Keeping the Flame Alive

Jun. 3, 2009
11:26 am
by W.J. Levay
1 Comment

Filed under: Labor

The following are reflections on the twentieth anniversary of June 4, 1989, the day the Chinese state violently suppressed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. They are written by Han Dongfang, the leader of the independent union formed during the Tiananmen Square protests. After June 4th, Han nearly lost this life when he was jailed in a prison filled with highly contagious tuberculosis patients. He is currently the head of the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong based organization dedicated to advocacy on behalf of Chinese workers. These reflections originally appeared on the CLB Web site.

Photo by Jeff Widener (Associated Press)

Photo by Jeff Widener (Associated Press)

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the crushing of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, many journalists asked me: “Have you lost hope?” The government has successfully suppressed the truth of what happened that day; young people today do not care as much as the students of 1989 about the fate of their country or their fellow citizens, or set much store by democracy, freedom and political ideals. Instead, they want to find a good, well-paid job, and dream of owning a car and buying a home as soon as possible. As a participant in the democracy movement 20 years ago, these journalists asked me, have you given up on this generation that has abandoned political commitment for the pursuit of material happiness?

The question certainly worries me. But when you think about it, what is wrong with young people trying to raise their living standards? There is no inherent conflict between the pursuit of a comfortable life and the pursuit of democracy and freedom. Democracy is not just a matter of abstract political theory. A democratic system should be able to deliver a better life — decent pay, a good job, a nice car and a place of your own — as a matter of course. It should be a tool for realising dreams. At the moment, how many of the 1.4 billion people living in China are really fulfilling their dreams? Never mind dreams — how many still lack life’s basic necessities?

And yet there are signs of hope. Take the example of a married couple working at a Hong Kong-financed gem-processing factory in Guangdong a few years ago. This factory was daily enveloped in clouds of dust at every stage of production from stonecutting to final polishing, but the employer never installed dust-prevention or suppression equipment as regulations required, and did not even give his workers protective masks. In 2000, some of the workers developed silicosis, and the disease gradually spread throughout the workforce. Management’s response was to refuse legally mandated compensation and medical treatment, and simply dismiss anybody with the illness. In 2005, the couple, who had been working at the factory for more than ten years, had themselves checked out at a local hospital at their own expense. The wife was diagnosed with stage II-plus silicosis and the husband’s lung x-rays showed dense shadowing. The doctor told him that, given his work history, he too certainly had early-stage silicosis. As with the other factory workers who received this news, the couple were dismissed.

Fighting for their individual rights and the rights of others

With two children to support, a son aged 11 and a daughter aged six, they decided to accept an offer of legal assistance from China Labour Bulletin and launched a series of lawsuits. Their main demands were: that workers dismissed simply on suspicion of having an occupational illnesses be reemployed; that the court hold the employer accountable for neglect leading to bodily injury; that the local labour inspection authorities, who did nothing about the factory’s atrocious working conditions, be held to account; and likewise the occupational insurance authorities, who failed in their duty to compel the employer to arrange insurance cover for his employees. In filing these lawsuits, the couple aimed not only to obtain redress themselves, but at the same time help other similarly stricken colleagues still seeking compensation and treatment, and apply pressure to get other employers to improve working conditions and local authorities to enforce the law, and thereby prevent the recurrence of such tragedies.

They knew the odds were stacked heavily against them — the wealthy factory boss had vast resources and very close ties with local government officials, while they had nothing but their need to make ends meet and their desire to fight for the rights of their colleagues. Yet it was this burning desire that sustained them. They did not shout slogans about democracy and freedom from the rooftops; their actions were far more eloquent. Every step they took on their quest for justice was an ordeal, and also testimony to the spirit of the rule of law. Even though corrupt court officials eventually thwarted their efforts in the end, the very act of going to court brought pressure to bear on employers and local government officials, encouraging the former to show more respect for labour laws and basic worker rights, and the latter to be more diligent and stringent in law enforcement.

