gongzilian targeted the system. In a remarkably incendiary document issued on 17 May, gongzilian declared, 'The illegality and brutality of corrupt officialdom has reached an extreme! There is no place for truth in China! No reactionary force can suppress the outpouring of the people's anger! The people will no longer believe the lies of the rulers'. Reminding the Party of the editorial of 26 April , in which gongzilian 's first two handbills were described as 'counter-revolutionary', the newest handbill demanded a retraction, denounced the editorial and its 'backstage supporter' ( houtai [Deng Xiaoping]), and asked, 'since you don't have the guts to answer our questions, despite mouthing slogans for 40 years about believing in the masses, do you dare publish these two documents?'
Taking a page directly out of the book of rebel organizations during the Cultural Revolution, the document then denounced in detail the special privileges, tours abroad for children, spouses and baby-sitters, and the keeping of mistresses by high level officials, and declared that 'we have calculated carefully, based on Marx's Capital , the rate of exploitation of workers. We discovered that the "servants of the people" swallow all the surplus value produced by the people's blood and sweat'. Following this analysis to its logical conclusion, the document then declared, 'There are only two classes: the rulers and the ruled... The political campaigns of the past 40 years amount to a political method for suppressing the people. History has shown them [i.e., the communists] to be fond of "settling accounts after the autumn harvest." But history's final accounting has yet to be completed'. The document concluded by warning political factions at the top not to try to use the people's movement for their own ends: 'Deng Xiaoping used the April 5th movement [of 1976] to become leader of the Party, but after that he exposed himself as a tyrant. The reforms that followed were shallow and false. The standard of living has declined for most people, while heavy debts go unpaid'. 21
Another handbill issued at about the same time contains similar confrontational rhetoric and, in effect, asks workers to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the next generation: 'China's rulers for forty years, and perhaps for thousands, have kept the people in a state of subservience, stripped of all rights, and anyone who dares to protest has had their own and their families' heads chopped off'. After noting the severe sanctions meted out to workers when they dared to take part in independent political activity, the document declared, 'Ah, the Chinese! Such a loveable yet pathetic and tragic people. We have been deceived for thousands of years, and are still being deceived today. No! Instead we should be a great people; we should restore ourselves to our original greatness! Brother workers, if our generation is fated to carry this humiliation into the 21st century, then it is better to die in battle in the 20th! Fellow workers, tyranny is not frightening; [instead] what is frightening [to the tyrants] is a general rebellion under tyranny'. 22 The confrontational rhetoric was accompanied by a warning and an ultimatum: the 19 May document demanded acceptance of the student hunger-strikers' demands within 24 hours, or a one-day general strike would be called for 20 May, and further measures decided upon at that time. 23 Gongzilian also declared that it was organizing a large march on 22 May 'to bring the democracy movement to a new high tide'. 24
The declaration of martial law shortly after midnight on the evening of 19 May radically altered the pattern of political activity in the city. Beginning with the successful blockade of army units by unarmed citizens throughout the city in the early morning hours of 20 May and afterward, mass resistance to the government was suddenly a reality. By daylight on the 20th, gongzilian reiterated its call for a general strike (excluding essential services, communications and transportation), to stay in force until the troops withdrew. 25 The militant positions that the workers' organization had articulated, and the organization it had developed on the square in the preceding week, thrust it into the middle of unfolding events on the streets. Meanwhile, popular outrage over martial law drove many new recruits into the freshly declared workers' organization, swelling its ranks. On 20 May gongzilian began a public registration drive on the square. Blank identity cards were purchased from stationery stores, and membership cards were issued to those who showed both work unit and Beijing resident's identity cards. Despite the clear danger that such membership records might present, by 3 June gongzilian claimed to have registered almost 20,000 members. 26
As it clarified its procedures and leadership structure that week, a loose 'preparatory committee', and later a 'standing committee', came to lead the movement, without any formal offices designated for individuals. Within this loose and consensual structure, however, Han Dongfang emerged informally as the dominant leader and spokesperson. Separate departments were set up for organization, propaganda and logistics, 27 and an office for liaison work maintained communications with various large factories, active university campuses, and other worker and citizen groups. By the end of May gongzilian had promulgated a program and a constitution that established a general assembly, standing committee and executive committee. 28 It now had a printing press and issued more professional-looking handbills on the square, and also operated a print shop in the Chongwen district. 29 A 'workers picket corps' ( gongren jiucha dui ) was formed to maintain order in the vicinity and protect the students, if needed, and four 'dare-to-die brigades' ( gansi dui ) were established to assist in blocking any police or military movements.
