Photo: Terry Feuerborn licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0; edited by JN.

Reform or revolution: The strengths and setbacks of the 1989 Pro-Democracy Movement

Tiananmen laid the groundwork for a greater democratic movement in the future.

Original: 【八九民運的成就和弱點】, published in Sun Miu 新苗社, Issue 12

Translators: Jodie

Editor’s note: The massacre at Tiananmen in 1989 has long been championed as the last great struggle for democracy and human rights in China. But the protestors’ ideological differences have seldom been interrogated. Zhang Yueran’s 2019 article calls for readers to critically understand the various participants of the protest, and the different, and even contradictory, political positions that they represent. Tiananmen’s student liberals have been seen as the tragic heroes and martyrs at the forefront of pushing for democratic reform by many today. But Beijing workers played a key role in the protests at the time—not only wrenching control over but also transforming the city’s production process to usher in a general strike to aid the students during the weeks leading up to the massacre.

While there were instances of Chinese workers mobilizing independently, Tiananmen represented one of the key moments in which workers fully broke free of the party-state bureaucracy to independently pose a serious threat to the CCP’s authority. The struggles in Beijing had also catalyzed the largest mass movement Hong Kong had seen at the time. In the 1980s, the early pro-democracy movement began consolidating its identity by demanding electoral reform, namely the expansion of suffrage, as the city moved closer toward the Handover. The mass movement developed in solidarity with Tiananmen protesters and threatened to take the struggle to another level.

Here we translate and republish a reflection piece, written by Hong Kong socialist Au Loong-yu (under the pseudonym of ‘Hui Yau‘), from Hong Kong socialist collective Sun Miu (新苗社)—later renamed Pioneer (先驅社)—which saw in the Tiananmen workers the opportunity to build a radically militant kind of mass politics that could go beyond Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders’ and Tiananmen student leaders’ liberalism. Elsewhere, Sun Miu writes that our energy should go beyond reforming the Basic Law and focus on deepening the militant capacity of the Tiananmen solidarity mass movement. Written shortly after the massacre, Au objectively analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the Tiananmen protests, and documents the workers’ unique demands and the limits of the student leaders’ commitment to non-violent pacifism. As Hong Kong faces a new defeat following an unprecedented mass movement, Sun Miu’s analysis of Tiananmen serves as an exemplar of how to best make sense of the past in order to build an even greater struggle in the future.

Building the spirit of independent struggle

Until 1976, many people genuinely advocated and believed in Maoism—the Party’s orthodoxy that encompassed all of China. The 1976 Tiananmen Incident marked the beginning of the people’s awakening, representing their disillusionment with Mao Zedong. Nonetheless, while the old illusion had been dispelled, new myths around Zhou Enlai and then Deng Xiaoping, were created. Rather than depending on their own strength to struggle independently, many people continued to count on the Party’s capacity for “self-improvement.” This was the reason why the 1976 pro-democracy movement did not receive much response from students and workers, and remained limited in scope. Yet, Deng’s authority was incomparable to Mao’s. While Mao derived his authority from leading the revolution, Deng’s authority was based on temporary “reinvigoration ” (“中興,” revival) amid multiple political crises. If Mao’s authority could be destroyed, it would not be difficult to destroy Deng’s. In fact, it was destroyed very quickly. The student movement of 1986 had already demonstrated a strong independent streak. Although students continued to pay their respects to Deng, their demands were becoming increasingly subversive. They demanded press freedom and disclosure of personal documents from officials – some of them even called for a multi-party system. Instead of relying solely on Deng, students demonstrated these demands through concrete actions. 

As for this 1989 pro-democracy movement, it embodied the spirit of independent struggle from the very beginning. While the movement had long since abandoned illusions about Deng and had even begun to unofficially target him, there was no apparent illusion about Zhao Ziyang’s so-called “reformists” either. The protesters repeatedly emphasized that they would not rely on any faction of the Party and took concrete steps to force the Party to compromise. This was a new phenomenon. Mao, Zhou, and Deng were all icons of the people, and the Party had relied on these icons to deceive its people. Now the Party had no such icon anymore, and people no longer believed in the Party. It was only possible for a pro-democracy movement to be truly successful by destroying all old orthodoxies and icons in order to shatter people’s illusions. The Party declared martial law on May 20, and the protesters demanded that the NPC dismiss Premier Li Peng. 

