ACFTU and Union Organizing

By Trini Leung, a research writer on Chinese labour and politics

As the incidence of industrial disputes, wildcat strikes, and mass workers'
protests becomes more frequent and visible in China, the question of union organization
has drawn increasing attention both at home and abroad. The All-China Federation
of Trade Unions (ACFTU), with a declared membership of over 120 million, claims
to be the world's largest union organization. But behind this impressive facade,
workers in China are among the world's most exploited, disorganized and dis-empowered
workforces. When some of these workers do show the courage to organize, sometimes
in tens of thousands, they never go to the ACFTU. This has most recently been
shown when over 80,000 petroleum and metal workers staged mass street demonstrations
in Daqing and Liaoyang, in the northeast, in March and April, 2002. Instead
the protesters declare their actions, which sometimes last for weeks, to be
spontaneous outbreaks without any leadership or organization. On occasion, protesters
have tried to organize independent unions or alternative bodies to represent
their demands. A most recent example of this is the two month-long struggle
waged by 50,000 workers from the Daqing Oilfield who formed their own union

Considerable interest has been given to the reform drive of the ACFTU which
was launched since the 1980s. The leadership of this government-controlled body
has been reiterating the need for the ACFTU to reform in order to strengthen
its credibility and effectiveness. The drive for more operational autonomy and
better protection of workers' interests have been the key slogans of the ACFTU
reform initiatives. This paper examines the result of this reform effort against
the benchmark of core labour rights on freedom of association and collective

ACFTU: an organization of the party-state but not
the workers

There is no critical change in the power structure within or surrounding the
ACFTU. It remains a subsidiary organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
The ACFTU cannot do anything which has not been directed or approved by the
party-state. Workers' representation and accountability to membership have never
been part of the basic organizational terms of reference of the ACFTU. This
fundamental tenet of democratic unionism has not been featured even in the discussion
fora of the reform agenda. Under this framework, the primary functions of ACFTU
are to serve the interests of the CPC and the policies of the government.

In a speech on the importance of organizing unions in the country's new economy,
Wei Jianxing, president of the ACFTU, declared the critical importance of his
organization to the strengthening of the power of the party and the state. The
ACFTU exists to legitimize and sustain the ruling regime of the CPC.

Under these new[economic] conditions, we need to consolidate the Party's
position at the helm of the state as upheld by the masses. In fact, Comrade
Jiang Zemin's instructions do not only apply to the task of strengthening
Party building activities, they also apply to the work of strengthening
the establishment of trade unions. Speeding up the pace of trade union organisation
in new enterprises, and making every effort to organise workers into unions
is not just a matter of perfecting the trade unions, upholding workers'
legal rights and bringing into play their enthusiasm and initiative. More
important is its' direct relationship to the consolidation of the mass base
and class foundations of the Party, as well as the Party's ruling position.

The ACFTU has always seen itself as part of the party-state machinery. Organizational
independence and accountability to its worker membership are out of the question.
In the above-mentioned speech, Wei explained that the ultimate purpose of setting
up ACFTU organization in the new economy was to establish party presence.

This work has to become part of the framework of the Party committee's
united leadership if we are going to achieve a breakthrough. Experience
from all over the country has provided us with ample proof that this is
the basic guarantee of success. It must be become a part of the Party committees
work. [We need] stronger leadership, integrated research and deployment
[of our forces] to make organising and improving trade unions in new enterprises
the work of our leading structures. The rate of union membership and union
organising must be added to the Party's work programs and have clearly assessable
targets. Responsibility must be ascertained and strict checks made. When
we meet with problems and difficulties, they must be promptly researched
and solved. We must persevere and link the work of establishing Party cells
in new enterprises with the work of establishing trade unions and make organising
trade unions part of the conditions for setting up party branches and cells
and building up a mass base. [Wei]

Furthermore, ACFTU officials see themselves as a government department.

