Worker Protests Spread, Despite Repression and "Official Unions"

In accordance with Chinese law, China has organizations going under the name of "union," a misnomer that should require it to be enclosed by quotation marks. These "unions" are branches of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only legal "union" in China. But it's awkward to write ACFT"U". So accuracy becomes a victim of convenience. The truth is that the ACFTU, from top to bottom, is a branch of the government and Communist Party. A new labor law clearly reaffirms that the ACFTU's primary role is political—to uphold "the people's democratic dictatorship"—and that it is a monopoly structure that supplants genuine trade unions.

In a northeastern steel plant, a state-owned enterprise, Zhen Yingbing, who heads the ACFTU's unit there, is also the company's personnel chief. When asked by a reporter who he represents, Zhen replied: "Both the boss and the workers." That is also often the case in foreign-financed plants. The local "union" is chaired by a manager or a Party functionary, or someone who wears both hats, and in any case has security police available to deal with troublemakers. No wonder, then, that many workers call such units "boss unions."

A sharp indictment of this stacked system has come from an unusual source—a former professor at the ACFTU's research institute, Chang Kai. "A boss union is worse than no union," he wrote in an academic journal in China. "A clever employer will use them to control workers. Because the law allows only one union, setting up a boss union [helps preempt any chance] for workers to organize a real one."*

Still, at home and in international contacts, the ACFTU portrays itself as the voice of China's workers. Partly to reinforce the government's foreign policies but also to seek an aura of legitimacy among China's own workers, the ACFTU is quietly but actively developing "fraternal" contacts with foreign trade union leaders and seeking status in world forums. Although, according to surveys conducted by the ACFTU's own research institute, the claim that ACFTU represents workers is rejected by more and more workers, the argument is apparently persuasive in some labor circles outside China. In June 2002, at the annual conference of the UN International Labor Organization in Geneva, members of the ILO's Worker group elected an ACFTU leader as an alternate Worker member of the ILO's governing body. A prominent Asian union leader, Lee Cheuk Yan, general secretary of the 150,000-member Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, immediately condemned the action in Geneva as "a major defeat for workers in China who are struggling to achieve the right to freedom of association."

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The stifling of that freedom shows up in ways small and large. Take the seemingly simple rule imposed on workers in the Shihue factory in Dongguan: no talking during work hours. That rule, widely enforced in the toy industry and beyond to maximize production, prohibits all worker communications, everything from small talk and joking to complaints about an abusive supervisor to conversations about taking corrective action of some kind. The rule leaves workers voiceless, bereft of any say at work. It inculcates a discipline of fear that spreads even to the worker dormitories, where conversations are often monitored. Workers who dare to speak up to express support for a union face a variety of reprisals—immediate dismissal, blacklisting, charges of criminal activity, and jail sentences.

According to a complaint filed with the International Labor Organization by the International Confederation of Free Trade UnionsW1 (see Webnotes below) in March of 2002, there were then at least 41 trade unionists and worker rights advocates in jail, many of them since 1989 for participating in the pro-democracy movement that shook China that year. Since March, Tiangui Di, 57, a longtime labor activist in Shanxi Province, has been arrested for organizing a National Factory Workers Retirees Association. His own application for permission to form the association became evidence against him on a charge of "overthrowing the state."

Arrests seldom become public information except in cases of large-scale labor unrest, as occurred in 2002 in Liaoyang, in China's industrial Northeast. There, 30,000 workers from some 20 factories joined unemployed workers in mass demonstrations not only to protest abuses but to demand collective bargaining rights. The government countered with a carrot-and-stick strategy: it met the needs of some workers (for example, by giving them money and promising jobs) while it also mobilized a large police and military force to arrest the protest leaders and to frighten people to end the demonstrations. As of mid-October 2002, according to the China Labor Bulletin, four worker representatives had been held for almost seven months without charges and without access to a lawyer.

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What to do, faced with government power so willing and able to smash any sign of protest or other activity not officially approved? Giving up is not an alternative. An overall strategy has emerged to try to take advantage of the rights, however limited, spelled out under China's own laws, including its constitution, and to encourage workers to work with others to demand those rights. Under the radar screen of China's elaborate police system but still at great risk, workers in scattered parts of China, and workers' rights activists in Hong Kong, are educating co-workers on the rights set forth in China's local and national labor laws.

A prominent activist pursuing this strategy is Han Dongfang (see his remarks, "Creating Political Space to Defend Chinese Workers") who, during the historic 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, helped establish the first free-trade union in the People's Republic of China—the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation. Han was then arrested and had to endure 22 tortuous months in various prisons, often in solitary confinement, and was released only because of intense international pressures from many sources, including the AFL-CIO.