The propaganda department reorganized the broadcasting operation and made it into perhaps the most important aspect of gongzilian 's presence on the square. The programming was revamped and the equipment upgraded. By the end of May, it broadcast continuously from morning into the evening. Several broadcasting specialists, none of them workers, were enlisted for their voices and diction. 30 News from BBC, VOA and Taiwan radio were broadcast live, and purloined ' neibu ' materials, such as a speech by Yang Shangkun urging a military solution, were read out to listeners. After working hours, however, the broadcasts were turned into a kind of democratic forum. Political statements and satirical songs and poems were written down and handed in by people in the audience to be read out to the crowds. This turned out to be the most popular of the organization's activities, and the one with the highest profile. Ordinary workers, disgruntled journalists and government office workers, even disaffected cadres and soldiers, submitted statements to the broadcasters - often exposés of official duplicity or wrongdoing - and these were read out to large and appreciative audiences every evening.
Gongzilian organized demonstrations of its own almost every day, starting with 20 May, and helped to coordinate the largest ones held to protest martial law. 31 The group accused the city government of trying to instigate 'turmoil' and called on all work units in the city to organize brigades to maintain order during martial law so as to avoid any pretext for force of arms. 32 In the course of this work extensive contacts were developed with other citizen organizations and with members of large state work units, including officials. Liaison was maintained with employees of the Capital Steel Corporation who were organizing their own workers' federation; 33 with construction workers who would soon form an autonomous federation for workers in their trade; 34 with the Capital Workers Picket Corps; 35 the Flying Tigers Motorcycle Brigade; 36 the Beijing Citizens Dare-to-Die Corps; 37 and two workers' organizations from the Northeast. 38 Contacts with the student organizations occupying the square became more frequent, though no less strained than before (see below for more on these strains). Close contact was also maintained with members of those factories whose delegations were still marching on the square, notably the Beijing Coking Plant, whose factory director reportedly led a march. Older workers, workshop cadres and union personnel from both state factories and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions loitered around the headquarters and the broadcasting station, offering advice and encouragement, both oral and written. 39
Throughout the period of martial law, gongzilian maintained the same tone in its leaflets that it had during the hunger strike: a rhetoric that fused together the idea of working class struggle with the language of democratic opposition to political oligarchy. In a statement issued on 26 May to all Chinese overseas, gongzilian stated, 'The foundations and columns of the People's Republic are stained with our blood and sweat. Our nation was created from the struggle and labour of we workers and all other mental and manual labourers. We are the rightful masters of this nation. We should be, indeed must be, heard in national affairs. We absolutely must not allow this small handful of degenerate scum of the nation and working class to usurp our name and suppress the students, murder democracy, and trample human rights!' 40 Another handbill issued the same day likened the movement to the Great French Revolution, whose 200th anniversary was rapidly approaching, and urged workers to 'storm the Bastille of the 1980s'. Declaring that 'The final struggle has arrived', the document continued, 'We have already seen that the fascist governments and Stalinist dictatorships spurned by hundreds of millions of people have not, indeed will not, voluntarily withdraw from the historical stage. Li Peng along with his backstage supporters and his followers are engaged in their final performance; they may still stake all on a last political gamble'. In a now-familiar style, the document called for all people to prepare to make great sacrifices in this final battle, in order to complete the mop-up campaign against Stalinist dictatorship and to live like human beings under unprecedented freedom and democracy: 'Storm this 20th century Bastille, this last stronghold of Stalinism!' 41 Three days later, they proclaimed, 'we must unite to sweep Deng Xiaoping from the historical stage'. 42
Symbolic of its growing confidence, gongzilian , an organization that had dared not declare its existence publicly until mid-May, and whose members had not revealed to one another their full names until that point, confronted the security forces on two occasions at the end of May. In the first, on 28 May, members of a student picket corps ran to gongzilian headquarters to report that a number of students had been beaten and arrested in a village in suburban Daxing County. They asked for reinforcements to go to the village to demand the students' release. gongzilian sent out a picket team in a truck borrowed for the occasion. In front of them were a group of motorcyclists from the 'Flying Tigers'; behind them five more trucks filled with supporters. In a scene reminiscent of local confrontations during the Cultural Revolution, they pulled up to the county Party headquarters to demand the release of their comrades. The officials there refused to acknowledge that any arrests had taken place, but the rescue team later learned where the prisoners were hidden, rushed there and gained the release of eight students. Enraged at the officials' lies, they stopped by the local public security bureau on their way out of town, shouted their disapproval and pelted the building with rocks. 43
The second confrontation with security forces occurred on 30 and 31 May, and brought gongzilian into the foreign media spotlight for the first and only time. On the evening of the 29th, activists around the headquarters noticed that they were under surveillance by plain-clothes policemen. Around one o'clock in the morning of 30 May, Shen Yinhan, a member of the gongzilian leadership, was forced into a public-security jeep in front of the Beijing Hotel. As he was being pushed into the jeep, he cried out and threw his notebook to the ground. His cries attracted the attention of onlookers, who recovered the notebook and took it back up Chang'an Avenue to the union headquarters. Gongzilian denounced the arrest in broadcasts and in a hastily printed handbill, called for a demonstration that noon at the Beijing Bureau of Public Security. 44 It was later discovered that two other members of the federation's leadership had also been arrested, along with 11 members of the Flying Tigers Motorcycle Brigade. These arrests appear to have been provoked by the confrontation at Daxing County two days before.