There is a need to set up a contingency working group.
. . . Leaders of all the relevant departments such as the party committees,
government and the union must take charge personally of such cases [workers'
mass actions]

An official of the Heilongjiang Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) describes
the organizational and operational structure of the union as part of the party-state

Under the union system in China, the organizational relation of a
union is defined by the party. It follows the party and enterprise organizational
structure of subordination. . . .

Chinese trade unions operate under a strict system, the
essence of which is Party leadership. This Party leadership is their outstanding
characteristic. Moreover, you can see that our local trade unions are all
run under the civil service management.
[RFA 16/03/02]

The official further explains how union cadres are appointed according to the
party nomenklatura system, and union election of such cadres is just a rubber-stamp

Cadres belong to the organisation department [of the party].
When they are appointed, the Party Committee organisation department has
to approve it. They are not directly elected. The representatives' meeting
goes through the procedure and votes on the candidates after they have been
selected by the provincial party committee. All candidates have been selected
[RFA 16/03/02]

There has been call to make ACFTU attain more operational autonomy in recent
years. This is along the same lines as the Dengist reform package which aimed
to decentralize the operational functions of most party and state organs. The
autonomy which the ACFTU has been talking about in the past decade can be compared
to that of a civil service reform. The Leninist trade unionism which has been
set up alongside the construction of a command economy under Mao Zedong in the
1950s is intended by the party to stay at the turn of the 21st century.
The Heilongjiang FTU cadre testifies this as recent as March, 2002.

It's definitely a product of the command economy. But it
hasn't been revised since market conditions were introduced. There has been
no change and we are still implementing the previous methods.

Nevertheless, as the economy undergoes liberalization and privatization, the
party needs to change from the previous highly-centralized state command management
mode. There has been a steady move to scale down or even withdraw party machinery
at microeconomic management level. This has momentous implications for the organizational
existence of the ACFTU. The ACFTU was set up as part of the party machinery
to help manage state-owned-enterprises (SOE). Hence when the presence and role
of the party was being scaled down at SOEs, it dealt the first blow to the ACFTU

The rationale behind ACFTU reform

The ACFTU's role was being called further into question when the private economy
started to expand meteorically to account for nearly half of the GNP 20 years
after the economic liberalization. The ACFTU presence is minimal among privately-owned
enterprises, because the long arm of the official organization of the party
does not reach so effectively into the new economy. But the state is concerned
about the question of labour management and control in the increasingly important
private economy, where labour relations has been less than amiable due to the
grave and often unlawful exploitation of workers. Hence, during the past decade,
the party-state has tried to set up ACFTU organizations within privately-owned
enterprises but with little success.

Wei Jianxing sums up the current existential crisis faced by the ACFTU in strong
and clear words:

The problems at the moment are: on the on hand, following the structural
adjustments and the restructuring of SOEs and collectively-owned enterprises
(COEs), a considerable number of trade union organisations [and branches]
have been collapsed and their members washed away. On the other hand, the
organisation of trade unions in newly-established enterprises has simply
not happened. At the end of 1999, national trade union membership had dropped
to 87 million, leaving more than 100 million workers unorganised. When there
is not even a trade union, what is the point of talking about trade unions
upholding the legal rights of workers? Or trade unions being the transmission
belt between the party and the masses? Or trade unions being an important
social pillar of state power?

Concern about ACFTU falling membership is real. The real membership could be
a lot less than the official figures. Between August and December, 2002, the
Shanxi Provincial Federation of Trade Unions conducted an organizational audit
of all its local branches and found wide discrepancies between official records
and reality. For example, the investigation in Huairen county found that only
22% of the union organizations which was registered to have set up in private
and collective enterprises really existed!


Official number of union organizations

Real number of union organizations

Truth ratio

Private enterprises




Collective enterprises




The article points out that although the investigation is carried out in Shanxi
province, its findings are fairly representative of the national situation.

