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ACFTU and Union Organizing

By Trini Leung, China Labour Bulletin, 26 April 2002

As the incidence of industrial disputes, wildcat strikes, and mass workers' protests becomes more frequent and visible in China, the question of union organization has drawn increasing attention both at home and abroad. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), with a declared membership of over 120 million, claims to be the world's largest union organization. But behind this impressive facade, workers in China are among the world's most exploited, disorganized and dis-empowered workforces. When some of these workers do show the courage to organize, sometimes in tens of thousands, they never go to the ACFTU. This has most recently been shown when over 80,000 petroleum and metal workers staged mass street demonstrations in Daqing and Liaoyang, in the northeast, in March and April, 2002. Instead the protesters declare their actions, which sometimes last for weeks, to be spontaneous outbreaks without any leadership or organization. On occasion, protesters have tried to organize independent unions or alternative bodies to represent their demands. A most recent example of this is the two month-long struggle waged by 50,000 workers from the Daqing Oilfield who formed their own union body.

Considerable interest has been given to the reform drive of the ACFTU which was launched since the 1980s. The leadership of this government-controlled body has been reiterating the need for the ACFTU to reform in order to strengthen its credibility and effectiveness. The drive for more operational autonomy and better protection of workers' interests have been the key slogans of the ACFTU reform initiatives. This paper examines the result of this reform effort against the benchmark of core labour rights on freedom of association and collective bargaining.

ACFTU: an organization of the party-state but not the workers

There is no critical change in the power structure within or surrounding the ACFTU. It remains a subsidiary organ of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The ACFTU cannot do anything which has not been directed or approved by the party-state. Workers' representation and accountability to membership have never been part of the basic organizational terms of reference of the ACFTU. This fundamental tenet of democratic unionism has not been featured even in the discussion fora of the reform agenda. Under this framework, the primary functions of ACFTU are to serve the interests of the CPC and the policies of the government.

In a speech on the importance of organizing unions in the country's new economy, Wei Jianxing, president of the ACFTU, declared the critical importance of his organization to the strengthening of the power of the party and the state. The ACFTU exists to legitimize and sustain the ruling regime of the CPC.

Under these new[economic] conditions, we need to consolidate the Party's position at the helm of the state as upheld by the masses. In fact, Comrade Jiang Zemin's instructions do not only apply to the task of strengthening Party building activities, they also apply to the work of strengthening the establishment of trade unions. Speeding up the pace of trade union organisation in new enterprises, and making every effort to organise workers into unions is not just a matter of perfecting the trade unions, upholding workers' legal rights and bringing into play their enthusiasm and initiative. More important is its' direct relationship to the consolidation of the mass base and class foundations of the Party, as well as the Party's ruling position. [Wei]

The ACFTU has always seen itself as part of the party-state machinery. Organizational independence and accountability to its worker membership are out of the question. In the above-mentioned speech, Wei explained that the ultimate purpose of setting up ACFTU organization in the new economy was to establish party presence.

This work has to become part of the framework of the Party committee's united leadership if we are going to achieve a breakthrough. Experience from all over the country has provided us with ample proof that this is the basic guarantee of success. It must be become a part of the Party committees work. [We need] stronger leadership, integrated research and deployment [of our forces] to make organising and improving trade unions in new enterprises the work of our leading structures. The rate of union membership and union organising must be added to the Party's work programs and have clearly assessable targets. Responsibility must be ascertained and strict checks made. When we meet with problems and difficulties, they must be promptly researched and solved. We must persevere and link the work of establishing Party cells in new enterprises with the work of establishing trade unions and make organising trade unions part of the conditions for setting up party branches and cells and building up a mass base. [Wei]

Furthermore, ACFTU officials see themselves as a government department.

There is a need to set up a contingency working group. . . . Leaders of all the relevant departments such as the party committees, government and the union must take charge personally of such cases [workers' mass actions] [Sun]

An official of the Heilongjiang Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) describes the organizational and operational structure of the union as part of the party-state machinery.

Under the union system in China, the organizational relation of a union is defined by the party. It follows the party and enterprise organizational structure of subordination. . . .

Chinese trade unions operate under a strict system, the essence of which is Party leadership. This Party leadership is their outstanding characteristic. Moreover, you can see that our local trade unions are all run under the civil service management. [RFA 16/03/02]

The official further explains how union cadres are appointed according to the party nomenklatura system, and union election of such cadres is just a rubber-stamp procedure.

Cadres belong to the organisation department [of the party]. When they are appointed, the Party Committee organisation department has to approve it. They are not directly elected. The representatives' meeting goes through the procedure and votes on the candidates after they have been selected by the provincial party committee. All candidates have been selected first. [RFA 16/03/02]

There has been call to make ACFTU attain more operational autonomy in recent years. This is along the same lines as the Dengist reform package which aimed to decentralize the operational functions of most party and state organs. The autonomy which the ACFTU has been talking about in the past decade can be compared to that of a civil service reform. The Leninist trade unionism which has been set up alongside the construction of a command economy under Mao Zedong in the 1950s is intended by the party to stay at the turn of the 21st century. The Heilongjiang FTU cadre testifies this as recent as March, 2002.

