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Li Yiping was 22 in the spring of 1989, and joined the protests in Tiananmen Square. He eventually had to flee China – but he’s never stopped believing another resistance movement will come, or that he will be a part of it. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Li Yiping was 22 in the spring of 1989, and joined the protests in Tiananmen Square. He eventually had to flee China – but he’s never stopped believing another resistance movement will come, or that he will be a part of it. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

25 years after Tiananmen: Who will rise up against inequality now? Add to ...

Twenty-five years ago, Li Yiping walked the streets near Tiananmen Square wearing a shirt soaked through with the blood of those he tried to save. Today, he lives in Surrey, B.C., and sells Toyotas for a living. Since immigrating to Canada in 1997, he has also strung communications cables in northeastern Alberta and washed dishes at a Vancouver restaurant.

But time and geography have done little to take him away from June 4, 1989, the day students, activists and workers took to the streets to push for freedom before tanks rolled into Tiananmen. For years, his most diligent labours have been on the nights and weekends he has devoted to plotting the overthrow of the Communist Party of China.

That work is contained in a 200-page book he has published – a blueprint for revolution.

Since the crackdown at Tiananmen, though, many Chinese have benefited from a revolution of a different kind: economic reforms that have led to an explosion in consumer spending and material wealth, a 33-fold growth in the economy and a 24-fold growth in average wages. The government has also made strategic changes – the end of the one-child rule and the abolishment of labour camps – that have kept dissent in check.

There are famous political activists in China. There’s unrest among the Uyghur in some parts of the country. But the mainstream discontent that spurred the protests at Tiananmen? In contrast to Mr. Li’s generation, students today feel an allegiance, occasionally an affection, for the state. They see the future as full of hope and opportunity.

But whether China can maintain those sentiments – and stability – is unclear. The economic lion is showing signs of age. Growth is slowing. In nearly two dozen major cities, home prices are now falling, taking owners’ hard-earned savings with them.

And there are millions of Chinese – the country’s migrant workers – who have, in large part, been mere spectators to the country’s economic leap forward. While well-connected officials drive Bentleys down sprawling highways, these workers watch from construction sites where they have few rights and little ability to influence their future.

Inequality underlay the mass protests of 1989. It has since grown far more acute, and far more obvious.

As Mr. Li sees it, the landscape of China today is filled with “dry wood. Whoever creates a spark will light a huge fire.” For him, the question isn’t whether the Chinese people will rise up again – but how soon.

The migrant factor

In early April, a retiree in Dongguan, a city just north of Hong Kong, discovered that the world’s largest manufacturer of brand-name shoes was cheating its workers. Tens of thousands of people, whose toil produces Nike and Adidas sneakers, had not been given the full pension benefits they were due.

News quickly spread, and soon streets around the company’s seven factories were filled with striking workers, waving banners calling on employers to “give me back my social insurance, give me back my housing benefits!”

For a week, about 30,000 people walked out on their jobs. It was the largest recent strike in China, and it capped a troubling spike in labour unrest. In 2010, the latest year for which there are numbers, 180,000 “mass incidents” – protests and strikes that sometimes devolved into the torching of government offices, bombings and suicide attacks – broke out across the nation, four times the number a decade ago.

The discontent is particularly grievous among the country’s vast population of migrant workers, who now number about 260 million.

They leave home for faraway cities where they are forced to live on the margins, without access to education or health care. Many face severe conditions at work too, and little they can do about it. Their only channel for complaint is a centralized workers union aimed at stability above all – no other unions are allowed.

And while their wages are better than what they might make at home, with average salaries of $15 a day, they still fall on the wrong side of the country’s wealth equation.

Official statistics say China’s level of income inequality remains well above the “red line” international organizations and academics consider risky for a country; some Chinese university research has suggested it is in fact much higher than the government lets on, and is among the worst on Earth.

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