Key role and functions of the ACFTU

Labour relations in China are extremely lop-sided. This is more acute since
the economic liberalization. The management, either in the body of party-state
organs or as private owners, have uncurbed power over the workers due to the
suppression of labour organization. The ACFTU is aware of the problem of the
increasing and often exploitative power of employers and management, and is
under pressure to rise up to the challenges of the new economic relations. The
surge in wildcat strikes and other protest actions taken by workers throughout
the 1990s also pose a constant challenge to the ACFTU which is banned from organizing
industrial actions.

The ACFTU has been told to rally behind the government policy to introduce
collective employment contracts for the purpose of better labour administration.

Regulations on Collective Contracts was issued by the Ministry of Labour and
Social Security in December, 1994, shortly after the Labour Law was passed.
The ACFTU has given the task of signing collective employment contracts as a
top priority. This initiative, if successful, can serve two purposes. It will
greatly enhance the role and position of ACFTU at the enterprise level as the
organization, alongside the management, which delivers the collective contract
system. It also promises to cut down labour disputes which have risen sharply
since the 1990s. The ACFTU has tried to promote this program to overseas observers,
such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and union organizations,
as an attempt to introduce collective bargaining in China. However, without
the power or even the will to organize workers' representation, and stripped
of the right to stage industrial actions, this initiative is a far cry from
the collective bargaining system protected under International Labour Conventions
(ILC) 87 and 98.

Despite the continual call for higher autonomy, the question of accountability
to membership instead of the party-state has never been on the agenda in the
reform plan of ACFTU. The ACFTU wants more autonomy in its work to achieve better
labour discipline and practices. Most of all it wants to better protect its
own organizational existence and position at a time of declining membership
and falling resources which have hitherto been guaranteed by the party-state.

ACFTU under the new Trade Union Law

The Trade Union Law (TUL) amendment in 2001 has reaffirmed the organizational
control of the ACFTU by the party (Article 4). It has also consolidated the
ban on any union organization outside the ACFTU structure (Articles 10 and 11).
Hence there is little progress in terms of the core ILCs in the new law.

The main official objective in the new amendment to the TUL is to enhance the
legal status of ACFTU. The new law firmly establishes the position of the ACFTU
as the legal representative of workers and employees in enterprises. It also
reinforces the legal rights of ACFTU over its assets and revenues. This could
easily be interpreted as a positive move in better protecting union organization.
Nevertheless, a critical link is missing. The ACFTU is not a workers' organization,
but a quasi-government body. Hence the legal boost to the ACFTU can only be
interpreted as attempt to reinforce the exclusion of any other representative
labour organizations outside the ACFTU. The reforms hope to designate a more
specific role for ACFTU at a time when its suffers from a crisis of existence.

Legislative reform has indeed been at the heart of the ACFTU program in the
past decade. Hundreds of labour laws and regulations have been passed and supposedly
improved. Among them is the first national Labour Law, which was enacted in
1995, was hailed as a milestone in providing the most comprehensive safeguards
for workers against abuses at the workplace. Yet the reality shows that it is
exactly in the decade following the new law that violation of labour rights
and standards has gone from bad to worse. Efforts in the past decade for legislative
reform have failed to provide better protection for workers. The key for such
safeguards is missing: freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
But rather than address this crucial issue, the ACFTU has chosen to bury its
head in the heap of beautifully written words on neat paper.

ACFTU agenda in the international union community?

There has been a continuous lobby within the international union community
calling for the establishment of friendly relations with the ACFTU. This lobby
frequently cites the ACFTU's appeal for international support and cooperation
programs to assist its efforts to improve labour standards in China. Supporters
of the ACFTU argue that international collaboration will help improve labour
rights in China. The ACFTU also aims, its supporters claim, to move closer to
various fundamental labour standards through international contacts and exchanges.

