During the Tiananmen Square protests, a tall, charismatic railway worker emerged as a key leader of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation (WAF), the first independent trade union in the People’s Republic of China. Han Dongfang was 25 years old in 1989.
It would be fitting to say that his life took a wholly different track after the June 4 incident.
Finding out a few days later that he was a wanted man, he turned himself in and was imprisoned without trial for 22 months. After his release and a brief stay in the United States, Han tried to return to China only to be expelled to Hong Kong, then still a British colony.
Today, Han Dongfang is the director of the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), an NGO based in Hong Kong, that he founded in 1994 to support Chinese workers’ rights.
“I like my path,” Han told students of Professor Yuen-Ying Chan’s graduate-level Covering China course at the JMSC. What started as an ordeal for him has become an opportunity to travel and talk overseas about his experiences, and most importantly for him, fight for workers’ rights: “I’m not a dissident, I’m a trade unionist.”
The year 1997 was another seminal year for Han; he started his own radio programme on Radio Free Asia, broadcasting interviews with ordinary Chinese workers phoning in from all across China. To this day Han continues this programming that lets famers, students, housewives and officials tell their story and asks them if they need legal help.
“We’ve won 95% of our cases,” says Han, who thinks that change from within the system is possible in China.
The CLB also plays an important part in exposing stories of the abuse of worker’s rights to the media. It does so by publishing workers’ stories through its website and press releases, while maintaining a list of imprisoned workers.
Han, who has lived in Hong Kong since 1993, told the class about the territory’s handover in 1997, which indirectly fulfilled his wish to return to China.
“It was not so much me crossing the border, as the border crossing me.”
Questions from students
Now 46, Han said that he seldom uses the word democracy in his talks, preferring to focus on people’s personal stories instead. Recalling Tiananmen, he recounted that the ambiance was like that of a big celebration, and most people participating in it did not know what “democracy” meant.
Answering questions from students, he said that work conditions in China are improving progressively.
“They won’t arrest people anymore, as long as they don’t burn things, kill people.”
Asked about the biggest challenge that his organisation faces in mainland China, Han cited the people’s reliance on xìnfǎng or petitioning, appeal to above, a system that finds its roots in Imperial China. Citizens seeking redress for their grievances visit the local xìnfǎng office or send petition letters to a progressively higher government instance, all the way up to Beijing. Numbers cited by the CLB tell of 18.6 million demands made through the xìnfǎng system in 2004 alone. He said that petitioning is a largely ineffective system in modern China and public interest litigation is underused in China.
On Gate of the Heavenly Peace, an influential 1995 documentary film on the June 4 crackdown, Han said that he did not agree with director Carma Hinton’s choice to use interview tapes of student leader Chai Ling made during the Tiananmen protests. The footage of a confused Chai encouraged the public perception that student leaders were willing to sacrifice the lives of fellow students to their personal advantage. While Han was clear that he feels little affinity with Chai, he said that the documentary maker’s choice to include the footage was “very inhuman”, and that after all, she was “a 21 year old girl”.
Returning to more current topics, Han said that the right to collective bargaining for Chinese workers would support the development of truly grass-roots trade unions. “The right for workers to vote for their own representatives [and hold them accountable through a collective bargaining system] is more important right now than the vote for national leadership,” he said.
Han Dongfang said he chose not to sign Charter 08, which resulted in the jailing of Liu Xiaobo in China.
“In a picture, you need more than a colour,” he said “They are the ones trying to land the airplane [of reform].”
To complete this analogy, he concluded: “I work to lay down the tarmac, in order to turn the mud into a proper runway.”