China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.
Click here to view the original television interview.
19 March 2012
When it comes to workers’ rights in China, Han Dongfang ‘knows it all’. He was involved in the establishment of the first independent trade union in the country, the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation. He was arrested for two years following the Tiananmen Square protests. But after his release, he did not stop fighting and ended up winning the Democracy Award from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy in 1993. In the last couple of decades, the workers’ situation in China has changed a lot. The Central Government no longer takes strikes as a threat and now plays the role of a referee. Beijing has no choice, according to Han Dongfang.
It is estimated that almost 100 worker protests happen every day in mainland China. A few years ago, workers would protest if they weren’t paid what they were promised. But now, it is different. There are more and more workers going on strike for the sake of better salaries. “Now the workers are demanding more pro actively for better life, an increase of their salary. The spirit of the workers movement is more on the workers head,” says the activist. Han argues that the workers’ demand for more money can help foster China’s economy. The consumption power of 800 million working people is enormous and that will help China grow. To improve that power is the ‘way to go’. “That will create really huge internal consumption power to move the Chinese economy further, without too much influence of the international markets,” says Han. He adds that the Central government knows it, as the economic priorities of Beijing are changing.
Market rules the ruler
For Han Dongfang, market power is the real power in China. And that is changing the political and social landscape. “The Communist Party rules China but what rules the Communist Party? I would say the market power is way more powerful than the Communist Party. They have to follow the market power. The consumption power of the new generation of workers can be seen as beneficial to the government, making the future economy grow easier,” says Han.
For Han Dongfang, reality has changed and forced the Party to change too. It is adapting. “The Chinese government is changing itself. They can’t maintain themselves as twenty years ago, or just two years ago. China is gradually growing into the market economy and the behavior of the Communist Party and the government is following that direction too. They have to follow the new situation,” says the activist. This means Beijing is not seeing the strikes and roadblocks as a direct threat to its power, but as part of the whole game.
“It’s really different. Now they don’t really see it that way, they see it as regular activity within the market economy. Letting employers and employees deal with each other, they can sit in the middle maintaining the rules, producing new laws. That is a very good development. Although China is far from democracy, it is on the good direction, if they continue developing in this way,” says Han. Repression on labor rights struggle is therefore diminishing. “Maybe we are lucky to work on labor issues. Five, ten years ago, it was the most sensitive issue, untouchable. But now even if you block the traffic from time to time, they don’t really arrest the leaders and the organizers. Three or five years ago, you would get one or two years in prison,” says Han.
Chinese economy grew tremendously and it had an impact on the hopes and dreams of the workers in the new generations. Their priorities have changed. “The generation of their parents would rather save their money and send it back to their village. But this generation,” Han continues, “they just would like to spend money on their own and they also want to settle themselves in the city.” The labor activist argues that workers may not be driven so much by ideological motives as in the past. But they are more and more prone to fight for better living standards.
“It’s based on their own self interest. It’s not like they talk all the time about democracy, freedom and human rights. They fight for their rights, their daily rights, and their work and livelihood matters more than a big banner. The new generation is concerned about when will they have a house, a car, a nice this or a nice that,” says Han. For Han Dongfang, there is nothing wrong with that. “Why not? In my generation, twenty years ago, we did not have that chance. If we had that chance, we would have dreamed that too. This generation, their dare to dream, to have a better life, is really powerful.”
Media is helping the workers
The organization of the workers’ movement has improved over the years. But that reveals more about the overall social environment than the movement itself. Not only is the government taking a different approach, the media is as well. There is social media, and growing independent media. And they are giving a helping hand. “They have to look for their own way to survive, have more advertisement. In order to survive economically, they have to write more interesting pieces and have more interesting programs for their viewers and readers. So they have these stories to attract more advertisement,” says Han.
Media can help but it can’t do all the work. Workers must continue to press on, with or without the official unions, continues Han. “The people inside the All China Federation of Trade Unions, the ACFTU, within the organization, they think they are part of the government. This is a very strong mentality. But now a new situation is developing,” Han continues. “Recent strikes were not done with the official unions, they were led by the workers. In other words, the workers today are much stronger. Either the ACTFU officials support the workers or the workers will kick them out. There is no third option.”