Under closer scrutiny, it is evident that the ACFTU's goal in the international
community is defined by the diplomatic task designated to it by the party-state.
Their diplomatic mission is to present a rosy and generally glorious picture
of the Chinese state. In pursuit of this mission, there are two main objectives.
One is representation for China at the ILO. The other is recognition by the
international union community.

The ACFTU has been doing nothing more than parroting the government's defence
of its human rights record at international fora. At each of the ILO session
which discusses Chinese government violation of international labour conventions,
the ACFTU has, without exception, defended the government line and refuted any
criticisms of the government repression of union organizing.

There has been a constant move by the ACFTU to gain broader recognition and
more friendly support from the international union community. Despite the fact
that it has made friendly gestures to numerous national centers within the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the ACFTU is primarily hostile to
the ICFTU.

Xu Xichen, a deputy president of the ACFTU, wrote a revealing article in 2001
entitled "New Trends in the International Trade Union Movement" in which he
strongly condemned the ICFTU for its cynical and hegemonic stance. The article
was published in a magazine which was widely circulated among rank-and-file

The ICFTU's Wild Ambition for Hegemony over the International Trade
Union Movement on the Increase

[I]f we look at the overall picture, the World Confederation of Labour
(WCL), the self-appointed representative of "the poor" remains isolated
and weak as it continues in a state of deep internal crisis which it is
finding extremely difficult to extricate itself from. Moreover, the power
of the ICFTU, mainly under the domination of trade unions from Western countries,
continues to expand, as does its wild ambition to control the international
trade union movement. Over the last two years, the ICFTU has continued to
raise the banners of "freedom" and "democracy" as a disguise for its meddling
in the trade union affairs of various countries and actively implementing
Western values. It continues to issue an annual report on the violation
of basic trade union rights in all countries, but concentrates on finding
fault with the internal affairs of the majority of developing countries
in what amounts to flagrant intervention. At the same time, the ICFTU continues
to dominate the business of the Governing Board of the ILO's Workers Group
while rejecting the differing opinions of trade unions from developing countries.
Of the 14 members of the Governing Board of the ILO Workers Group, all are
ICFTU affiliates except the WCL representative, effectively rendering the
board an ICFTU "closed shop". During the 1999 top-level WTO meeting in Seattle,
the ICFTU appointed itself as the so-called representative of the world's
workers and by working with the AFL-CIO and various NGOs, succeeded in throwing
the meeting into complete chaos. It then boasted that this was proof of
the ICFTU's increasing strength. In sum, the ICFTU's domination of the activities
of the international trade union movement has reached a new stage which
trade unions from developing countries need to pay special attention to.

This apparently dualistic position can be explained by the goal of ACFTU to
make friends with overseas union, only if they are not openly critical of China's
official policies and practices.

Unfortunately, all attempts by overseas union bodies to make representations
on human and labour rights issues in meetings with the ACFTU go totally unreported
to the public in China. Press reports of such meetings invariably highlight
only two points, ie, the visiting bodies praise and support the wonderful achievements
of the state and wish to continue their friendly relations and cooperation with
the ACFTU. This throws into question what ends are being achieved by such international

ACFTU's role in independent unions organizing

There have been momentous rise of workers' organizing in China. This presents
one of the gravest concerns of the present regime. This reality has received
considerable attention and investigation by the ACFTU. The analysis below is
produced by a local branch of ACFTU in the northeastern city of Qiqiha'er, Heilongjiang

Special Characteristics of Workers' Spontaneous Collective Incidents:

  • The frequency of such incidents and the number of workers taking part
    continues to rise.

  • They are increasingly well-organised and growing in scale. Most of the
    organisers are serving Party members and/or mid-level cadres who, in the wake
    of the initial problems, get involved in order to find a solution. At present,
    workers from single enterprises are contacting other enterprises to spread
    the dispute action.

