Chinese union leader Han Dongfang fights on for workers rights

Published on M&G, by Bill Smith, June 2, 2009.

Beijing (dpa) – The voice of Han Dongfang still reaches Chinese workers 20 years after he led an independent trade union in China’s 1989 democracy movement. But today, Han’s words as an advocate for Chinese labourers arrive over the airwaves and the internet in radio broadcasts from his home city of Hong Kong. Han, now 46, was an unwilling exile from mainland China, unlike several other leaders of the 1989 democracy movement.

Many of the 1989 student leaders have forged careers as writers, academics or entrepreneurs in the West while Han remains close to his roots in activism, two decades after his arrest following a June 3-4, 1989, government crackdown on demonstrations that had centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Unlike some overseas-based Chinese democracy activists who claimed that only political stagnation has accompanied China’s rapid economic growth of the past 20 years, Han saw progress on both fronts after the government crushed the protests that had called for democracy and other political and social rights … 

… The development of collective bargaining and the right to strike are the two key issues for workers in China, Han said. Although workers have no legal right to strike, there are strikes ‘almost every day’ in the southern manufacturing province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong, he said. The greater tolerance of the government toward technically illegal industrial action is another small sign of progress, Han said.

Some striking workers are fired by their employers but few are arrested by local police any more, he said. ‘In the next five years, the most important step for defending Chinese workers rights is to establish institutions for collective bargaining in enterprises,’ he said. ‘Workers’ negotiations are not to challenge the government, not political.

‘On the contrary, through collective negotiations, labour disputes will be reduced,’ Han said, adding that giving more rights to workers could help the Communist Party to achieve its goal of a ‘harmonious society.’

Yet Han is less optimistic about the 700 million Chinese who still depend largely on farming.

‘No matter if it’s from the angle of history or the present reality, the issue of Chinese farmers may be more critical than the workers issue,’ he said.

‘The farmers were exploited and oppressed, and then they resisted,’ he said. ‘They sacrificed their lives and created a new despot, … always such a repetition.’

‘Now in reality, the farmers still face the repetition of history,’ Han said. ‘The farmers’ land is being taken away by corrupt local officials.’

‘There is a strong explosive potential,’ he said. ‘… The dissatisfaction, the anger is very severe.’ (full interview text).

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