Han Dongfang led a delegation of some thirty members to the Bureau offices at 10.40 that morning. Accompanied by the gongzilian legal adviser, a law student from Beijing University, he met a representative of the Bureau at the gate. The negotiations got nowhere: the representative insisted that gongzilian was an illegal organization and that in any case he would only negotiate with students; moreover, he refused to admit that any arrests had been made. 45 By the time they exited the gate, a large crowd of citizens and students had gathered. Han Dongfang took up a megaphone and, in front of the assembled crowd of several thousand, gave a speech about the constitution and illegality, and denounced the arrests. 46 A group of police photographers came out and began to survey the crowd. The crowd remained, chanting slogans and singing the theme song from 'Plain-clothes Policeman', a popular movie about the suppression of the 1976 Tiananmen protests. In one memorable encounter, an overweight cadre emerged from the building and loudly berated the workers: 'What law do you know; I am the law!' Foreign newspeople at the scene took photographs and videotapes of the event. When a Japanese newsman rushed up to photograph the confrontation, the cadre slapped him. When the newsman protested, 'I'm a Japanese!' the cadre quickly pulled back his arm and apologized: 'I thought you were Chinese'. 47
The organization quickly issued a handbill to inform the public of the impasse in negotiations, 48 and at 9.30 that evening, gongzilian held a press conference for the foreign media. 49 The next day, it organized a sit-in demonstration at the offices of the Ministry of Public Security; and more protests in the square, involving students as well, were scheduled for that evening. Perhaps in response to these stubborn protests and the world-wide media attention that this confrontation earned the arrested workers, they were released on the afternoon of the 31st. As three thousand students marched in Tiananmen Square to protest the arrests, Han Dongfang made a rousing speech to announce the news. 50
In the wake of the confrontation over the arrests of the 30th and 31st, the Bureau of Public Security began to put increasing pressure on the gongzilian headquarters at the western reviewing stand. With constant rumours of an imminent military solution, the numbers of students and citizens on the square were dwindling rapidly. Students from Beijing, especially, were returning to campus or going home. Safety dictated that the remaining diehard students and citizens stick together. The student leaders finally gave up their long-held and much-resented objection that the workers stay off the main part of the square in order to keep the democracy movement 'pure'. When on June 3 news of massacres at outlying intersections began to reach the square, most members of gongzilian rushed out to resist the troops, while most of the remaining students huddled more tightly around the monument to await their expected martyrdom.
Gongzilian 's Political Mentality
Much that was distinctive about the gongzilian political mentality is due to the fact that the leaders and members were almost uniformly ordinary young workers with little education and virtually no movement experience. 51 They came to the square from steel mills, railway yards, machine building plants and construction companies (see Table 1 below). They were not, as the government later asserted, unemployed workers or members of Beijing's 'floating population': as already observed, all who registered had to show proof of employment at a Beijing work unit. 52 The group's leaders had at most a high school education, and they often had to rely upon several 'advisers' with university background to help them draft their proclamations. 53 These were not people who perceived themselves as players in an elite political game, and they displayed an acute sense of alienation not only from the political system but to a considerable extent also from the student leaders and intellectuals.
Activist #1, 26, high school graduate, sales clerk, Xidan
department store, member of leadership committee and head of
Activist #2, 29, high school graduate, owner of private clothing stall, broadcaster
Bai Dongping, 28, high school graduate, railway porter, Beijing railway bureau, Yongdingmen section
Han Dongfang, 26, worker, Fengtai rail yards of the Beijing Railway Bureau, member of leadership committee
He Lili, 36, lecturer, Workers' and Staff College of the Beijing Machine-Building Bureau, member of leadership committee
Jing Gang, worker
Li Jiang, worker
Li Jinjin, 33, graduate student, Beijing University Law Department, legal adviser
Liu Huanwen, 27, high school graduate, worker, No. 1 Cold Rolling Mill of the Specialty Steel Plant of Capital Iron and Steel Corporation, head of picket corps
Liu Qiang, 28, high school graduate, print shop worker, Beijing Plant No. 3209, leadership committee
Liu Xiang, 21, worker Liu Zihou, worker, Beijing Freight Hauling Company, head of a picket brigade
Qian Yumin, 28, high school graduate, worker, Beijing railway bureau, member of leadership committee and secretary
Shen Yaqing, construction worker
Shen Yinhan, worker, member of leadership committee
Tian Bomin, worker
Wang Dengyue, worker, Xuanwu District Construction Company, leadership preparatory committee
Xiao Delong, cook, Qinghua University
Yan Fugan, worker
Yue Wu, cadre, factory in Shanxi, briefly in leadership group in mid-May
Zhao Pinlu, worker, Fengtai Crane Works
Zhou Yongjun, college student, Beijing University of Politics and Law, leadership committee, head of propaganda department
Sources : Gongren qilaile (see footnote 27); interviews cited in the text; Zhongguo zhi chun [China Spring], January 1990, pp. 31-32; Beijing Bureau of Public Security, transcripts of interrogations of Qian Yumin, Bai Dongping, Liu Qiang, Li Jinjin, and Liu Huanwen, 27-31 March 1990, submitted to Japanese courts in the air piracy case of Zhang Zhenhai in Japan (see Xinhua she , 16 December 1989).