After the massacre on June 4, the movement called on the people to overthrow the current government. Clearly, their illusions about the Party had been shattered even further. We can proclaim that the 1989 pro-democracy movement has ushered in a new era for China: People’s minds have been liberated from the Party’s control, and from now on, people would only believe in their own power. Of course, it is insufficient to rely solely on political awakening—a correct route of struggle was also required. But regardless, this was already a substantial improvement.

Democratic awareness grows

The students’ primary demands in the April 27 demonstrations did not directly include democratic reform. Even though their demands eventually escalated to demanding the dismissal of Li Peng after May 20, they still called for the removal of individual leaders rather than the entire government, which only took place on June 4. By then, however, they were on the verge of being suppressed. 

Nonetheless, this movement undoubtedly demonstrated that the people’s democratic awareness had already been significantly raised. The students announced publicly that the time for counting on Bao Zheng1 had passed and repeatedly emphasized that they were not merely demanding the resignation of individual leaders, but rather a democratic system itself. They constantly asserted that democracy and liberty were their inherent rights, rather than privileges granted by the authorities. They consistently opposed the state’s prohibition of processions, pointing out that these measures were fundamentally illegal. 

While anti-Deng slogans did not become the official slogans of the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation (SAF) and the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (WAF), they were common in every protest. China’s political decline has been very severe over the past forty years, and as a result, authoritarian rule continues to become more entrenched. Given the circumstances, directly opposing the paramount leader was the greatest taboo. However, from the very beginning, the movement was informally opposed to Deng and called for his retirement. It was a breakthrough for republican consciousness. It was also groundbreaking that the students had the courage to demand an open dialogue with the leader. While the students still knew little about the entire historical background, political framework, and nitty gritty details of a genuinely democratic system, their consciousness of political democracy matured and ripened in practice. 

More important was the students’ practice of democratic autonomy. Both students and workers had organized autonomous associations. While the government was temporarily paralysed, such associations were already acting autonomously ; they organized food and water deliveries and directed transportation on their own. Due to the chaotic circumstances, these associations inevitably had many drawbacks; however, the people independently establishing their own organizations was an innovative step forward.

Winning over the workers

Prior to April 24, the main drivers of the movement were university students. The [state media’s] April 26 Editorial2 inflamed not only students, but also workers and other citizens who had hitherto quietly sympathized with the students. Millions of citizens gathered to welcome the students and aid them in breaching the blockade. By doing so, the workers entered the historical stage, albeit temporarily in a supporting role. In 1978, neither students nor workers supported the pro-democracy movement; in 1986, only students participated in the student demonstrations; in contrast, the April 27 demonstration in 1989 was a genuine turning point. Students began a hunger strike on May 13, and by the fifth day, their lives were in danger; however, the Party remained unmoved, resulting in the largest demonstration on May 17, which was attended by three million people. And this time, the workers also engaged in mass action. They transformed from playing the supporting role to that of the protagonist.

Given the importance of workers in industrial production, the Party was most terrified of students and workers acting in tandem—the thing it had feared the most happened. It cannot be forgotten that the political consciousness of Chinese workers, especially their democratic awareness, had long been suppressed. While they have long been dissatisfied with the Party’s domination, they had always resorted to individual resistance by slacking, which, while aggravating the Party, eroded the workers’ already very feeble sense of collective struggle. Gratifyingly, the students’ mobilization at Tiananmen successfully created space for the workers’ to organize from their passivity. The workers recognized their crucial role as producers in the economy and made a massive impact on the movement.

The de facto strike thrust the entirety of Beijing into partial paralysis, deepening the Party’s crisis; transportation workers drove buses to block military vehicles; workers repurposed their factories to produce defensive weapons for protesters; and railway workers refused to carry military personnel. Most notably, the WAF’s pamphlets accused the Party of hijacking the people’s authority to manage their own economic resources, demanding that the Party cede power to the workers to determine the course of the country’s productive industries and declaring its intention to oust parasitic bureaucrats. In other words, it directly exposed the basis of the Party’s domination. 

The revolution commences

It can be said that the revolution began in China on May 17, with the declaration of martial law on May 20 propelling the revolution one step forward. In terms of the objectives set by the movement’s leaders, the movement was still reformist at the time. It didn’t call for the overthrow of the Party but rather demanded the dismissal of Li Peng by the NPC Standing Committee. All demands were presented within the existing legal framework. Given the intensity of the conflict between the Party and the pro-democracy movement, there was no doubt that the revolution had already begun. 

