‘Here Come the Workers!’

When I think about 1989, the date I remember most clearly is May 28, a week before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square. That was the day I organized a major demonstration of factory workers in Nanjing, hundreds of miles south of Beijing.

The reform-minded Hu Yaobang, who had been forced out of his job as Communist Party general secretary by hard-liners, had died a month earlier. When the government rejected their requests for his rehabilitation, Beijing students began marching toward and gathering in Tiananmen, demanding greater freedom and democracy. Their actions were like a match thrown onto kindling; soon students from all over the country took to the streets. They were then joined by millions of ordinary citizens, many of whom were disgusted by corruption, inflation and the lack of personal freedom. Though the Chinese democracy movement is identified with Tiananmen and Beijing, it was really nationwide in character.

At that time I was working in a missile-production factory in Nanjing, my hometown. The factory housed us in identical buildings, indoctrinated us in meeting rooms, and barred us from wearing lipstick or flared trousers and from dating anyone within three months of entering the factory. Every month, we had to show blood to the “period police” to prove we were not pregnant.

To escape, I taught myself English in the hope of getting a job as an interpreter. Even though I still worked at the factory, I started to wear short skirts and have boyfriends. I listened to the BBC and attended lectures at Nanjing University where we debated whether Western-style democracy was the answer for China.

On that Sunday in May, after watching televised images of workers in Guangzhou marching in the rain, I decided to organize a protest. I telephoned all my friends at the factory, and some of them informed their friends. We got the banners and placards ready in just a few hours.

Under the wary eyes of our factory leaders, about 300 of us set off, as if for battle. Walking at the very front, I held a red flag and felt a sense of liberation that I had never experienced before. Behind me two workers carried a cloth banner that read, “Here come the workers!” The little strips of bright red cloth tied to our arms and heads flared in the wind.

We marched toward the Drum Tower, Nanjing’s equivalent of Tiananmen. On the main street, our group melted into a flow of marchers. Before us walked students from a technical school; at our tail were several dozen workers from a glass-making factory. We chanted slogans like “Long live democracy!” “Down with the repressive government!” “Anyone who dares to crack down on the democracy movement will be condemned for 10,000 years!” Onlookers cheered us. Along the way, hundreds more workers from our factory joined in.

During that time, my ear was glued to my shortwave radio, and I learned about the crackdown at Tiananmen from foreign broadcasts. Feeling defeated, I left China in 1990. When I returned a few years later, I found a booming economy and, eventually, a space called “privacy” that hadn’t really existed before. People could finally dress and date as they pleased.

We’re still in a cage here. But for many, my fellow marchers included, it has grown so large that we hardly feel its limits. In that sense the 1989 protests weren’t a total failure. Without our efforts, China’s rulers might have not expanded the cage at all.

Lijia Zhang, the author of ‘Socialism Is Great!’: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China.