Labor Activism and Democracy in China

Han Dongfeng: collective bargaining a “Win-win-win solution”

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

Factory-level collective bargaining can serve as a pathway toward democracy in China, according to prominent Chinese labor rights activist Han Dongfeng. On Monday April 1, George Mason University hosted Mr. Han Dongfeng for a discussion about labor movements starting from the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 to the contemporary situation in China. Since economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s liberalized trade and focused on obtaining foreign investment, workers have increasingly relied on industrial action to advocate for higher pay and better working conditions, disrupting production. Because strike organizers have generally been imprisoned or blacklisted and the labor system lacks organization due to a government monopoly on unions, workers have hesitated to take what Han calls “personal responsibility” to lead movements locally or regionally. In free market capitalism as well as China’s state capitalism, the relationship between workers, employers and the state has much room for improvement; instituting widespread collective bargaining is a “win-win-win” solution for China according to Han. The process of democracy has begun in China, and the labor movement provides a model lesson for how democracy can be institutionalized in workers’ lives.

Worker identity as essential to collective action

A leader of industrial labor movements, Han spoke with emotion and conviction about historical and current labor tensions and the slow progress toward democracy in China. As a railway worker, Han founded the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation (China’s first independent, non-state trade union) during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Because of his role in the protests, Han was arrested and held for nearly two years without trial. In 1993 after leaving China for medical attention, he was not allowed to return. Han moved to Hong Kong, and in 1994 founded the China Labor Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization that protects and promotes the rights of workers in China.

Chinese workers are proud to keep their identity as working class. Their ability to successfully act collectively, however, has been hampered by the stripping of protective measures in the 1980s and strong state control over economic and political spheres. The removal of protections has led to a chaotic system of sporadic industrial action. Workers in China do not legally have the right to strike – that right was removed from the Constitution in 1982. What Han calls “wild cat” strikes continue to occur when workers demand higher wages or better working conditions from their employers, but have no option other than stopping work.

Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China.  Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

 While workers become more willing to strike as a group, they still often lack representation through independent unions. Workers’ right to collective bargaining should be legislated to enable unions to adequately represent workers in negotiations with employers. According to the International Labour Organization, “Collective bargaining allows both sides to negotiate a fair employment relationship and prevents costly labour disputes…Countries with highly coordinated collective bargaining tend to have less inequality in wages, lower and less persistent unemployment, and fewer and shorter strikes than countries where collective bargaining is less established.” Organizations such as the China Labour Bulletin and nonprofit organizations take up cases and help improve conditions and individual factories, but competition for workers in central versus coastal areas (city versus rural), improved work-life balance and consistent and rising wages could benefit from adequate public policy measures by the central government. To effect change, workers must continue their fight to force the CPC to make these reforms.

Furthermore, workers can still face retaliation from their employers if they participate in or discuss strikes in the media. The China Labour Bulletin provides an example: “five workers who had taken part in a strike at Guangdong International Paper on 19 February said they were fired simply because they had given interviews to the media. They were neither the organizers of the strike nor even active participants in it.” It is then up to the workers to keep their elected representatives accountable. Earlier this year workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen petitioned for a recall and reelection of their union chairman after he failed to protect their interests with management in two disputes over contracts. As workers and representatives gain more confidence in negotiations with employers they continue to face difficulties that require legislative protections.

Finding a path forward for reforms

Compared to 5 or 6 years ago, the government leadership in China has moved in a new direction regarding labor activism. Protestors and strike organizers now rarely go to prison for industrial action. According to Han, labor is one of the “least sensitive issues” for the Communist Party of China, even less so than environmental issues; by backing away from restrictions on labor rights and media freedoms, the CPC is strengthening civil society and allowing for more voices to be heard. These developments are encouraging for improved labor rights and standards.

In contrast to Han, the new generation of workers does not remember the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and so are living without fear, particularly without the “fear of government.” Instead of fighting for freedom of assembly and political rights of the previous generation, new workers – who some say “lost their spirit” – seek improved economic status and the ability to purchase the goods that they produce.

