Han Dongfang believes that China’s workers may one day compel the country’s Communist Party to actually become social-democratic. I’m not sure if that makes Han the most credulous of China’s democracy activists or the canniest strategist now working to democratize that nation. I am sure, however, that he’s had more successes than anyone else in empowering Chinese workers.
Speaking recently to a Washington conclave sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute, Han recounted the victories that striking Chinese workers have won over the past four years. In 2010, workers at a huge Honda plant shut off the power and walked off the job to win a living wage. They made clear their intent to stay out—and not to damage the factory. Surprisingly, the local government didn’t send in the police. Eventually, a mediator came in to meet separately with both workers and management, and persuaded Honda to give its employees a 32 percent wage increase. “This was the first collective bargaining in China,” Han said.
The following year, workers at the City Watch factory went on strike, demanding to be compensated for the unpaid hour that managers imposed on them every day. The workers and their attorney sat down with management—another first in Chinese labor relations—and came away with an agreement to pay them for those hours. More remarkably still, state-owned media reported the story.
Since then, there have been prominent strikes, most of them reported by state media outlets, at facilities owned by Nokia, Walmart and Yue-Yen Shoe, where earlier this year more than 40,000 workers struck to receive the benefits for which deductions were taken from their paychecks. Chinese state television not only covered the strike but interviewed the communications director at the China Labour Bulletin, the Hong Kong-based organization that Han founded and leads.
No one at the Bulletin had expected that Chinese TV would come knocking on their door. Beijing does not consider Han a friend of the regime. In May, 1989, as protesters occupied Tiananmen Square, Han co-founded and became spokesperson for the Beijing Autonomous Worker’s Federation—the first independent labor organization in the country since the Communists took power in 1949. After the June 4 crackdown, he was imprisoned without trial for 22 months, at a facility where most of the inmates suffered from tuberculosis. Han contracted the disease as well, and after his release, was able to come to the United States, with the assistance of the AFL-CIO and Human Rights Watch, for treatment. Once cured, he tried to return to China, but was immediately expelled to Hong Kong, where he has lived and worked since.
In 1999, Han founded the Bulletin, with the expressed intent of helping Chinese workers win both rights and raises. In 2005, he said, “we began promoting collective bargaining as a way to create a win-win solution” to the nation’s problems—in particular, to the growing problem of economic inequality and overreliance on foreign markets to consume the goods that Chinese workers made.
Under Han’s leadership, the Bulletin reached out to a number of China’s independent labor centers—non-governmental organizations where attorneys and others advise workers of their rights and represent them in legal disputes. The Bulletin provides the centers with how-to guides for collective bargaining and worker representation elections—skills that workers who have just walked off the job need to acquire quickly if they’re to win their demands.
At the same time, the Bulletin cautions workers not to challenge the Communist Party directly, but to focus instead on confronting their employers. “We make sure the centers we work with don’t overly politicize their cases,” Han said. If they do, the party will surely repress them. When workers keep the focus on economic issues only, Han noted, party authorities have let the strikes proceed without calling in police or arresting their leaders, and at times have allowed official news media to report on the strikes without condemnation.
In a similar vein, the Bulletin doesn’t urge workers to form unions that extend beyond their own workplace: To do so would be to challenge the authority of party institutions—in particular, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The Federation is a party-run labor organization over which workers have no control, and which has never initiated, and only once backed, a genuine strike. Characteristically, plant managers and party officials head the ACFTU’s local affiliates.
Setting up a rival union would just invite a crackdown. Instead, Han believes, that workers can eventually transform the Federation. “The ACFTU lacks legitimacy with workers, while workers lack the kind of organizational structure that the ACFTU has,” he said. With enough experience at successful collective bargaining, he contends, workers can one day compel the Federation to morph into a genuine workers’ organization.
That would require some major morphing on the party’s part as well, but Han considers that a real possibility. He places considerable stock in the public statements of President Xi JInping and Premier Li Kequing that boosting domestic consumption is the key to China’s economic problems, that wages must reflect productivity and that collective wage negotiations are essential to increasing those wages and domestic purchasing power.
To date, however, not only are multi-facility unions politically verboten, but even one-facility unions have proven impossible to sustain. “The unions that emerged during successful actions, that won the best deals, are gone,” Han said. “The companies all got rid of the organizations; there are no ongoing organizational structures.” Nor are the settlements that workers have won up for reconsideration after a set time.
For now, then, Han pins his hopes on the spread of worker actions themselves. “The workplace was the historic foundation of democracy in 19th-century Europe,” he said. “Chinese democracy will begin in the workplace, too. This workplace democracy will lead China in a more democratic direction; it will push the party to become more social democratic.”
Well, perhaps. It’s certainly true that China’s leaders believe that the nation’s prosperity cannot indefinitely depend on its exports, that the perpetuation of their power requires a broadening of prosperity that can only be achieved by workers taking action to win a greater share of their employer’s revenues. By the same token, however, the party’s continuing hold on power—at least, as a communist oligarchy—also depends on its repression of independent organizations, most especially independent democratic organizations.
Responding at the Shanker Institute to Han’s presentation, Sharon Hom, the executive director of Human Rights in China, noted that the government is currently cracking down on any attempts to subject party-controlled organizations to greater democratic input. Members of the Beijing Bar Association who’ve recently attempted to elect their own leaders rather than have them selected by the party have been punished, she said.
Hom noted that the rise in number of China’s activists has been accompanied by a decline in the number of China’s dissidents. “Activists aren’t dissidents any longer,” she said. “They’re just trying to better their communities through environmental or neighborhood groups.” In a sense, Han’s striking workers are more activist than dissident as well. Indeed, by eschewing the role of dissident, they allow the party to respond either favorably or neutrally to their actions, rather than repressing them.
Han’s vision of the systemic transformation he hopes for, then, is one of a more democratic civil society not seeking to overthrow the communist autocracy but rather changing the society’s norms so that in time the communists’ norms will have to change, too. Avoiding a direct confrontation with the party’s power, he contends, gives the party the political space to become something better.
And yet, the truism remains true: Power seldom yields without a struggle. If the transformation Han seeks ever arrives, it likely will be more wrenching and bloody than the gradualist one he sketched. There’s no doubt that his promotion of employer-focused—not party-focused—collective worker action has proven a considerable success, not only in emboldening and winning gains for workers but also in acclimating party officials to the occasional strike. Whether these actions have the transformational potential he claims for them is, alas, another question.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that the current successes of Han’s action plan also enables us to succinctly encapsulate labor relations in the world’s two largest economies: China has strikes without unions. The United States has unions without strikes.