China: a time of hope met by horror


Leung Wing Yue, Lau Bing Sum, and Liu Wei Ping

The image of a lone man stopping a row of tanks captured the world's attention in June 1989. Three people spoke at the workshop on the Chinese democratic movement, two of whom were in the People's Republic when Chinese students made their nonviolent witness. Leung Wing Yue works with the Trade Union Education Centre in Hong Kong and has been active in issues around workers' rights, the environment and women's rights. She was in China making contact with the independent workers unions that sprang up during the student demonstrations. Lau Bing Sum was born in China and grew up in Hong Kong. She has lived in Britain for many years and works with the Federation for a Democratic China (FDC), and other pro-democracy groups. Liu Wei Ping was in the Chinese merchant marines when he heard of the student fast in Tiananmen Square. Along with several co-workers, he left his ship to join the protest. He gave the following eye-witness account of what happened in June 1989.

Liu Wei Ping: I come from Beijing. The lives of the Chinese people have been very poor and difficult, because of ten years of economic reforms. During these ten years people's eyes were opened. There was much corruption both inside and outside the Communist Party. Some people took this opportunity to become millionaires. But ordinary people went through difficult times. Because of this, in the spring of 1989, the democracy movement started on a big scale. This movement was led by students and the movement's slogan was "Stop Corruption". They used peaceful means to appeal to the government. But unfortunately the government ignored these demands.

Because of this, some university students started a hunger strike. They used this method to protest against the government's attitude. The students' action aroused much reaction from people all over the country. Finally the whole country stood up and supported this movement. Particularly the citizens of Beijing recognised this as a peaceful, rational nonviolent action. At the same time the students asked one of the Communist Party leaders to step down. The government not only ignored this, they declared martial law on the 20 May. And that led to the massacre on 4 June 1989.

On 4 June I was working for the Red Cross in Beijing. I saw nine students killed in front of my own eyes. That evening I was hurt by a bullet. At four o'clock in the morning there were four female students inside a tent. The armoured car was coming across Tiananmen Square. One of the students was taken away. I tried to stop the armoured car. I told them there were people inside the tent. But the soldiers didn't listen to me. They pointed at me and accused me of being a thug. The armoured car moved slowly toward the tent. I could only stand there. The car crept through. I could hear them screaming. I heard their last screams and then they were dead. One of the soldiers shouted "You must clear away!"

Being one of the Red Cross workers, I was very clear about what happened that evening at the Square. Throughout it all, people used peaceful means to appeal to the government, but the government used force against the people. We couldn't believe that these things could be done by the People's Army and the people's government. After this massacre, the people became anti-government. This was terrorism against their own people. Many people disappeared. My own family was surrounded several times by soldiers sent for me. I finally managed to escape and come to Britain and became a political refugee. Recently I received a letter from friends. They wrote, "Your success is our victory. We heard about you in the broadcasts. We are very pleased for you. But please do not forget -- you are a Beijing person. Do not forget us and do not forget the people in Beijing. Do not forget our common goal. Please tell the friends outside China we won't give up. Our method of struggle is still peaceful, radical and nonviolent. But we still face a very unreasonable government. The murderers have not yet put down their weapons."

What's going to happen to our peaceful struggle? We hope that our friends outside China will help us appeal to the Chinese government to stop the suppression. We still have many students and workers in prison. We hope the people of the world will put pressure on the Chinese government to release political prisoners. Our Federation for a Democratic China has launched a petition campaign to collect 10,000 signatures to present to the Chinese government, for their release.

Lau Bing Sum: I work with the Federation for a Democratic China, an international organisation started in Paris by pro-democratic Chinese dissidents in exile and nationals living overseas, and other pressure groups for the democracy movement.

The purpose of the FDC is to gather forces all over the world and unite the Chinese people outside China, in order to achieve democracy in China. So the FDC coordinates branches, tries to put pressure on the Chinese government from outside China and gathers information on how the Chinese government violates human rights. Most importantly, we organise ourselves to be an effective opposition. We have discussions on social change and try to learn from the East Europeans, so we can envisage an alternative government and everything will be ready to change the government. We also send information to China, via packets, and the Goddess of Liberty boat which was launched in March to broadcast to China.

