Growing resistance by Chinese workers
HAN DONGFANG, 34, an organiser of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation, which was formed and crushed in May-June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, has been a vocal defender of Chinese workers' rights since he was released in 1991 after 22 months of imprisonment.
Han was refused entry to China — in fact, physically carried and violently dumped by Chinese police at what was then the border with Hong Kong — in late 1993, when he tried to return to his Beijing home. He was returning after a year of treatment in the US for tuberculosis, which he contracted after he was put in a ward full of TB prisoners, hardly by accident. US trade unionists helped fund his treatment, which included the removal of one lung.
Based in Hong Kong since 1993, Han has been publisher of China Labor Bulletin since 1994, and the producer of a Radio Free Asia program on Chinese labour since early 1997. Han spoke to Green Left Weekly's EVA CHENG last month in Hong Kong on recent workers' struggles and their relationship with the broader democracy movement.
Beijing's extension of the privatisation and corporatisation of state firms in the last few years has driven more and more people out of work, or to work with little or no pay. Based on close monitoring of labour struggles in recent years, Han said such protests and strikes were happening practically every day in China, around the fundamental demand for jobs, food and survival.
Unemployment and the brutal slashing of basic social security have become burning issues. Even official figures reveal there are 30 million urban unemployed, a number which Han expected to double in the next 12 months. That figure does not include the enormous number of workers who still technically hold a job but have gone without pay for far too long, or have received only a very minimal amount.
"Often those workers weren't paid anything for half a year, one year, even two or three years", said Han. "And this includes those who have to work overtime."
Added to this are the deep cuts to essential provisions like housing, school, child-care, medical and aged care, which usually came with an urban job in China. Many were driven to desperation. "Once you lose your job, you lose everything.
"The worker issue is like a time bomb. You don't know when it's going to explode."
The system is cracking. Han said workers were becoming desperate, and more and more taking to the streets, demanding wages, for food to fill their empty stomachs.
"The biggest problem is food", Han stressed. "A lot of people have gone without food already."
The demand for food now marks nearly every demonstration. "People are demanding tomorrow's breakfast."
Another measure of workers' desperation, according to Han, is the full awareness of those in action of the personal risks that they face.
"These demonstrators took to the streets under a great deal of pressure. They can be killed, jailed or lose everything. But such worries haven't stopped them."
The attack on housing is a potential flashpoint. There is mounting pressure to force workers to buy their quarters. In post-1949 China housing has been a benefit, at a modest rent, that always came with a job.
Workers have been coping with the squeeze on housing by putting up with even more congested living conditions. Han is not aware of any moves yet to throw workers out of their quarters, but he is sure that such an offensive would invite strong social reaction.
Frequent street protests indicate the workers' determination to fight. Tens of thousands have mobilised on some occasions.
But Han said the size of actions, on its own, did not tell a lot. Many workers were prepared to take part in a mass action based on the belief that their individual identity was lost and individual retaliation was unlikely. Growing appreciation of the gravity of the attacks on jobs and welfare more recently, he added, had drawn more into street action.
However, fear of being identified is blocking the development of an effective fight back. Han traced this worry to the brutal purges during the Cultural Revolution. "Those survivors who are still involved [in social action] take a low profile, don't want their names being highlighted, hide themselves and don't want to join an organisation."
Despite the fact that a huge number of workers were mobilised to Tiananmen in 1989, and marched under their factory banners, only 100-200 joined the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation. "People still had food then", Han said.
Even those who came under the federation's banner, in Han's opinion, had very rudimentary conceptions of what they wanted to achieve. He said the federation was primarily a collection of workers who felt the need to do something to check the outrageous behaviour of the Communist Party, under the general goal of democracy and freedom.
Han is now convinced that Chinese workers need to have their own independent movement, to fight for their concrete interests. Workers could not afford to harbour any more illusions that the politicians would solve their problems for them.
Han believed that the fundamental problem facing Chinese workers today is China's social system and that it was the aspiration of the majority of Chinese people to get rid of the CP dictatorship. But very few people had any idea how to achieve that, and even fewer would act towards this goal.
But he believed people would respond strongly to any mobilisation around pay, job, health and concrete issues that affect their lives.
Confusion and division
It is not clear whether Han considers jobs as part of a broader struggle to overhaul China's social system or as an end in itself. But he stressed that the struggle for, say, a fan in a hot workplace, was a more effective means to achieve workers' democracy than actions aiming to change or replace the ruling party.
Han considered himself part of the democracy movement but, in practical terms, dissociated himself from the mainstream of the movement, which, in his opinion, is too dominated by students and intellectuals.
He believes this mainstream has only an academic idea of what democracy is and seems to treat workers' struggle as a means to help bring them to power.
He is deeply offended by the view of some intellectuals that state enterprises went under because their workers are lazy. He also disapproved of the scornful attitude of some activists towards workers' interests and workers' democracy.
"People presumed that everybody joined the 1989 movement for the same goal and had the same interests. In fact, the only thing we had in common is our opposition to the CP. We disagreed on everything else."
Han had few doubts that the Chinese Communists were genuine revolutionaries in the earlier days, but believed they became corrupted by power, even before 1949. He had no doubt that Dickensian capitalism is the order of the day in China today, and "Life is a hell for the Chinese workers."
Han is not aware of any organisation organising workers' mobilisations in recent years, and believes that most protests were spontaneous fights against naked exploitation.