In China, tens of thousands of workers have been through the same experiences as this couple, and made the same demands. And many employers like this gem-factory manager have shown the same indifference to their workers’ wellbeing and disregard for labour legislation. But I believe that if more and more victims of worker rights violations follow the example of this couple, refusing to be silenced and taking culpable employers or government officials to court, the ensuing avalanche of litigation could provide an overwhelming impetus for the establishment of rule of law and the development of civil society.

Ordinary citizens across China join the movement

As social conflicts have increased over the past 20 years, and rights violations have become more widespread, more and more victims have begun to speak out. They will no longer be silenced. It is no longer taboo for workers to use strike action to defend their rights. In the Pearl River Delta alone, strikes involving more than a thousand people occur on a daily basis, with many more protests on a smaller scale. At the end of last year, waves of strikes broke out amongst taxi drivers and teachers across the country. The teachers sought fairer pay terms, and in some cases succeeded in bringing the local government to the negotiating table. Twenty years ago, or even ten years, such an outcome — officials talking to strike leaders — would have been unimaginable.

There has been progress in other areas, too. Employment and education discrimination has been the daily lot of the 120 million Chinese citizens with the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). In the past, this marginalized group never had the confidence to raise its voice in protest. But in the last few years, more and more people living with HBV have stood up and fought for their rights in court. These lawsuits have already raised social awareness about HBV and a range of other employment discrimination issues.

Despite fierce resistance and pressure from local government officials, the parents of the schoolchildren who died after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan last year have never given up in their attempts to expose the corruption of the construction companies and officials responsible for school collapses. Indeed, their resolve has only been hardened.

Even in the villages, there are stirrings. Farmers have long been the victims of corrupt officials and crooked businessmen who together bullied or swindled them out of their land, leaving countless millions facing destitution. Even this class, considered by many to be the least politically engaged in Chinese society, who 20 years ago were given ten yuan a head to march on the streets decrying the democracy movement, have been driven into a corner by the corruption of local officials. And now they have now begun to fight back, exposing corruption and defending their lawful land rights.

Continuing the struggle down through the generations

When it is a matter of survival, and all exits are blocked, resistance becomes the only option. Today corruption and venality are at an all time high and there is scarcely a family in China that has not been affected by actions of corrupt officials in alliance with crooked businessmen. And as a consequence, a grassroots civil rights movement dedicated to defending ordinary citizens’ rights has emerged in villages and towns across the country. Moreover, this movement has now been joined by lawyers, journalists and academics and others who in the past may have considered themselves apart from such issues.

Today, countless Chinese people see protest as a means of realising their modest dreams of affluence, or reclaiming their usurped economic rights from corrupt officials, crooked businessmen and unscrupulous employers. Though it has little to do with democratic theory or sloganeering, this process has become unstoppable. Is this not a continuation of the campaign we launched 20 years ago, and an extension of the 1979 Democracy Wall movement and the protests of 5 April 1976? We might even see this as the resumption of the lofty work of countless Chinese citizens since the Reform Movement of 1898 and the 1911 Revolution. The difference today is that protestors will not lightly risk their lives or a long jail-term to achieve their goals.

Over 100 years ago, the political reformist and poet Tan Sitong wrote: “If there are no actors, there can be no future. If no one sacrifices their life, who will inspire future generations to act? The evolution of every nation requires bloodshed. But in China too few people are willing to shed blood for reform, so if someone must do so, let it begin with me.” A hundred years later, if I may reword Tan thus: If there are no actors, there can be no future. But we do not need to sacrifice ourselves in order to inspire future generations to act. The evolution of every nation may require bloodshed, but in China, too many people have been willing to shed blood for reform, and the country is still not flourishing. We do not need anymore bloodshed to achieve our goals — let our generation to be the one to begin. If our generation can make China flourish without further bloodshed, then I think Tan Sitong will be smiling in his grave.

Han Dongfang

4 June 2009