  • The duration of the incidents is increasing and it is getting more difficult
    to return matters to normal. Because it is not easy to eliminate the basic
    problems underlying the incidents, they can repeatedly break out at the same
    work unit and become a common occurrence.

  • The type of people taking part is diversifying and becoming more complex.
    Previously, those taking part were retired or ordinary workers whereas now
    the incidents may include retired cadres, former enterprise managers and miscellaneous

  • The mood of the incidents is becoming increasingly grave and opposition
    to the government is growing. Some workers are blaming the negative results
    of the market economy, enterprise losses and their own poverty completely
    at the door of the government. The destructive nature of these incidents is
    also increasing. Originally they consisted of collective petitions, sit-ins
    and appeals for help etc. but they now include blocking up roads, lying across
    railway tracks and worse.

One of the key functions of ACFTU is to assist the government in the suppression
of labour organizing. In an in-depth analysis of the growing incidence of spontaneous
collective actions taken up by workers, an official of the Qiqiha'er City Federation
of Trade Unions, Sun Shaoyong, wrote about the importance of collaboration among
all relevant official bodies, including the ACFTU, to prevent outbreaks of mass

As the representative and upholder of workers' interests and the transmission
belt between masses and the Party and government, trade unions have an irreplaceable
function of establishing an early warning system for collective disputes.

Despite all talk of reform, the ACFTU has never shown nor provided support
to workers who organize their own unions and workers' organizations or attempt
collective bargaining with their employers. On the contrary, the ACFTU has been
an active agent of surveillance, denunciation, and suppression during all incidents
of independent organizing. The ACFTU designated role is that of a whistle-blower,
but only to the party-state instead of the workers.

[Unions must] establish and perfect a system of complaints and information
network that will concentrate on gauging the mood among workers and analyse
ideological trends. This information must feed into the system the general
reaction to popular issues of the time and current problems. The "Seven
Must Reports" scheme and reporting of spontaneous disputes must be further
improved in order to eliminate workers' spontaneous collective incidents
at their early stages.

The president of ACFTU, Wei Jianxing, highlights the importance of the union
efforts to stop mass workers' actions for the sake of not only internal stability
in China but also preventing subversive external intervention.

When it first breaks out, a labour dispute may not be serious, but because
there is no mechanism [for dealing with the contradictions] it is very hard
to solve at a primary level, to nip it in the bud. As such, it can become
a major incident involving many people. If we do not turn this situation
around quickly, it will not only have a devastating effect on the overall
situation for stable reform and development. It will also give our enemies,
at home and abroad, who are doing their best to split the Chinese working
class, an ideal opportunity. These people strive hard to win the masses
away from us, vainly try to use trade unions as a weak link in the chain.
Their aim is to set up a so-called independent trade union separate from
the ACFTU in an attempt to "westernize" and "pluralize" us. They seek to
overturn the leadership of the Party and subvert the socialist system.

One clear example of the ACFTU's response to independent union organizing can
be found in the recent attempt of union organizing in Daqing which has taken
place since the first week of March, 2002. Fifty thousand oil workers in this
model Daqing oilfield in northeast China staged mass demonstrations and organized
an independent union in a struggle against retrenchment. The Daqing Retrenched
Workers' Provisional Union Committee, still a clandestine body, stands as the
first successful independent union organizing effort in China since the 1990s.
Police and the armed forces have moved in to control the situation. There has
been a news blackout of the events in the official media. Contrary to the common
practice one would expect of nearly all functioning democratic unions, the ACFTU
first failed to report or publicize the highly significant event. It did not
try to get involved nor support the workers' struggle who were confronted with
army intervention. Worst of all, it promptly condemned the independent union
organizing as unlawful which should be stopped. In the above-mentioned interview,
the official of the Heilongjiang (FTU) explained why his union would not have
anything to do with the Daqing Oilfield workers' organizing initiatives.

