One Tiananmen activist is still a thorn in the party’s side
Twenty-five years ago, the authorities in Beijing committed what was arguably the most successful act of political violence ever perpetrated by a government on its own people. The mass social movement that swept urban China in 1989 – with its focal point at Tiananmen Square in Beijing – posed an existential question of survival to a Communist Party struggling with the idea of comprehensive reform. They answered that question by sending in the troops. Now, China continues to rise towards global pre-eminence and the party is firmly in charge.
The rebels of 1989 met with a very different fate: some were killed, many were jailed and yet more exiled. Some gave up political activism. Others still fly the flag. Every year at around this time, they appear in the media to remind us that Tiananmen must never be forgotten, before sinking back into the obscurity of steady, grinding lobbying in the hope that Sino-US rivalry will push Chinese democracy back up the agenda.
Han Dongfang is an exception to this rule. Mr Han wasn’t a student leader. He wasn’t even a student. And yet as the driving force behind a network of Hong Kong-based labour activists he has not only kept the spirit of the 1989 protests alive, but is now making a genuine difference to the lives of thousands of people in China.
Mr Han, an electrician on the railways and former military policeman, was one of thousands of ordinary Beijing workers drawn to Tiananmen Square initially to see what all the fuss was about then decided to join in. “It was a place where I was being educated,” he said later.
On May 19 1989, martial law was declared in China. Mr Han’s response was to join with other workers and students to form the Beijing Autonomous Workers unions. The people he met on Tiananmen Square had already started to give him ideas on workplace democracy. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues would offer some protection to the students.
“The reason the workers came out onto the streets was to provide moral support for the students, like a big brother, but there was nothing in particular they wanted for themselves,” Mr Han later said.
Moral support can’t fight tanks. On the night of June 3, Mr Han was spirited out of Tiananmen as the troops shot their way onto the square. After a period of wandering, he returned to Beijing and gave himself up.
The authorities had marked him down as a major protest leader. Two years of detention without trial followed, until Mr Han was released in 1991 on medical parole. He had contracted tuberculosis in jail and eventually had to fly to the United States to have a lung removed.
Beijing often lets troublemakers leave. That way it can stop them coming back to make more trouble. After being physically carried over a bridge from the mainland by Chinese border guards and dumped on the Hong Kong side, it dawned on Mr Han that he would have to continue his work where he was and find some other way to communicate with people back home.
One way was through the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a publication Mr Han wrote and edited to explain the basic principles of workplace organising and labour rights, which was produced weekly and mailed at random to factories in China. Mr Han also became the host of Labour Express, which went out on Radio Free America.
The original intention was to provide people in China with a toll free number where they could phone Mr Han and discuss their problems. It took off to the point where Mr Han and his colleagues found themselves reporting live by phone from large and sometimes violent protests across China.
This was in the late 1990s, when China’s state owned enterprises were busy restructuring, laying off staff and generally smashing the “Iron Rice Bowl” their workers had once been promised.
Since then, labour protests in China have spread from the state sector to domestic and foreign-owned private firms and from manufacturing to teachers, taxi drivers and truckers. CLB recorded a total of 1,171 strikes in China between 2011 and 2013.
And in perhaps the largest strike in modern Chinese history, perhaps 50,000 workers at the Yue Yuen shoe factory complex across three Chinese provinces protested in April when they discovered the company had not been paying into the workers’ pension scheme, as required under Chinese law.
Mr Han and CLB don’t claim responsibility for this wave of strikes. But it’s a phenomenon they certainly have a hand in, working alongside a network of independent worker groups in China to promote the skills needed for successful collective bargaining. The group also works with China-based labour lawyers to defend workers’ rights.
They are aided in this by the fact that, in order to drive up wages and turn the economy towards consumption, Beijing in recent years has enacted a raft of worker-friendly legislation.
As ever in China, formal rights don’t translate easily into actual benefits. But this at least gives CLB and its Chinese colleagues ground on which to fight; and in so doing lays the groundwork to go further than piecemeal strikes and protests.
Writing in February this year, Mr Han remarked that the party’s continued ability to govern depended on their ability to share the benefits of economic growth more equitably and that this required “grass-roots democracy”, And the safest way to introduce that, Mr Han concluded, “was on the factory floor”.
It is hard to know whether president Xi Jinping and the party see things that way.
But perhaps alone of all the 1989 generation, Mr Han is in a position, once more, to pose a question the party will have to answer.
Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China
Updated: June 2, 2014 04:00 AM