Leung Wing Yue: I've done research on the workers' movement in China during the '80s, and also been involved for seven years in the anti-nuclear movement in Hong Kong. I went to Beijing last June because I heard the workers had organised themselves into an autonomous federation. Because of my work, my observations will reflect a heavy emphasis on the workers.

What makes people ready to struggle? In 1989 the democracy movement was started by the students but was very soon joined by the masses, especially in the cities, and first of all in Beijing. There were more than one million people, or one-seventh of the city's population, out in the streets demonstrating. The scale of it much surpassed that of just a student or a campus demonstration. The movement also spread to many other cities. People have remained very poor since 1949 [when the Chinese Communist Party came into power] so why 1989? It was a moment when the building up of frustrations was perhaps triggered by the reforms of the '80s. People's expectations were raised, the people's eyes were opened to compare themselves to the outside world. So there was agitation for change and at the same time a rising frustration because of the resistance coming from the bureaucracy, which was due to corruption, to the monopoly of power by a very few top bureaucrats and Party members. 1989 was primarily because people felt, especially many young people, that there was hope for change. That after ten years of reform, maybe the government was ready for more openness in the political arena.

The 1989 movement started as a movement of hope, in contrast to those popular movements around the world which start from bitterness or desperation. It started as a positive, optimistic movement, and the citizens and workers responded very quickly. They wanted to give voice to their hopes, to ask for justice: they said corruption led to injustice, and that they could push for reforms from the government.

Why did it start as a nonviolent movement? Because the movement believed it could ask for reason from those in power. Out of this began a peace movement, even though China does not have a strong tradition of pacifism. It was a demonstration of the people's wishes. They asked for freedom.

So the abstract asking for freedom of expression, of speech, publications and information was in the early stage of the movement. But very soon, in mid-May, the movement advanced to another stage. Through the process of demonstrations, through asking for dialogue, came the increasing awareness of the need for organisation and autonomy. They began to focus on the concept of autonomy. This is quite unique in Communist countries, where the government has the monopoly of power. Until 4 June, the movement did not aim at changing the system structurally. That's why you had the continual singing of the national anthem. Both the autonomous students federation and the workers federation emphasised that they didn't want to oppose the rule of the Communist Party, and didn't really aim at structural changes.

After martial law and more than one million people marching in the streets to demonstrate, when troops began to move in, that was when the citizens of Beijing, almost spontaneously, began to organise into groups. These had all kinds of names: Citizens' Picket Team, Citizens Prepared to Die Team and equivalent workers' groups. In an attempt to block the onslaught of the military attack, the people began to come out and organise. At the same time there was an important parallel development. Some groups of people -- students first, then journalists -- organised themselves into autonomous federations, in opposition to the official federations. Then the workers formed an autonomous workers federation in mid-May, and autonomous citizens' federations, in Beijing but also in other cities. These formations were an important development. It was through the workers involvement, like the journalists, and a few peasants autonomous federations, that this originally idealistic movement became more concrete.

We keep asking, now after 4 June, why did we fail? Yes, the massacre happened, but many people ask why weren't the people able to counteract the oppression. I think this was because the students, and the intellectuals who were at the centre stage of the movement, really resisted involving other groups on an equal footing, like workers groups and citizens groups. For example, there were small number of intellectuals and students who saw the importance of the workers organisations and joined hands with them, but they represented a very small minority. I think there was a high degree of elitism among the students, which has a long tradition in China. When the workers autonomous federation was born, the students welcomed it but said, "We want to keep the purity of the student movement." It was these people who were killed, it was the workers and the people who suffered the highest casualties during the massacre, because they tried to stop the army. The students were willing to get the support of workers and ordinary people but they were not ready to really incorporate or join hands with the workers organisations. The autonomous workers federation was only allowed to move their headquarters into the Square at the end of May when the situation had become more tense, and there were more signs of repression with people were being detained or attacked. That was a fatal error of the 1989 movement.

I think the exiles have increased their awareness that any future democracy movement must have workers participation, and even the participation of the peasants in the countryside, since 80 percent of the Chinese population lives in the countryside.

Programmes & Projects
Other publications

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

6 + 8 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.