China and the ILO, Introduction

(Originally published in CLB Issue #58, Jan-Feb 2001)



Part 1: Recent History of China's Involvement with the ILO

Part 2: Complaints to the Committee on Freedom of Association

Part 3: Conclusion and Appendices

Appendix A: ILO Backs Complaint by ITF and ICFTU

Appendix B: Union Representatives or Government Officials?

Appendix C: ILO Conventions Ratified by China



In many ways, it might be argued that China's changing relationship with
the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - and its role within it -
provide a kind of mirror-image of the changes that have taken place in
China over the last thirty years. In the early 1970s, China declared itself
a 'non active member'. This was perhaps unavoidable, as the country hardly
possessed the tripartite structure of employers, trade unions and government
on which ILO membership is based. Since then, Chinese society has changed
beyond recognition and the government has gradually increased its activities
at the ILO, which it now regards as an important international forum on
which national interests can be pursued.

The history of China's increased presence at the ILO has been far from
smooth. As late as 1989, six years after China's first post-1949 delegation
attended the ILO's annual conference in Geneva, Chinese official Guan
Jinghe explicitly laid down the limits of China's adherence to ILO norms
and conventions. Guan announced that

"[S]ince China is a large country and only officials responsible
for handling standards-related matters... grasp the significance of
labour standards, it is not possible to meet with the requirement of
extensive application of ILO Conventions and Recommendations"


Guan's statement appears to be saying that knowledge of the Conventions
is restricted to a small number of officials and therefore they won't
be applied in China. Justifications apart, the eve of the 1989 Democracy
Movement and its subsequent repression, saw the Chinese government clearly
opposing compliance to ILO Conventions that lie at the heart of the organisation's
existence. Ironically, it was compliance with the standards of crucial
ILO conventions that was implicit in the demands for legal recognition
that the Workers' Autonomous Federations (WAFs) put forward during the
Democracy Movement.

Yet despite the international censure and partial isolation that followed
the state violence of June 1989 - censure that also came from the ILO
itself - China has continued to increase its capacity at various ILO fora.
Within four years of the repression, and in stark contrast to Guan's comments
quoted above, a Chinese representative to a meeting of experts on Convention
26 (Minimum Wage-fixing Machinery) held in 1993, expressed China's interest
in ILO standards and stressed the government's 'positive attitude of cooperation'

By June 2000, with China much further down the road towards an economy
integrated into global trading patterns, the social perspective of China's
market reforms were placed firmly within the parameters of ILO guidance
and expertise. China's labour minister, Zhang Zuoji, assured delegates
to the International Labour Conference (ILC), the ILO's annual meeting,

"the Chinese government is willing to strengthen its cooperation
with the ILO and all of its members, to share and use for reference
their experience in improving the construction of labour markets and
the establishment of social security systems, in order to jointly promote
the development of world labour insurance".

This article will attempt to look at the recent history of China's involvement
with the ILO and trace the development of the crucial debate that has
developed between the ILO's Governing Body Committee on Freedom of Association
(CFA) and the Chinese government. We believe that the Chinese government
views its status at the ILO as directly relevant to its claim to being
a 'workers' state' and therefore the ILO remains a constructive platform
on which trade unionists can expose this fallacy. We also believe that
ILO Conventions are still an essential tool for all workers to use while
protecting their interests in the face of the 'race to the bottom' that
has accompanied globalisation. Forcing China, and other member states,
to adhere to the standards of the conventions is a task for working class
movements throughout the world.


(1) Quoted
in Kent, China, the United Nations and Human Rights, 1999,

(2) Ibid,

(3) FBIS
Text, Xinhua, 07/06/2000


Introduction |
History | CFA Complaints | Conclusion & Appendices

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