China Beat Archive


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April 26, 2009 in the China Beat


Looking back in time from a distance of two decades, we are apt to forget the economic circumstances in which the nationwide protests of 1989 arose, as well as the vantage points of the protests’ participants.

In the late 1980s, people across China felt frustrated and angered by inflation and mounting corruption. This dissatisfaction had been moving toward a crisis point over the previous couple of years despite the fact that urban living standards, on the whole, had been rising steadily throughout most of the Eighties. But expectations of a better life had been rising even faster, and when inflation in 1988 began to overtake wage rises in the state sector, frustrations sharpened. Workers who had been willing to countenance the corruption of officials when their own wage packets were growing healthily became resentful in 1988 and 1999 when they saw that the close kin of officials were cutting themselves an undue share of the pie while their own slices shrank.

What held the protesters together was the very fact that theirs was a protestmovement, without a clear platform. Had there been one, far fewer people might have participated – for the solutions to China’s economic ailments favored by different groups among the protesters were very much at variance. Some of the protesters who came into the streets – in particular the leading intellectuals and most of the students – wanted the economic reforms to proceed faster. Others among the protesters contrarily had discovered that the economic reforms had not been to their advantage: particularly those in the working class whose incomes were declining, and those whose jobs were no longer secure or who had already been laid off. Only a fragile unity was pasted together among these groups. The better educated had little sympathy for the circumstances of the laborers, and for much of the time the university students sought to keep the working class at arms’ length, preventing workers from entering the perimeters of their own demonstrations.