After a stay in the United States to recover from tuberculosis, which the Chinese government deliberately exposed him to, Han chose to return to Hong Kong to promote worker rights in China. Through frequent broadcasts into China over Radio Free Asia and a Web site and e-newsletter called the China Labor Bulletin,W2 he reports on the realities of workers' lives in China. In the March 1994 China Labor Bulletin, Han described the catastrophic Zhili fire under the headline "Factory Fire: Disasters Can Not Be Avoided in the Absence of Strong Unions." In concert with other groups in Hong Kong, he has continued to document China's labor abuses, including its horrible record on industrial health and safety, but not in isolation. He has kept his eye on basic themes: the need for unions in China, the government's harsh measures to stomp out their emergence, the complete inadequacy of the ACFTU, and the importance of international campaigns to release imprisoned worker-rights activists.

His efforts—and those of like-minded activists in Hong Kong and on the mainland—are aimed at channeling a growing worker unrest in China. Statistics from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security say that "labor disputes" increased by 14 to 24.2 percent in all kinds of enterprises in 2000. But says Tim Pringle,W3 a labor researcher based in Hong Kong, "it is the steady, less dramatic, increase in collective disputes that require organization, unity, and class consciousness that is more significant." In 1998, he says, "there were 6,767 collective actions (usually strikes or go-slows with a minimum of three people taking part) involving 251,268 people, an increase of 900 percent [since 1992]. In 2000, this figure jumped to 8,247 collective actions involving 259,445 workers." Pringle further notes that while these actions have sometimes brought out the police, "the central authorities have issued orders to local governments not to exacerbate the situation by using force to disperse workers."

Another researcher on Chinese labor issues, Trini Leung,W4 describes the wave of worker actions that has been rising in China as "The Third Wave of Independent Labor Organizing" in post-Mao China. Among the actions she discusses is the several-month protest by thousands of oilfield workers in Daqing. (See remarks by Han Dongfang.) She believes that what sets this wave of labor activism apart from previous actions is that in certain cases, including in Daqing, workers "have organized activities centering around their workplaces and residential communities. This crucial factor explains the ability of the protesters to sustain their actions in spite of government crackdowns."

According to Leung, "The most critical breakthrough made in the 2002 demonstrations is the formation of a prototype independent union body, the Daqing Provisional Union of Retrenched Workers." Unlike previous efforts, "the Daqing union membership is plant-based and has a clear target membership and constituent base. There have been reports that preparation for this independent union body had been taking place quite some time before the March actions."

In short, actions are emerging that are not just spontaneous, leaderless, and easily diffused. Rather, these efforts suggest that perhaps the seeds of genuine, independent, fledgling trade unions are beginning to germinate.

Tim Pringle, writing in China Labor Bulletin, perhaps captures this fluid moment best:

China's workers are fighting back. What is so obviously lacking is an independent workers' organization or trade union that can link up the myriad disputes, negotiate with employers, and put the interests of its members before those of government, employers, or Party. Yet there does appear to be an underlying trend in both official and dissident circles, driven by the labor unrest, which points to change. Like South Africa and Poland, the ruling class knows that sooner or later, if it is to avoid being toppled from power in a violent explosion of pent-up anger, it must allow workers some space to organize. For those of us outside China, our job is to do everything possible to support the strikes and protests and make that space available as soon as possible.

*"In China, labor unions offer little protection," by Philip P. Pan in the International Herald Tribune, October 16, 2002. (back to article)

The ILO is a tripartite body of the United Nations, composed of separate worker, government, and industry groups. (back to article)

Hong Kong is an important base from which support for mainland Chinese workers is organized. But, the freedom of these Hong Kong activists may be in jeopardy. In 1997, when the British colony of Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, the agreement known as "one country, two systems" was supposed to guarantee democracy in Hong Kong for 50 years. But, late in September 2002, the government of Hong Kong, responding to pressure from Beijing, began the formal process of enacting "anti-subversion" laws designed to ban people and organizations deemed to be a threat to the government of China. People such as Lee Cheuk Yan and Han Dongfang, as well as their organizations (and religious groups like Falun Gong), could be targeted through this law. (back to article)


W1For more information on the complaint filed with the International Labor Organization by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, see (back to article)

W2For more information on the China Labor Bulletin, see (back to article)

W3"Industrial Unrest in China: A Labor Movement in the Making?" by Tim Pringle in the China Labor Bulletin, January 31, 2002, is available at iso/article.adp?article_id=1956. (back to article)

W4"The Third Wave of the China Labor Movement in the Post-Mao Era," by Trini Leung in the China Labor Bulletin, June 5, 2002, is available at (back to article)

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