Lesson in Democracy

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HAN DONGFANGI was drawn to Tiananmen by accident. In April 1989 my wife and I were riding a bus when she saw hordes of students gathering on the square. She urged me to get off and take a look. Former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang had died, and students were chanting slogans and unfurling banners. I was so struck by their passion that when I returned to my railway factory, I talked about what I'd seen with co-workers. We had a lively discussion about how undemocratic China was, though I wasn't sure at the time exactly what democracy and dictatorship were. I was an electrician, with limited formal education. But I realized that, in the workers' context, the absence of democracy meant we could never be heard. I decided to get involved, and, from a tent that I set up on the square, I began to organize China's first independent worker's federation.

When the bullets started flying on June 4, there was panic. At one stage, several democracy activists stormed into my tent and advised me to get out. I hesitated, not wanting to abandon my colleagues. But one of the activists said: We need someone like you in the future. You can't die. Then, as if in a movie, they grabbed my arm and escorted me away. To this day I don't know who they were or why they accorded me such treatment.

I decided to travel around the country, to investigate conditions outside Beijing. But I gave that up once I saw my face everywhere on posters and on TV: wanted for counter-revolutionary crimes. I returned to Beijing and turned myself in. After spending almost two years in jail, I finally left China in 1991 on medical parole. When I tried to return two years later, the government revoked my citizenship. I relocated to Hong Kong.

The biggest lesson of June 4 is to avoid bringing grievances out into the open. It's best to discuss things quietly, to save face for all sides. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible in 1989. China was not a civil society. (It still isn't.) The people couldn't discuss their problems because there was no sense of equality with the government. If China truly wants stability, its leaders should start encouraging real dialogue with the people. But China's leaders are too insecure. After 50 years of purges and oppression, they cannot believe their people can forgive them. During my years of exile in Hong Kong, I've learned that democracy, by itself, can't solve anyone's problems. But it does give people the chance to speak openly and seek solutions. Democracy's pragmatic worth far exceeds the romantic value many of us attached to it a decade ago. Now I yearn for a just, equal and pluralistic China. And I'm proud of what I fought for, proud even now to see my neighbor flash my son the thumbs-up sign, because his dad did the right thing.

Han Dongfang is editor-in-chief of the Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong