Workers unite students: the backbone in the late stage of 1989 democratic movement --Interview with Li Jinjin, legal advisor of Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation
“The working class is the most advanced social class, we must shoulder the backbone of the democratic movement.”
Workers' Declaration (21 May, 1989)
Workers uniting students: the founding of BWAF
In the small hours of 19 May, 1989, China’s first autonomous trade union announced its establishment in Beijing. On the same night, Premier Li Peng declared martial law in Beijing. Just as the 1989 democracy movement edging closer to the eye of a storm, the flag of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF) finally flew in Tiananmen Square. The establishment of BWAF proclaimed that the working class was officially shouldering the backbone of the democratic movement.
In addition to workers’ representatives, there are also a number of student leaders within the leadership of BWAF, which fully embodies the spirit of "workers-students unity". Li Jinjin, then a legal adviser to the BWAF, was a Constitutional Law Ph.D. student at the Peking University in 1989. Upon receiving an interview invitation from us, Li immediately left us with an eight-word reply. "It is my incumbent responsibility to commemorate June 4th." At a time when many people’s persistence on safeguarding the memory of June 4th starts to erode, such a reply from Li fully demonstrates his original intention to fight for democracy. "Before the BWAF was formally established, the workers had already been actively participating in the democracy movement. They raised many demands related to labour rights and workers’ right to freedom of association. Unfortunately, due to lack of student support or recognition, the workers' organization has been slow to establish." But the workers were not to be sidelined because of this. On the contrary, they actively seek unity with the students. "In the early morning of 19 May, two workers representatives walked into the tents of Peking University in Tiananmen Square, proclaiming that hundreds of workers were gathering at the eastern square of the Great Hall of the People and planning to form a trade union. They asked for the students to come to support them. I volunteered to go with them and show support for the workers on behalf of the students.”
"I remember the two workers who went into the Peking University tent were Bai Dongping and Yue Wu. After delivering a speech to the workers, I immediately returned to the Peking University's tent and drafted the "Beijing Workers Declaration". The “Declaration” was unanimously endorsed by the workers. Then, I proposed to set up a preparatory committee. Since I am a student, I volunteered to become their ‘Legal Advisor’." It is under such circumstance that BWAF, the first independent workers organization since the founding of the People’s Republic, was founded.
“We are declaring to all workers in the nation: Beijing workers have been organized.”
Beijing Workers Declaration (19 May, 1989)
Workers are the masters of their own destinies: Inspiring nationwide workers to organize
Workers’ participation in the 1989 pro-democracy movement did not begin with the establishment of the BAWF. As early as 27 April, a large number of Beijing citizens and workers had already turned to the streets to express their support for students. And during the mass rally on 17 May, many work units organized workers to join the rally. Banners of "Workers Have Come" "Workers Love Students," and "XX Factory Workers Support Students" were flying all over the streets of Beijing. At the same time, many workers and Beijing residents spontaneously organized pickets to protect the students on hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square. Li Jinjin emphasized: "The establishment of the BWAF marked the student movement had developed into a mass movement, and workers should lead such a mass movement. Moreover, BWAF has also taken the lead and called on nationwide workers to organize themselves." And indeed, since the establishment of BWAF, independent workers' organizations of similar types blossomed in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Jinan, Changsha, Nanjing, Xi'an, Suzhou, Fuzhou and Hohhot.
From supportive role to active leaders: workers’ participation in 1989 democratic movement
In the last two weeks of the democratic movement, the BWAF quickly organized themselves in an orderly fashion, despite against the background of extreme social turbulence and martial law. Workers systematically launched broadcasts, distributed leaflets, liaison with students, and blockaded the military approach. Li Jinjin also repeatedly emphasized the mobilization capacity of BAWF had made great contributions to the movement. "After the establishment of BWAF, a broadcast station was set up at the West Ceremonial Podium of the Tiananmen Square. The equipment was purchased and assembled by Zhou Yongjun and became the loudest in the square. Due to its proximity to Changan Street, groups of Beijing citizens would stopped at Changan Street to listen to our broadcast every day. On the other hand, BWAF also shouldered the responsibility of printing and distribution of leaflets in the later period of the movement."
Among the core figures of BWAF are workers such as Bai Dongping, Zhao Pinzhen, and Han Dongfang. In addition, there are also student representatives such as Li Jinjin and Zhou Yongjun, striking a formidable force of solidarity between workers and students. Even in the most severe conditions, BWAF was still able to formulate an action plan and provisional charter in just a few days. On the other hand, BWAF mobilized workers in an orderly fashion to provide logistic and propaganda support to the movement. On May 30, three workers’ representatives were arrested by the police. BWAF immediately mobilized hundreds of workers to protest in front of the police station. The operation was also supported by a large number of students. When talking about the "small victory" of “workers-students unity”, Li Jinjin was still feeling animated.... "This operation was very successful. The authorities released the three workers the next day." The incident further substantiated that the participation of workers had gradually developed from a supportive role into establishing itself as an active leader that jointly led the movement.
However, the brutal crackdown led by the Chinese Communist Party has put an end to this short-lived freedom. After the June 4th massacre, the workers were severely suppressed. Core members including Han Dongfang, Liu Huanwen, Liu Qiang, Zhou Yongjun and others have been arrested across the country; many workers have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Li Jinjin was arrested at his home in Wuhan on 10 June and charged with the crime of counter-revolutionary. After being released in 1993, he moved to the United States and is now a practicing attorney in New York.
Although she was founded at the harshest juncture in modern Chinese history, BWAF demonstrated a high degree of organizational discipline and mobilization capacity during her short-lived history, and became one of the examples of Chinese workers' becoming masters of their own destinies in their own rights. However, the demands put forward by workers such as wage improvement, anti-corruption, and right to freedom of association have yet be implemented until today. The key members of the Workers Autonomous Federations from across the country such as Li Wangyang, Liu Shaoming, Bai Dongping, and Zhou Yongjun etc. are still under constant suppression from the authorities. But we will not forget the contribution of workers to the 1989 democracy movement. We also hope that the power of "workers-students unity" will one day become the backbone of social change in Hong Kong and China.