Why do a lot of workers agree with democracy and freedom? ... (I)n the workshop, does what the workers say count, or what the leader says? We later talked about it. In the factory the director is a dictator; what one man says goes. If you view the state through the factory, it's about the same: one-man rule... Our objective was not very high; we just wanted workers to have their own independent organization... In work units, it's personal rule. For example, if I want to change jobs, the bus company foreman won't let me go. I ought to go home at 5, but he tells me to work overtime for two hours, and if I don't he'll cut my bonus. This is personal rule. A factory should have a system. If a worker wants to change jobs, they ought to have a system of rules to decide how to do it. Also, these rules should be decided upon by everybody, and then afterwards anyone who violates them will be punished according to the rules. This is rule by law. Now we don't have this kind of legal system.
Underneath the militant political rhetoric was a
straightforward demand for workplace representation, collective
bargaining, and impartial enforcement of workplace rules.
The Critique of Economic Reform
It is on the subject of the reforms that the organization displayed the strongest emotions and the greatest disdain for China's leaders. This may come as something of a surprise to foreign observers who, during the 1980s, viewed the unmistakable accomplishments of reform through lenses provided by China's pro-reform intellectuals. Despite unprecedented rises in living standards, gongzilian portrayed the reform era as one of economic mismanagement and official duplicity, during which workers gained little relative to others while their livelihoods became less secure. 59
As portrayed in gongzilian statements, China was a country in deep trouble: 'the country is trapped in internal and external debt crises', 'the people's standard of living is being lowered by heavy taxes and uncontrolled inflation'. 60 One satirical rhyme, of the type very popular during the movement and almost certainly read out several times over the gongzilian broadcasting station, was printed up and distributed by the organization. It describes China under Deng's reforms (we make only a token attempt to make the translation rhyme): 61
The Third Plenum said get rich faster, but the people's pockets have not swelled, and cats black and white have gotten fatter.
Opening to the outside world, importing foreign capital, foreign debts have gotten larger, private bank accounts have prospered.
Bank notes and treasury bonds bear interest, and food subsidies are 7.50, but prices shoot upward like a rocket.
The reforms are doing fine, we won't give up the policy, but foreigners don't move to China, while the burned-out flee overseas.
New hotels have gone up and changed the city's face, but the people still lack decent housing space.
The cause of all this? Incompetence and corruption among China's leaders: 'vast poverty is not dealt with; the national wealth is handled in secret; funds can't be found for education; there's a craze for banquets at the top; the fate of the nation and people has soured; and all this due to corruption at the top'. 62 All of China's problems appear to be due to the fact that the country's reformers don't know what they are doing or where they are going:
'China is well known as one of the most backward countries in the world, yet Deng tries to fool us by manipulating the media into believing China has a high GNP. Why are we so poor and backward? What are the excuses? Why have the bureaucrats become more incompetent and corrupt in recent years? You bureaucrats have made a mess of China; where are you taking us? Its not enough to say you are feeling for the stones as you cross the river; what about those of us who fall in and drown? We've had 10 years of reform and we don't know where we are going. The bureaucratic cats get fat, while the people starve'.63
In our interviews with gongzilian members we were able to explore further the way in which the organization's activists evaluated the reforms. The former head of the logistics department felt that the reforms had not been fully carried out, and therefore did not have much to offer workers.
The reform was not a successful one, it was a reform without an outcome. They did it halfway and put on the brakes. The one benefit of the reforms was that it let workers, peasants and other people with little education know what the outside world was like, what workers and unions were like in capitalist countries... After the reform, we realized a lot of things clearly. We're not so dumb as before, and slowly we stopped obeying the factory managers... People recall Mao's time, when things weren't expensive. I think that if Deng Xiaoping were 20 or 30 years younger, the reform could be carried out better. After the reform, we have refrigerators; but look, what are we going to put in them?... And the refrigerators are bought with loans anyway... In the city they lay you off and send you home with only 3 months' living expenses, and still expect you to be grateful to the Party... Especially young guys like me, we think about the Guomindang. Before this movement we used to say that we'd never seen the Guomindang, and we don't know how bad they are. The Communist Party is so good that we can't eat well. Of course we didn't talk like this on the streets, only in our own homes when we were drinking together and letting off steam (Activist # 1).
