06/03/2006, 00.00
china - hong kong
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The Tiananmen massacre: after 17 years let's build up workers' rights

by Han Dongfang

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/Clb) - On April 25, 1989, Deng Xiaoping made a speech to Communist Party leaders urging an immediate government crackdown on any sign of an upsurge in the democratic movement. Party leaders "should learn from the experience of Poland's Solidarity trade union", and "must not be soft-handed" in dealing with the democratic movement in China, he said.

Then on June 4, 1989, the government launched its bloody crackdown on the movement by students and workers. The latter was represented in Tiananmen Square by the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation (BWAF), and I was their spokesman. The crackdown was carried out faithfully in the spirit of Deng's speech.

A quarter of a century has passed since Lech Walesa and his fellow shipyard workers first raised the Solidarnosc banner. But China's leaders are still haunted by its spectre, and deeply fearful that a similar movement could arise in China to challenge the party's rule. Indeed, this is probably the main reason why Beijing still prohibits the establishment of independent trade unions on the mainland.

In commemorating this year's anniversary of the 1989 pro-democracy movement and the BWAF, we should remember that the condition of Chinese workers today is in many ways even harsher than it was 17 years ago. But it is also vital to make a pragmatic comparison of the situation that faced Poland's Solidarity in 1980 and that facing the current workers' movement in China. This analysis shows that the Chinese leadership's deep-seated fears about the escalating levels of labour unrest in China are fundamentally misplaced. By taking a more liberal and enlightened approach - rather than resorting to further repressive crackdowns - it could actually pre-empt and resolve the "threat to social stability" that it sees lurking in many parts of the country's industrial relations scene today.

First, the current social situation in China is very different from that of Poland in the 1980s. At that time, Poland was under a centrally planned and state-owned economy. There was no conflict between capitalist employers and workers, because capitalism didn't exist there. Whenever conflicts arose between state-owned companies and the workforce, management had no power or authority to accede to workers' reasonable demands on issues like wages and working conditions.

Any form of worker militancy then tended to escalate to the level of a confrontation with the real owners of the enterprises concerned - usually the local government. As a result, workers' protests of all kinds could evolve only in one direction: political struggle, and ultimately - in the case of Solidarity - a direct challenge to the government's authority.

The situation in China today is completely different. There is no objective reason why workers' struggles have to turn into political challenges or confrontations. After 20 years of economic reforms, countless privately held, foreign-invested and joint-venture enterprises have been established. Even managers at state enterprises can control the company's profits, set the wages and benefits of its workers, and hire and fire employees at will.

Private entrepreneurs have still more authority in all these areas. Denied any effective union representation, the workers themselves have little or no power to negotiate, so profits flow almost solely to the owners and managers. As a result, the scale and intensity of conflict between company owners and their employees is growing more acute by the day in China. But unlike in Poland 25 years ago, the Chinese government today has a choice over whether to interpose itself between the profit-hungry private enterprise owners and an increasingly dissatisfied and militant labour force. In a key sense, it can choose whether to defend the poor working conditions and labour-rights abuses that regularly prompt such confrontations.

For these reasons, the very nature of the labour movement on the mainland today is different from that of Poland's Solidarity. The spearhead of China's emerging labour movement is directed at the owners and management ranks, unlike Poland's Solidarity movement, which was directed at the government. The demands raised by protesting Chinese workers are limited to their own basic economic and social rights. That is to say, China's labour movement today essentially has no political goals. It is addressing labour conflicts, not trying to incite a political movement.

In addition, the collective consciousness of the present Chinese workers' struggle is different from that of Poland's Solidarity. Many Chinese workers still maintain a high level of trust and hope in the government.

They believe that once the central government becomes aware of the inequality and suffering they are enduring, it will definitely come to their aid. Under these social conditions, any independent union that arises would, of course, be very different from Poland's highly politicised Solidarity movement.

In fact, the fundamentally different nature of the economic systems of Poland then and China today means that Beijing has a golden opportunity to establish itself as the neutral mediator in conflicts between labour and management. The government does not need to be haunted by the "spirit" of Solidarity.

Beijing should be able to change the way in which conflicts in our society are resolved, and change the role it currently plays in these conflicts - namely, serving the investor's side. In changing its role, it could become the agent that sets the rules for negotiations. Moreover, that would enable China's labour movement - and any independent trade union that is a part of it - to unite legally. In this way, it would become a means to institutionalise and harmonise the conflict between employees and owners.

This would lead to the true modernisation of the mainland's public governance. Otherwise, if Beijing continues to crack down on the workers' and trade union movements, and to serve the company owners' side, it will only face more and more workers' discontent. Eventually, if denied both the right and the institutional means to negotiate fairly with their employers, workers will indeed direct their anger towards the government.

Beijing's fear of a Solidarity-type situation would then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Han Dongfang is director of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour rights group. www.clb.org.hk

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