Han says with collective bargaining, he “can see some light at the end of the tunnel.” In Guangdong province, which includes major manufacturing and exporting cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the local government is starting to support collective bargaining initiatives. Official unions in China are another form of control, so enabling independent unions and programs to flourish in Guangdong will, Han believes, make the case for widespread collective bargaining within the next 2 to 3 years.

Democracy as a process

As the market economy develops in China, workers will continue to demand more economic, political and social opportunities. Han believes that there should be more emphasis on labor rights at the start of democratic movements. By enabling workers to elect their own union representatives to negotiate on their behalf, they will be given a taste of the election process, creating a positive political habit.

Others, in contrast, believe that organized workers will be the biggest force against the market economy by demanding more economic protections; but China can follow its own democratic path without instituting a classical market economy that mirrors the US. Local politics in China remains a product of local representatives’ personal interests; therefore workers must pursue their own interests to gain progress.

When people ask Han “when will China be a democracy?” He answers, “What is the reference for a democracy?” In the United States and Europe, democracy is “still processing” as states battle with election fraud and strained political rights. China is at the early stages of developing a democracy; rather than answer the question of when China will reach democracy, Han prefers to answer when China will begin the democratic process, which he believes is starting now. “We cannot afford to advance our dream in one step. It is a long process and may not be achieved to the level that we want in our lifetime.” In comparison the Tiananmen Square protests and other large movements in other countries, the labor movement requires grassroots efforts that obtain small victories to build momentum. Historically these individual efforts have had more success and are proving more effective than a fast-sweeping movement.

International implications of Chinese labor movement

In their efforts, the China Labor Bulletin focuses primarily on internationally-owned factories to help create a model for future reforms. Some internationally-owned factories may already have higher standards than Chinese-owned factories, but they are also more profitable and garner more media coverage; the increasing media spotlight on particular factories such as Foxconn that serve international companies, combined with support for industrial action can help to improve domestic standards for working conditions.  

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

While labor movements in the United States and Europe are on the decline thanks to government reforms with pressure from business, the labor movement in China is on the rise and has significant international implications. As the world’s factory, “China made the race to the bottom possible,” but “that chain is about to break” according to Han. When asked about the future prospects for labor movements in the United States given right-to-work laws, Han agreed that workers in the US and Europe were in trouble. However, Han displayed optimism that the US will have a chance to restore its domestic production process; once an ever-increasing number of China’s 500 million workers raise their own working conditions and pay through labor activism, the price of goods will rise and, internationally, production will become more competitive. Chinese consumers will be hungry for American-produced goods and a more equal balance will be restored. Financial analysts agree that this “tipping point” will bring jobs back to American shores or other destinations closer to consumers.

 “Everything is ready”

In the clash between workers, employers and the economy, Han believes that “everything is ready.” The current economic and political system cannot sustain itself; as international consumer demand has dropped, China needs internal growth from wider working and middle classes to boost consumer spending. Han is positive about the prospects for economic and political reform in China, seeing the new party leadership as “sincere in dealing with these issues.” Han and China Labor Bulletin are placed to help collective bargaining turn many of the 500 million Chinese working class producers into consumers. By continuing to highlight workers rights in China through high profile cases using international companies (like recent engagements with Wal-Mart and Apple) improved working conditions and pay increases can be fought for with collective bargaining and perhaps in the future freedom of association and other democratic practices.

Collective bargaining is the sharp edge in a push toward increasing democratic practices in China. If Chinese labor activists can stake out a legal space for collective bargaining then this will establish democratic practices in Chinese workplaces and provide a safe space for workers to assert their allegiances and interests. Further, workers, employers and the Chinese government stand to gain from the stability that comes from having satisfied workers who have reasonable means for negotiations. The pursuit of improved material conditions for laborers and their families is a necessary motivation toward democracy. Employers will benefit from more stable labor relations, and “Economically [collective bargaining] is the gold mine for the government;” higher wages and benefits come from employers, but the government will get the credit for improving labor standards. While increased labor costs will likely raise the price of goods in the West, the global community and workers around the world could benefit from a more democratic and egalitarian China.