After some probing, our gongzilian informants admitted that despite the severe inflation of recent years, living standards had not actually declined since the Mao era for most of them. But the expectations built up by reformers that things would continue to improve had been dashed in recent years by the inflation. What most rankled them was that as the reforms went sour for workers in the last half of the 1980s, cadres had continued to enrich themselves.
After the reform and opening up, the main shortcoming has been that the state has become a free world for those with power and money, but the ordinary people can meet with disaster, and don't have a chance to benefit. Even my grandmother says, those who are officials and those who have sons who are officials can count on their sons to take care of them, but we ordinary folks have to rely on our own sons and daughters. Now we even have restrictions on having children. To give birth, you have to have a quota; when your time comes, if you can't get pregnant what are you going to do? So, after reform and opening up, those who can go through the back door, those with special privileges gained. The gap between people got larger, and it felt unequal. People think, why is it that if we work equally hard, those with power can become so much richer? (Activist #1).
To the activists of
, and indeed to many ordinary workers, it was no accident that as
the reforms stagnated and workers' prospects flagged, officials
continued to enrich themselves. In their pronouncements on the
economic reforms, the workers of
articulate a folk theory of inflation that ties together price
rises, political dictatorship and official corruption into a
single, interrelated complex. In the views of these workers,
inflation is not the result, as some economists would have it, of
a two-tiered price system or of insufficient scope for free
market activity. It is due directly to the fact that China is
ruled by incompetent, corrupt and self-serving dictators. 64
This was not a position arrived at by activists of gongzilian after a period of participation in the democracy movement. The very first line of the organization's very first handbill reads: 'Because of the long-term control of a dictatorial bureaucracy, inflation has flown out of control and people's living standards have declined steadily'. 65 Our gongzilian informants explained to us that things like steel and machines, both imported and domestic, are sold at inflated prices because officials demand higher prices, out of which they take their cut. In foreign trade, our informants appeared convinced that imported materials fed the domestic inflationary spiral because the children of top officials used their fathers' powers to gain monopoly positions in order to extort high prices on the domestic market. Inflation, in other words, has its roots in the corrupt exchange that permeates domestic trade in producers' items and foreign trade in all items. This is the understanding of inflation that lay behind the gongzilian claim that 'The country is victimized for the sake of a small minority, and the people pay for it'. 66
This folk theory of inflation may help to unravel a puzzle that some have observed in the democracy movement: why it was that a working class, whose primary economic concern was inflation and disposable income, responded so sympathetically to a student movement whose main charge against the government was corruption and lack of democracy.
The Estrangement from Party Reformers
Given its views, it will come as no surprise that gongzilian had no heroes in the national leadership - at least ones still living. Despite the fact that Hu Yaobang was almost never mentioned in handbills, our informants testified quite convincingly that Hu was indeed greatly respected, and sincerely mourned by ordinary people. It was not, of course, because Hu had played an important role in rehabilitating intellectuals during the 1980s, but rather because reputedly he alone among the current leadership, and more than Mao Zedong had, showed his concern for the common people by travelling widely throughout the country, especially to disaster areas and districts mired in poverty. The reverence for Hu Yaobang strikes us as the product of retrospective myth-making: as he became a symbol of all the virtues lacking in much of officialdom, his legend grew.
Zhao Ziyang and Deng Xiaoping are held in much less esteem. In fact, they and the entire reform faction were considered to be no better than the other leaders of the party:
When gongzilian was active, we didn't want Deng Xiaoping, and we didn't want Zhao Ziyang either. Although he came to the square and cried, we felt he did it with a motive. We opposed official corruption, and his sons were corrupt... There are people who divide the government up into factions: the reform faction, conservative faction, new authoritarian faction, moderate faction, etc. ... The way I see it, the Communist Party is all one faction, the 'harm the people faction' [ hairen pai ]... Some of the people in the government are good, but who's good and who's not I don't know. On the square I thought that the reformers' starting point was good, but what have the reforms brought the people? The reformers and Deng Xiaoping breathe out of the same nostril. When you go to work do you ride a bicycle or ride in a car? What do you have in your refrigerator at home? Reform has brought a crisis; the reformers know that even more clearly than Deng Xiaoping. You screwed up the reforms, and now you want to take advantage of the movement to shift the blame to another group. No way. Whom do we oppose? We oppose you! (Activist #1).
's opposition to the reform faction was rooted in the economic
grievances that helped spur them to action, and their trade
unionism was in fact an effort to protect themselves from what
they saw as the unpredictability and insensitivity of the
reformers' program. The organization's consequent unwillingness
to differentiate among the Party leadership in the midst of the
political struggles of May left them estranged from the
pro-reform intellectuals who participated in the protests, and
from many of the students, who sought to buttress Zhao's forces
after it became apparent that he was seeking to differentiate
himself from Deng and the hard-liners. As this became evident
during the week of the student hunger-strike,
warned in one of its handbills, 'Politicians who are trying to
make use of the democracy movement or the students are warned'.