Han Dong-fang: This brings us back to speeches made by the chair of
the HFTU and also Wei Jianxing, the chairperson of the ACFTU. Namely that
wherever there are workers, the union needs to organise them. If the union
doesn't do this, then the workers will organise themselves.

HFTU: Correct. Chairman Wei Jianxing said that. Han: Why did he say
that? HFTU: Because if the trade union doesn't uphold workers' rights, then
the workers will go and find an organisation that does. He meant that the
union cannot permit this. If we don't set up trade unions in new enterprises,
non state-owned enterprises and private companies, then what kind of organisations
will emerge spontaneously? This is what he was getting at. Han: But how
can workers who organise themselves to stop their rights being violated
and protect themselves be harming the ACFTU? HFTU: Our main work is, it
seems, to defend the present trade union system and organisational structure.

[RFA 16/03/02]

This episode provides a classic illustration of what the ACFTU really does
when workers try to organize their own unions and collective bargaining. While
Deng Xiaoping did not make much distinction between the "black and white cats",
workers in China know all too well which unions work for them and which do not.
Such sentiments have even been expressed by a local rank-and-file government
official during the Daqing workers' struggle in March,2002.

Han Dong-fang:

How does this provisional union committee compare to the official one?.


One is for workers, another for the capitalists. They are completely different.
That's it.


So this is a union belonging to the workers?


Yes, this is a union of the workers.


What about the other one?


That is a union of the capitalists. The one belonging to the workers is
called Committee of the Provisional Trade Union of Retrenched Workers of
the DPAB.

[RFA 05/03/02]


There is overwhelming evidence that the ACFTU continues to be an arm of the
party-state. It has consistently tried to stop independent union organizing.
Focus on legislative reform in labour standards is only a window-dressing attempt
by an otherwise irrelevant organization to give the impression that it is performing
some meaningful and useful role.

The ACFTU is hostile to any moves by the international union community which
call for better protection of basic labour rights in China.

Behind the facade of the ACFTU, workers in China have become more vulnerable
and marginalized than at any time since 1949. Worst of all, workers are deprived
of their fundamental labour rights. Labour organizing has been systematically
and relentlessly repressed by the government, with support and assistance from
the ACFTU. Yet despite all this adversity, increasing numbers of workers are
taking up labour organizing in their struggle against continuous attacks on
their livelihoods and interests. >From this struggle, an alternative to a
union body controlled by the party-state may emerge, a century after the ACFTU
was founded.


Guan, Ming, "Investigation and Thoughts on Union Organization", Gongren
20 February, 2002.

RFA 16/03/02, China Labour Bulletin interview by Han Dong-fang, "The Limits
of the ACFTU for Daqing Workers; Difficulties of Independent Organising"
, broadcast
on Radio Free Asia, 16 March, 2002.

RFA 05/03/02, China Labour Bulletin interview by Han Dong-fang, "Daqing Workers'
, broadcast on Radio Free Asia, 5 March, 2002.

Sun, Shaoyong, "Investigation and Thoughts on the Special Characteristics,
Causes and Countermeasures for Dealing with the Rise in Workers' Spontaneous
Collective Incidents", from Heilongjiang Federation of Trade Unions web-site,

Wei, Jianxing, "Conscientiously Implement the Spirit of the Fifth Plenary Session
of the 15th Central Committee and speed up the organising
and establishing of trade unions in new enterprises." A speech delivered on
November 12th, 2000 at the Work Meeting on Organising and Establishing
Trade Unions in New Enterprises. Beijing Federation of Trade Unions website,

Xu, Xicheng, "New Trends in the International Trade Union Movement", Ban
Yue Tan Magazine,
Issue no. 12, 25 June 2001. Ban Yue Tan is run
by the Propaganda Department of the CPC, targeting rank-and-file officials of
the mass organisations of the Communist Youth League, the All-China Women's
Federation, and the ACFTU. The magazine, different from most other party propaganda
publications, is written in popular style.


26 April, 2002

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