China Ratifies ICESCR: A Change in Sight or More of the Same?

01 March 2001
March 1, 2000

On February 28, 2001 the Standing Committee of the National People's
Congress ratified the "International Covenant on Economic, Social and
Cultural Rights (ICESCR)". However a statement issued by the Standing
Committee stated that the Chinese government will only implement Article
8, Clause 1 of the Covenant within the parameters of the Chinese Constitution,
Trade Union Law and the Labour Law.

Article 8 Clause 1 recognises:

The right of everyone to form trade unions
and join the trade union of his choice, subject only to the rules of
the organization concerned, for the promotion and protection of his
economic and social interests. No restrictions may be placed on the
exercise of this right other than those prescribed by law and which
are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security
or public order or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of

While welcoming the Chinese government's decision to ratify this international
covenant, we also note the government's reservation on Article 8, Clause
1. The government has not totally rejected the concept of the right
to organise embodied in the Covenant, and although this step forward
gives us some room for hope, we are apprehensive about the actual implementation
of the Covenant.

Firstly, the preface of the Chinese Constitution clearly states that
everything must take place under the leadership of the Chinese Communist
Party (CCP). This assertion immediately offsets a main premise of the
Covenant, that laws shall be based on acceptance of a "democratic society".
In the face of the indisputable conflict of interests between the economic
and social policies of the CCP and the interests of the Chinese working
class, the Constitutional principle of workers having to accept the
leadership of the CCP renders us unable to protect our interests, and
also absolutely unable to accept this leadership. It is therefore essential
that the National People's Congress change the Constitution and delete
any articles that violate the spirit of democracy if the Covenant is
to be realistically implemented.

Secondly, Article 12, Clause 4 of China's Trade Union Law states that
the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the only permitted
trade union in China. This clearly violates a principle in the Covenant,
which states that people have the right to join a trade union of their

Thirdly, it is a fact that International Covenants must be implemented
within the framework of a country's laws. Both the Constitution and
the Trade Union Law of China clearly restrict workers from joining a
trade union of their choice. While China's Constitution and Trade Union
Law remain unchanged, the National People's Congress (NPC) can stress
that the ICESCR should be implemented in accordance with Chinese laws.
This is an implicit refusal to accept the obligations in Article 8 of
the Covenant. Faced with this reality, we have good reason to be apprehensive.

When China dropped the charge "counter-revolution" from its penal code,
many people considered this a progressive step. However, the government
replaced the concept of "counter-revolutionary crimes" with an equally
draconian law that employed the concepts of "threat to state security"
and "subversion". These are now used to repress dissidents. In fact
sentences that have been handed down under the new law have been even

In 1998, Hunan worker Zhang Shanguang was sentenced to ten years in
prison for "threatening state security". His "crime" had been to try
and legally register an organisation to protect the rights of laid off

Also in 1998, Yue Tianxiang, a driver at the Tianshui City long distance
Bus Company in Gansu Province, organised his colleagues to peacefully
contest the company's decision to lay off drivers. He was sentenced
to 10 years for "threatening state security".

In 2000, a labour lawyer from Inner Mongolia, Xu Jian, was sentenced
to four years for "threatening state security" after he represented
workers in a legal dispute over wage arrears.

These cases, and many more, are the reasons behind our doubts over
Chinese government's sincerity. There is good reason to believe that
the government will base its interpretation of the Covenant solely on
the need to maintain political power and use the Covenant's clauses
on "state security" and "public order" to justify arresting labour organisers
and trade unionists.

The last few years have seen the restructuring and reform of China's
state-owned enterprises. Chinese workers have been barred from taking
part in this process and this has resulted in serious violations of
the interests of working people, including non-payment of pensions,
non-payment of lay off and unemployment benefits, removal of guarantees
on education, medical allowances and housing rights. Overall working
conditions have deteriorated sharply. The government has also encouraged
the arrival of foreign investment and this has led to serious exploitation
such as illegally long working hours, low wages, lack of health and
safety and no benefits or labour insurance.

In the face of these violations, workers all over China have been organising
strikes and demonstrations. They are also starting to organise independently
and this represents a first step towards an independent labour movement.
The government has responded with armed police and violence. Labour
leaders have been imprisoned and the repression has remained at a very
high level.

The resistance of Chinese workers is reaching a critical point. No
matter what the political background of the government's decision to
ratify the ICESCR may be, the end result is predictable. More workers
will be encouraged to take a stand and get organised as the independent
labour movement in China develops within the parameters of international

Han Dongfang

Chief Editor, CLB
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