67 If one reads the 'warning' carefully, it appears to be aimed
more at the students and intellectuals than the leadership
Our gongzilian informants reported that the workers were wary from mid-May onward about getting involved in leadership struggles and being used and discarded in the process. They saw their movement as being for workers' rights, not for or against any leadership faction, and they certainly were unwilling to support the faction that they saw as their main tormentors. 68 They also began to lose their patience when the students on the square began to change their attitude toward Zhao Ziyang and the people around him.
No sooner had Zhao Ziyang gone [to the square] and cried, the students' words changed. Now they were saying that Zhao Ziyang was going to be removed from power, that Zhao Ziyang was good, that we should protect him. We immediately said in our broadcasts that, throughout the movement, we have never demanded the removal of any one person or the promotion of any one person. If you've made a mistake you should admit it to the people. The ordinary people want to see if your accomplishments or mistakes are greater... At the time, we thought that Zhao Ziyang came to the square to deceive people, because he knew he was through. A worker spoke at our 'democratic forum' and said that we don't consider that any man who sheds tears must be a good person. If Zhao Ziyang hadn't come, what would you be doing now? You would still be yelling 'down with Zhao Ziyang'. Li Peng went [to the square] too, but he didn't shed any tears. If Li Peng had cried, what would you be saying now? (Activist #1).
Frictions with the Student Movement
The students' sympathy for Zhao Ziyang was one of the last of many differences between the student protesters and the workers of gongzilian . Despite their alliance on the square, educational and class differences continually hampered their relations. The students were not, after all, laobaixing . They exhibited a wariness about the articulation of economic demands by other groups, and wanted to keep the movement exclusively under their control. These differences, and the students' growing attraction to the elite's factional struggle, underlined a sharp class distinction in the politics of dissent: the students understood elite political discourse, were themselves a tiny elite, and many would probably become officials in the future. It was natural for them to be attracted to the elite's manoeuvring. For the workers of gongzilian , however, this was a game that was bewildering, alien and potentially dangerous. The student's attraction to the politics of Party factions kindled in the workers of gongzilian a lingering doubt about whose side the students were really on.
From the outset of their movement, and continuing well into martial law, the students made a self-conscious effort to maintain their 'purity' ( chunjiexing ). This meant, in practice, that they limited their politics to moral questioning of the authorities, seeking to speak as the conscience of the nation, striving to maintain public order and production, while keeping off to one side any 'narrow' economic and group interests that might potentially disrupt their quest. This quest for purity led to their early practice of marching with hands linked to prevent others from joining in. During the occupation of the square, the quest for purity was physically represented by a series of concentric security circles that protected the inner circle of hunger-strikers and top student leaders from curious onlookers and potentially disruptive groups.69
Despite the remarkable success of the students' tactics through the middle of May, the activists of gongzilian found this exclusivity frustrating: 'Some people wanted to go over and talk things over with the students, but before we could say a couple words, the student picket corps came over and chased us away. At that point we didn't want to stir up trouble, and were unwilling to set ourselves against the students'. The gongzilian activists saw the same treatment being given to the Construction Workers' Union, which for a period was located at the eastern reviewing stand: 'The students were especially unwilling to meet with them. The student pickets were always driving them away... In reality, a lot of people have this attitude toward construction workers from the villages, saying they're convict labourers' (Activist #1).
A final manifestation of the student's insistence on purity was their refusal to allow gongzilian to locate within Tiananmen Square proper. The leaders of the workers, harassed by the management office of Tiananmen, and feeling vulnerable to police surveillance and arrests in their isolated location across Chang'an Avenue from the main part of the square, were rebuffed on at least two occasions in their efforts to relocate. It was only on 30 and 31 May, with student numbers dwindling and military action seemingly imminent, that the students felt threatened enough to allow gongzilian into the square to help protect them.70
As the movement progressed, gongzilian activists began to feel that the student leaders were insensitive to their demands, and moreover obstructed their efforts to win rights for workers.
On the 28th, gongzilian advocated a closing of all factories and shops. If it was impossible to go out on strike, the workers could still stage slowdowns. To strike is our right, to uphold justice and protect our own interests. Workers from a lot of work units supported our strike call. Workers said, we simply aren't willing to work for them any more. But the students wouldn't allow us to strike. They tried every possible way to convince us not to...The students said, this is our movement, and you have to obey us. They didn't let us do it. The workers couldn't take it, that's why we had to have our own organization. By the end, after 28 May, we didn't advocate sympathy for the students anymore (Activist #1).
Behind this perceived insensitivity, gongzilian activists also began to feel the sting of class snobbery.
The students were always rejecting us workers... They thought we were uncultured. We demanded to participate in the dialogue with the government, but the students wouldn't let us. They considered us workers to be crude, stupid, reckless, and unable to negotiate (Activist #1).
