Twenty years ago today, the Hungarian government, under pressure from anti-Stalinist demonstrators, announced that it was opening its borders with Austria. Tens of thousands of East Germans flooded into Budapest, on their way to Western Europe. This human tidal wave led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall later that year and the reunification of Germany in 1990.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a crack appeared in the seemingly impenetrable rule of another Stalinist regime. In China, hundreds of thousands of students and workers were marching through Beijing, Shanghai, Chonquing and other big cities. They were inspired by the fearless sit-in begun by students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing two weeks earlier.
The students began a sit-in to mourn party secretary-general Hu Yaobang, who had recently died, at the Monument to the People’s Heroes at the centre of the square. Within days, the demonstrations spread to more than 400 cities. Martial law was declared on May 20 by a split Politburo. By June 3, the 27th Army was firing on demonstrators in the square. This was the extraordinary moment when a man in a white shirt confronted a tank column on the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Even as you read this, the Chinese government is clamping down on bloggers and journalists, petrified at unrest on the anniversary of the brutal crackdown in which around 3,000 people lost their lives as troops fired on demonstrators. Café Sentido reports : “As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres approaches, the event itself remains taboo in China, forbidden from discussion on state-run television and even banned from results pages on search engines like Google, Yahoo and MSN, operating inside China.”
The Chinese government was one of the very few Stalinist regimes to survive the global revolutionary events of 1989. Elsewhere bureaucracies were breaking up. Mikhail Gorbachev’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Eastern Europe at the beginning of 1989 had marked the dawn of a new era for the Soviet Union and the countries it dominated politically and militarily. In Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia dictatorships toppled like ninepins.
A new generation has sprung to life since that year that shook the world. Then the media crowed about the “end of communism”. But now capitalist triumphalism is a thing of the past. The global economy is in its deepest crisis and the arrogance that followed the end of the Soviet Union has given way to a patent loss of confidence amongst the ruling classes.
The hope that the masses who made 1989 happen would turn their energies against the capitalist system was premature. Many were dazzled by the consumer capitalism that they experienced, then in full swing. But the glitter of McDonald’s, BMW and game players is losing its shine as millions are thrust into unemployment, bankruptcy and repossession. In China, the Stalinist-imposed ruthless brand of capitalism is falling apart and the authorities are fighting a losing battle to stay in control over increasingly angry masses.
The regimes that fell in 1989 hid their true identity behind socialist phraseology while they carved out special privileges for themselves. Just as the students and workers of 1989 unmasked them, the challenge for today’s generation is to dismantle the political system that pretends to rule in our interests today. A recent YouGov poll revealed that in 1989, 35% thought that politicians were generally “good people”. Only 17% believe that today. And, confidence in the police has fallen from 70% down to 46%. Draw your own conclusions.
A World to Win secretary