“We will fight together, advance and retreat together,” concluded Qiu Zhanxuan in a video his comrades released on May 4. Qiu was the former leader of a Marxist student association at the prestigious Peking University. He had prepared the digital testament to be released in case he disappeared.

Qiu did disappear in late April after he’d dared to call for a united front between students and workers, 30 years after the infamous Tiananmen Square crackdown. He had previously been arrested and then released in December on his way to mark Mao Zedong’s 125th birthday.

This came after students from Peking united with striking workers at the company Jasic Technology, whose attempts to form a union were blocked in July 2018. Students from Peking University, but also Renmin and Tsinghua universities, travelled to the south of China the following month to support the aggrieved workers. They were arrested, some released, and others, such as Qiu, have since disappeared.

It was students based in Peking who began protesting in April 1989 after the sudden death of Hu Yaobang, the reform-minded former Communist Party of China secretary-general. They called for political reform and democracy, but also for more social freedom and equality. Progressively, workers joined the movement all across China. Initially, they weren’t welcomed by students, who feared their movement would be diluted, but they soon realised that all Chinese citizens were fighting for the same cause: the realisation of the socialist ideal in the form of a more democratic and equal society.

The students’ peaceful hunger strike in Tiananmen Square ended on June 4 when more than 200,000 troops were sent in to suppress what the communist regime saw as a counter-revolutionary riot. It is estimated anywhere between hundreds and thousands of protesters were killed.

Today again, the same issues are at stake, that of equality and justice in a society which hasn’t achieved the socialist dream, but instead, has become a fierce capitalist market. With economic growth in China stagnating, as President Xi Jinping’s promise of a “China dream” becomes more distant for many of the 300 million Chinese workers, student agitation could jeopardise the regime’s stability.

Fallen proletariat

Long gone are the days of the “iron rice bowl” – the guarantee of a stable job for life with assorted social benefits. The Chinese proletariat is no more the elite of communism but the prime victim of Chinese-style capitalism and fierce globalisation. Chinese workers are in a worse situation than they were in 1989. They have fewer state protections, and the fate of many depends on their ability to accept and survive the often unregulated working conditions of the private sector.

As Han Dongfang, executive director of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin observed, the situation is much more complex now than it was 30 years ago. The charismatic railway worker was only 26 when, on April 17, 1989, he gave a speech at Tiananmen Square to advocate the right of Chinese workers to freely organise. He helped create the Beijing Worker’s Autonomous Federation, the People’s Republic of China’s first independent trade union. It was dismantled soon after the June 4 crackdown, in 1989.

One of the most wanted Tiananmen protesters, Han turned himself into the police and spent two years in prison. Banned from China, he continues his fight from Hong Kong where he set up China Labour Bulletin in 1994.

Han Dongfang on a visit to the University of Portsmouth in April 2019. Salil Tripathi, Author provided.

There is still a lot to struggle for. There is no right to go on strike and no right to unionise in China today – yet some workers protest over issues such as unpaid wages, restructuring plans, health and safety or even gender equality and, the China Labour Bulletin recorded 1,701 strikes in 2018. Chinese workers are very active despite the risks strikes entail – from being fired, to being arrested, imprisoned or even disappeared.

Disenchanted and repressed labour

Chinese labour law is actually well designed to protect workers, as my research has documented. Chinese-style public-interest litigation as well as forms of collective negotiation – if not yet collective bargaining – have become widespread in China since legal reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s. But these laws only work if they are implemented and adjudicated independently, and that system remains unpredictable.

The past 10 years have also brought massive disenchantment about a Chinese legal system that circumvents the rule of law. Too many murky practices remain commonplace, such as forced labour known as “reform through work” (laogai or laodong gaizao) or “re-education through work” (laojiao or laodong jiaoyang). Such practices are still used by the state and some private companies alike, both on Chinese territory and on flagship foreign investment projects abroad. Reports have detailed how Chinese workers dispatched overseas are forced to live in inhumane conditions deprived of their passports, going unpaid for months.

In the past, discontent was centred among construction workers. Many migrated from the countryside to cities without a clear residence permit, or what’s known as hukou status, making them vulnerable to possible abuses. Now, discontent is spreading.

One recent movement, called “996” made headlines as Chinese technology company employees named and shame their employees about a culture of working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week. This has included denunciations by workers of the powerful Alibaba founder Jack Ma who advocates such a punishing working culture. Tech workers have also protested online about long hours via GitHub or by using memes, stickers and T-shirts.

While a lot has changed in China since 1989, much has remained the same. The state is present at every level of society, which has become extremely unequal. The leadership of the Communist Party of China remains unchallenged politically, and yet a form of civil society coexists with an authoritarian regime that represses individual democratic aspirations. In this context, some students and workers are trying to unite around the same hopes and aspirations as their predecessors in 1989 – for equality and justice.

Leïla Choukroune, Professor of International law and Director of the University Research and Innovation Theme in Democratic Citizenship, University of Portsmouth.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.