In the Shadow of the Tiananmen Crackdown

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Both China and the U.S. have profited from Beijing’s state violence.

By Ramona Li

Thirty-two years ago, the Chinese government began its crackdown on democracy demonstrations in Beijing. Though rarely discussed in the U.S., the legacy of June 4, 1989, is all around us.

The start of China’s democracy protests shared much with 2020’s summer of protest in response to George Floyd’s murder. In 1989, rallies erupted for weeks in urban centers throughout China, from the far reaches of the northwest in Xinjiang to the southern coastal province of Fujian. Young people led demonstrations that were joined by wide swaths of the public. In Beijing, over a million people would gather in Tiananmen Square, providing food and supplies during a mass hunger strike of around 2,000 demonstrators. Tens of thousands of residents would amass on the highways to block military vehicles from entering the city after martial law was declared.

It’s important to recall that workers across China were major participants in the demonstrations. They organized human blockades and pickets, and many joined Workers’ Autonomous Federations that arose in different cities across China that spring, adding their voices to the call for democratic reform. They demanded self-representation through independent labor unions—an expression of what meaningful democracy would look like applied to their own lives. Chinese leaders viewed the spontaneous emergence of organized worker support for the movement as an essential threat. The working class would bear a significant portion of the fatalities in the crackdown and some of the harshest punishments in its aftermath.

Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to extinguish the threat of independent popular protest with brutal, indiscriminate violence that would go on to shape the conditions of China’s modernization and economic opening. In the rapidly developing economy of the following decades, investors and factory managers had their way paved by public-security officials who would readily threaten, assault, and imprison workers with complaints about, for example, labor conditions, unpaid wages, or workplace injuries. The use of state violence to avoid resolving labor rights violations has kept the price of labor in China low at the expense of workers’ rights and well-being. It is a practice that continues through the present day, including at factories supplying well-known brands to consumers in the U.S. such as Apple, Mattel, and Disney.

U.S. companies have profited handsomely from Chinese officials’ continued policy of resolving social problems with threats and reprisals. It’s no coincidence that much of the U.S. economy has reorganized itself around Chinese labor, the price of which is suppressed by state violence against workers. More recently, this includes the forced labor of minority groups, like Uyghur, Kazakh, Hui, and other non-Han detainees in factories in Xinjiang and other parts of China. To draw these profits, companies made changes to their supply chains that exposed U.S. workers in manufacturing to a labor market where the devaluation of workers was underwritten by the Chinese state’s active support of rights violations. The state-sponsored repression of Chinese worker rights over the last three decades has likely contributed to the rise in inequality in both China and the U.S.

The ongoing debate over who is winning or losing the U.S.-China competition obfuscates how both countries have made tremendous profits in the shadow of the crackdown. Above all, workers on both sides have lost out in terms of wealth, livelihood, and fundamental rights.

A people-centered U.S.-China policy would take seriously the anti-Asian violence underlying an economy that is structured around the consistent violation of Chinese workers’ rights in order to manufacture goods and generate profits. Such a policy would highlight the parallel harms and benefits stemming from these violations and seek accountability from specific actors on both sides. For example, it could increase resources for enforcing U.S. laws on imports made with forced labor and give heavier fines to U.S. companies profiting from labor rights violations in China. It could pair this with condemnation or even targeted sanctions of Chinese public officials who abuse the rights of workers, particularly those working for manufacturers of U.S. imports. The company fines could be either distributed to Chinese workers or used to provide support to regions hit hard by manufacturing job loss.

A U.S.-China policy for the 99 percent would seek justice for the victims of June 4. One important task would be to support and amplify the message of family members, activists, and ordinary people throughout mainland China and Hong Kong who continue to uphold the values of the movement at tremendous personal cost. These would include the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of victims’ family members that maintains a detailed list of those killed by Chinese authorities during the crackdown; officials are currently restricting their movement and communications as they do every year around the anniversary. Labor activist Liu Shaoming recently finished serving a sentence after posting an essay in 2015 about his experiences taking part in the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing. Huang Qi started 64 Tianwang, an early human rights monitoring website in China, in part to track information about crackdown victims; he is currently imprisoned and seriously ill. Numerous pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have been sentenced over the last few weeks for participating in last year’s June 4 vigil, including trade unionist Lee Cheuk Yan, who was present for the protests in Beijing and bore witness to their brutal aftermath.

It will also continue to be important to call for truth and accountability surrounding the protests 32 years later. To date, no Chinese government or military officials have been held officially accountable for any decisions or actions made in the quelling of the demonstrations. Even discussing the events of 1989 leads to reprisals. The Chinese state’s violent response was not inevitable. Neither is silence in the face of its attempts to erase this history that we all continue to live with.

This op-ed was originally published in the The American Prospect.

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