The same kind of class distinctions, of course, were observed in the legal organs' treatment of protesters with different degrees of social status after the June crack-down. Intellectuals and students tended to get lighter punishments and less physical abuse, while workers could expect execution or long prison terms, and beatings under interrogation. However moved they might have been by the students' hunger-strike, the workers felt that they were risking much more by their activism than most students.
You know, with students, it's nothing - they arrest you for a couple of days and let you go. But when we workers get arrested they shoot us... The government is ruthless toward us workers. And they say the workers are the ruling class. What a load of horseshit! The workers who were arrested [after 4 June] were all beaten half to death. We had a guy who hid a gun. Later he was arrested. The public security bureau brought him back [to his neighbourhood] to fetch his gun, and he was almost unrecognizable, his face beaten to a pulp and his lips looking like a pig's... About halfway through, a lot of us thought that we would be defeated anyway, and that the government would suppress us. But we couldn't break up. If we broke up we would be suppressed, and if we didn't we'd be suppressed. So we felt we might as well do it right, and let others know that there was a group of people like us, an organization like ours... The students thought they were very powerful. We workers always felt we were subject to domination, nothing like the confidence of the students (Activist #2).
As it became apparent that the end was near, the students who
remained in the square finally began to come over to the workers'
headquarters on their own initiative for discussions and began to
include them in their planning. Only after it was apparent that
military action was underway on 3 June, however, did they run
over to the workers' headquarters and ask them to call a general
strike. By then, it was too late: 'If the workers had stood up
first, it would have been a lot better. The students wouldn't
allow us workers to strike. At the very end it was too late; to
call out workers to strike at the end, nobody would go along with
it. They would feel hurt, like the students were treating us like
playthings' (Activist #1).
These frictions and frustrations had served an important role in the development of gongzilian 's organization and political outlook. The workers thought they observed in the student leaders and in their movement many of the faults of the nation's leaders and their political system: hierarchy, secrecy, condescension toward ordinary people, factionalism and struggles for power, and even special privilege and corruption. In a fairly conscious manner, workers began to define their own movement in opposition to the counter-example across Chang'an Avenue.
In response to the students' exclusivity, gongzilian made it a point to declare in its charter that 'all may join in', and in interviews members took pride in the fact that their leaders would talk freely with city people of all walks of life, and peasants as well, and that the 'democratic forum' of their broadcasting station was open to any and all statements from the audience. In response to the student attitude that the movement was theirs, and that other groups should stay clear, fall into line with the student's aims and willingly serve the student movement in a subordinate role, the workers asserted in their handbills that 'ours is a nation that is built from the efforts of mental and physical labourers', 'the working class is the most advanced class' and that 'the People's Republic of China is led by the working class', which has a 'special role' in 'correctly leading the democratic patriotic movement. 71 In opposition to the hierarchy of the student movement - its leaders had titles like 'General Commander', 'Chairman' and so forth - the workers adamantly refused to bestow specialized titles, preferring instead a collective leadership in which people were given responsibilities, but neither titles nor the right to order people about.
Gongzilian didn't have any 'general commanders'. If you weren't on the standing committee, then you were a member. If there was something to be dealt with, we just met and talked it over. We all just wanted to get something accomplished, nobody wanted to step forward and stand out from the others... [After a student leader joined us at the end of May] we were very happy. But he was always putting on airs of being our leader. Who would take orders from him! He didn't even consider that nobody had to be any more powerful than anyone else. Although we workers didn't have any education, we were very clear about that! (Activist #2).
Our informants stressed that their core of leaders were not
interested in exercising power: they had had enough of that sort
of thing in their factories. One said, 'we didn't have that kind
of consciousness', and another observed, 'what we were competing
for was to have our heads chopped off'. In the
provisional constitution, there was no mention of any individual
leadership posts, only a hierarchy of committees and methods for
electing and recalling members.
The workers also, as noted, thought they saw in the student leadership the same kind of special privileges and financial misappropriation that they hated in the government. It was widely rumoured among workers on the square that the two top leaders among the student protesters (they were married) not only had the largest tent of anyone but also slept on a Simmons mattress; that the size and quality of tents and sleeping mats were allocated among student leaders according to their relative rank; that many of the student leaders had electric fans in their tents. 72 The students had taken in enormous sums of money in donations from ordinary citizens and from abroad, and there were legendary struggles to control these funds, This disgusted the workers.
We saw that the students had stumbled into chaos over money. They are capitalists; what they had was a lot of money. We are the proletarian class. We didn't want to screw things up on account of money, and bear the responsibility for shady dealings with money... We had our criticisms of the students' financial system. How much money the students received and how much they spent, to this day I don't know. You basically couldn't find the people in their financial department... We had two rules in our financial system. One, don't accept contributions of money. Two, if someone drops money off and leaves, count it immediately and as soon as you are done let everyone know how much there is and what you will use it for (Activist #1).