 Workers and students were already united in their aim to form independent organizations, determined to compel the authorities to make concessions, and had taken extraordinary actions such as intercepting military vehicles after May 20. In contrast, the Party had split under the pressure of the mass movement, with fissures from the bottom to the top levels of leadership At that time, Zhao Ziyang had already disobeyed Deng. The Party’s ruling crisis had never been greater, and pacification and intimidation of the protestors was no longer effective. 

Although the movement still recognized the government’s legitimacy at this point in time, it no longer respected its authority. While a nascent movement may not have necessarily developed into a full-fledged revolution, the rulers felt that they could no longer rule as they were, and the ruled also felt that they could no longer bear it. Even if the people did not advocate for revolution at this point in time, a confrontation between the two parties would put revolution on the agenda sooner or later—either the people would revolt immediately, or they would suffer brutal suppression. 

The downfall of the movement

Despite its many weaknesses, the 1989 pro-democracy movement developed into a remarkable democratic one. Still, no one can escape the verdict of history. At the end of the day, weaknesses are still weaknesses. Although they did not kill the movement immediately, they resulted in its eventual failure. The speedier the escalation of the movement, the more disastrous its failures.

The objectives of the April 27 demonstration were reformist from the very beginning. The movement adopted pacifism and Gandhism, which went hand in hand with reformism in its strategy. The students repeatedly asserted that they would never use force and even absolutely opposed the use of force for self-defense. Every participant was required to refrain from fighting back. According to the student leaders’ explanation, they would insist on peace, which had sacrifice as its highest principle. In this manner, sacrifice was treated as the highest goal rather than a method. Their Gandhism was so dogmatic that even when the Party not only reprimanded and beat them but also sent out tanks on June 3, a substantial number of students still opposed use of force by workers and citizens’ to stop the massacre. Some students recovered weapons but simply burned them. Other students were even determined to protect the soldiers driving the tanks who had already run over many. Of course, there were also many students and workers who took up arms against the military. Therefore, from the onset of the massacre, there was both overt and covert division over the movement’s struggling strategy. Some insisted on Gandhism, while others had already abandoned it.

On May 23, [we at Sun Miu] published an article pointing out that this Gandhism was incorrect. It would certainly garner people’s sympathy, but it would also result in the failure of the movement. On one side were vicious, fully-armed rulers, and on the other were defenseless citizens. While the citizens claimed that they wanted to force the rulers to compromise, they declared that they would never resort to force, even in self-defense—in this context, how was it possible for the people to win? How would they compel the rulers to make concessions? As it turned out, not only did the people fail, but they did so in disastrous circumstances. 

Even if the students had adopted the correct strategies and made the best possible preparations for using necessary force in self-defense, it is possible that failure was still inevitable. However, it is better to fight and lose than to lose without fighting at all. The former does not necessarily lead to victory, but at least the chance of success is not zero; yet the latter has almost no chance of success, and an almost 100% chance of failure. Both may involve many sacrifices, but the latter is in vain because it yields no actual results. 

In fact, on June 4, as the massacre was nearing its end, the Beijing Students’ Autonomous Federation was about to abandon Gandhism and formally call for Li Peng’s government to be overthrown. In other words, the movement had begun to adopt a revolutionary route. But it was too late—overthrowing a government requires long-term preparation. The Federation’s preparations over the past few months, however, had been diametrically opposed to such a goal. Its pacifist illusions lowered people’s defenses and paralyzed their minds. By the time the Federation realized that the government needed to be overthrown by force, it had neither the necessary material or intellectual preparations. 

Although the 1989 pro-democracy movement temporarily failed, it shattered various reformist illusions and made people determined to be their own masters. Those who experienced this movement will definitely continue to struggle and will learn from and address the movement’s weaknesses. With every setback, they will grow stronger and continue the good work. 


  1. Bao Zheng (包拯), a Song Dynasty official, is a cultural symbol of justice.
  2. Published in the People’s Daily on April 26th, 1989, the editorial alleged that the movement and its participants aimed to “sow dissension among the people [and] plunge the whole country into chaos.” The editorial further called on the greater population to oppose the movement.