Chinese trade unionist tells Europe that China is not just a market

Interview with Han Dongfang, founder of China's first independent trade union.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – "I hope that the European community will start looking at Asia and China not only as markets to be exploited but also as places where people are suffering," said Han Dongfang, founder of China's first independent trade union. He talked AsiaNew about his expectations concerning what the European Union could do now that it was adopting its own constitution.

Mr Han Dongfan spent many years in prison following the Tiananmen massacre. He was freed after getting sick in prison and virtually expelled to the US for medical treatment. Upon his return home border guards confiscated his passport. Now he is stateless living in Hong Kong where edits the China Labour Bulletin, a publication that focuses on the situation of workers in China.

For Mr Han, it is high time Europe gets its priorities straight and put religious freedom and human rights at the top of its list of goals to pursue in the world.

Here is the full text of the interview he gave AsiaNews.

What does "European union" mean in Asia and in particular in China?

In Asia, Europe represents above all investments, industrial expansion and the exploitation of workers. In this global eastward shift of industrial production, Europeans see China as a great opportunity but local workers do not always benefit. Indeed, Europeans come to China to take advantage of cheap labour. The pay low salaries and demand long working hours, seven days a week. Workers' health is going from bad to worse and working conditions in some places are really bad. People are exposed to poisons and toxic fumes. European diplomats stationed in China deliberately turn a blind eye to local human rights problems.

Tomorrow the European constitution will be signed. What do you hope the EU can do for Asia and China?

We would like to see European nations play social role in the world, not an only economic and political one. It is important that Europe not be motivated by economic interests alone. If it made a real commitment to human rights it could contribute to a better world. Asia is not just a market with many opportunities; it is people who need help. China needs to develop its economy through foreign ties but it also needs to develop more democratic politics. European nations are a good example to follow. Instead, we see European leaders coming here to sell high-speed train, airbuses, weapons. Selling us weapons is not a good thing. We already spend too much on armaments whilst ordinary people suffer. We lack a social safety net, medicines, pensions. The government couldn't be bothered with people. There is no military threat to China and we don't need more weapons.

After your imprisonment and expulsion you became a Christian. How can Europe influence the situation of religious freedom in Asia and China?

Religious freedom is not a cultural but a human issue. It doesn't matter whether you are Chinese, Filipino, American, European or African. As a human being, I have the right to express my faith without party control. European nations must assert that every individual in whatever country has the right to practice his religion. The European Union and the United States should take advantage of every possible opportunity to put the spotlight on China's lack of religious freedom and human rights problem. Whatever the official and diplomatic occasion, they should remind Beijing that they are a priority. It would send our government a message that would be loud and clear and which might bring some changes. (BC)