In contrast to the student leaders' perceived power struggles and competition for the media limelight and control over finances, the gongzilian activists prided themselves on the absence of continuous power struggles in their leading bodies. In contrast to what they saw as the student's over-intellectualized and moralistic approaches, gongzilian activists prided themselves on their ability to speak the language of the ordinary citizen.
The difference between us and the students is that when we talked to the city people and workers, we talked about such practical questions as clothing, food, housing, farming and so forth... A student asked me, wouldn't you like an even higher level of democracy? I asked him what he meant, and he gave me a long speech. I told him, stop talking, please. The more you talk the more confused things get (Activist #1).
The gongzilian activists we interviewed stressed repeatedly that they were oriented to 'getting things done' ( gan shishi ), not personal ambition or power struggles, nor moralizing or speech-making, because the needs of the working class were practical. In our interviews with them, a common refrain was that their desire to 'accomplish something practical' was repeatedly frustrated by the orientation of the student-dominated movement.
A lot of people came up to us and said, your words aren't hollow; when we listen to the students talk we can't understand them. Students wanted democracy, freedom, peace, reason, non-violence. They were always shouting that the status of intellectuals was too low. But they never brought up the workers. And they didn't answer the questions that the workers put to them... They were always talking about awakening the suffering masses, but the ordinary folk aren't stupid. They know what's right and what's wrong. What we need is to get going and accomplish something (Activist #1).
Previous assessments of the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation that stressed the organizational limits of the movement are by no means wrong. It is certainly true that the union was a product of the political paralysis occasioned by the student demonstrations and the occupation of the square. Its leaders and activists did not know one another before they came together on the streets. The organization never established branches in places of work, and therefore it was unable to coordinate walk-outs from factories at crucial points in time. However, considering the lack of sympathy displayed by the student leaders, and their repeated attempts to rein in the union movement, it is remarkable how far this band of dissident workers was able to go within the space of a few weeks. The organization of gongzilian coalesced very quickly once the decision was made to forge ahead in mid-May. It received considerable material and moral support from the city's workers, and was able to marshal significant resources within a relatively short period of time. The workers' movement grew most rapidly after the declaration of martial law - precisely at the time that the student movement began to melt away and play a less decisive role in events. This in itself was unprecedented, and no doubt greatly alarmed those officials who favoured a violent crack-down. The military operation of 4 June, launched despite the rapidly dwindling numbers of students and citizens on the square, was probably motivated in large part by these officials' mortal fears of a workers' insurgency.
Most significant, however, was the organization's populist mentality. Gongzilian never attempted to play the elite game of moral posturing. It did not attempt to influence inner-party power struggles on behalf of any favoured faction. Gongzilian did not pin its hopes on Party leaders; in the workers' estimation, the reform faction and its intellectuals were all just part of the elite. To their way of thinking, all of the elite were privileged; none of them had the workers' interests in mind. Despite the students' struggle against the bureaucrats, which the workers supported whole-heartedly, the workers found that the students exhibited the same lack of concern and condescension toward the ordinary folk, and the same seeking after power and privilege, as the Party leaders. Like certain strains of mass radicalism during the Cultural Revolution, gongzilian was profoundly anti-elitist and anti-bureaucratic. Yet the workers' populist rhetoric in 1989 was blended with new political conceptions: institutional restraints on managerial power in workplaces, within a framework of union representation and collective bargaining, and, more vaguely, a role for an independent union in national policy-making and an institutionalized right to 'supervise' the Communist Party's exercise of power.
One obvious moral to be drawn from the short history of gongzilian is that future democratic movements will be crippled unless this obvious barrier between students and intellectuals on the one hand, and ordinary working people on the other, is broken down. But, more importantly, gongzilian highlights a glaring omission in democratic thought in China - whether of the establishment or dissident variety. How shall movements for democracy mobilize ordinary citizens, and how shall workers be incorporated into such a movement and into the new order they seek? There is a strong strain of elitism in Chinese 'democratic' thought that questions the desirability of including ordinary people in the political process. 73 This strain is no doubt reinforced by precisely the kind of political orientation exhibited by gongzilian - one which is at the same time openly disrespectful of intellectual authority and doggedly independent. If the future path of political change in China shall be one of gradual reform, gongzilian suggests a flaw in reformist thought in China in the 1980s. Despite vigorous economic growth and improvements in living standards, workers appear to be moving toward a more active and potentially disruptive role in the political life of their country. The submerged working-class populism that burst briefly to the surface in 1989 will persist so long as reform politicians and their intellectual advisers continue to debate only ways of motivating workers through rewards, punishments, and the threat of unemployment, while continuing to ignore the growing desire of workers to be treated as full citizens in their workplaces, if not in the state as well.
Shatin, Hong Kong
4 June 1992