Twenty-five years ago today, Chinese troops and tanks cleared protesters from Tiananmen square, shooting and killing hundreds – some say thousands – of unarmed civilians. The violence capped weeks of student protests demanding a better government.
But Tiananmen was more than just students and democracy. There were also hundreds of thousands of blue collar urban workers who were involved in the Tiananmen demonstrations. Some of these workers may have been interested in democracy and the other demands students were making on China’s leaders, but most of them were more concerned with their own economic status and future economic opportunity for their children in an economy that was moving away from socialism.
In 1989, most Chinese urbanites made the same wage, a fact that helped unite the Chinese during the protests that year. If you lived in a city back then, you made a wage set by the state, it was very low, and you belonged to a Danwei - a work unit - which took care of your housing, your kids’ education and pension. Back then, the price of food was set by the state, but in 1988, that changed.
China’s government begin to lift price controls, in favor of the open market, and suddenly prices climbed. Inflation in 1988 and 1989 surpassed 18%. Suddenly, it was hard to afford anything. The pressure workers felt spurred them to join the students to protest. After the government's brutal crackdown of demonstrators on June 4th, 1989, China passed a slate of economic reforms.
“It allowed people who were going to be successful to be successful," says University of Michigan Political Science Professor Mary Gallagher. "It allowed migrants who were desperate and would’ve worked for pennies to squeeze out people in the middle. When you look at people who protested in 1989, the urbanites who protected the students, those people eventually lost out.”
Urban workers in China are still protesting today. Case in point: there are dozens of worker strikes each week in China, and according to labor groups, even as China's economy cools down, the number of strikes this year is up by more than a third.