It's definitely a product of the command economy. But it hasn't been revised since market conditions were introduced. There has been no change and we are still implementing the previous methods. [RFA 16/03/02]

Nevertheless, as the economy undergoes liberalization and privatization, the party needs to change from the previous highly-centralized state command management mode. There has been a steady move to scale down or even withdraw party machinery at microeconomic management level. This has momentous implications for the organizational existence of the ACFTU. The ACFTU was set up as part of the party machinery to help manage state-owned-enterprises (SOE). Hence when the presence and role of the party was being scaled down at SOEs, it dealt the first blow to the ACFTU position.

The rationale behind ACFTU reform

The ACFTU's role was being called further into question when the private economy started to expand meteorically to account for nearly half of the GNP 20 years after the economic liberalization. The ACFTU presence is minimal among privately-owned enterprises, because the long arm of the official organization of the party does not reach so effectively into the new economy. But the state is concerned about the question of labour management and control in the increasingly important private economy, where labour relations has been less than amiable due to the grave and often unlawful exploitation of workers. Hence, during the past decade, the party-state has tried to set up ACFTU organizations within privately-owned enterprises but with little success.

Wei Jianxing sums up the current existential crisis faced by the ACFTU in strong and clear words:

The problems at the moment are: on the on hand, following the structural adjustments and the restructuring of SOEs and collectively-owned enterprises (COEs), a considerable number of trade union organisations [and branches] have been collapsed and their members washed away. On the other hand, the organisation of trade unions in newly-established enterprises has simply not happened. At the end of 1999, national trade union membership had dropped to 87 million, leaving more than 100 million workers unorganised. When there is not even a trade union, what is the point of talking about trade unions upholding the legal rights of workers? Or trade unions being the transmission belt between the party and the masses? Or trade unions being an important social pillar of state power? [Wei]

Concern about ACFTU falling membership is real. The real membership could be a lot less than the official figures. Between August and December, 2002, the Shanxi Provincial Federation of Trade Unions conducted an organizational audit of all its local branches and found wide discrepancies between official records and reality. For example, the investigation in Huairen county found that only 22% of the union organizations which was registered to have set up in private and collective enterprises really existed!

  Official number of union organizations Real number of union organizations Truth ratio
Private enterprises 83 27 0.33
Collective enterprises 52 3 0.06

The article points out that although the investigation is carried out in Shanxi province, its findings are fairly representative of the national situation. [Guan]

Key role and functions of the ACFTU

Labour relations in China are extremely lop-sided. This is more acute since the economic liberalization. The management, either in the body of party-state organs or as private owners, have uncurbed power over the workers due to the suppression of labour organization. The ACFTU is aware of the problem of the increasing and often exploitative power of employers and management, and is under pressure to rise up to the challenges of the new economic relations. The surge in wildcat strikes and other protest actions taken by workers throughout the 1990s also pose a constant challenge to the ACFTU which is banned from organizing industrial actions.

The ACFTU has been told to rally behind the government policy to introduce collective employment contracts for the purpose of better labour administration. The Regulations on Collective Contracts was issued by the Ministry of Labour and Social Security in December, 1994, shortly after the Labour Law was passed. The ACFTU has given the task of signing collective employment contracts as a top priority. This initiative, if successful, can serve two purposes. It will greatly enhance the role and position of ACFTU at the enterprise level as the organization, alongside the management, which delivers the collective contract system. It also promises to cut down labour disputes which have risen sharply since the 1990s. The ACFTU has tried to promote this program to overseas observers, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO) and union organizations, as an attempt to introduce collective bargaining in China. However, without the power or even the will to organize workers' representation, and stripped of the right to stage industrial actions, this initiative is a far cry from the collective bargaining system protected under International Labour Conventions (ILC) 87 and 98.

Despite the continual call for higher autonomy, the question of accountability to membership instead of the party-state has never been on the agenda in the reform plan of ACFTU. The ACFTU wants more autonomy in its work to achieve better labour discipline and practices. Most of all it wants to better protect its own organizational existence and position at a time of declining membership and falling resources which have hitherto been guaranteed by the party-state.

ACFTU under the new Trade Union Law

The Trade Union Law (TUL) amendment in 2001 has reaffirmed the organizational control of the ACFTU by the party (Article 4). It has also consolidated the ban on any union organization outside the ACFTU structure (Articles 10 and 11). Hence there is little progress in terms of the core ILCs in the new law.

The main official objective in the new amendment to the TUL is to enhance the legal status of ACFTU. The new law firmly establishes the position of the ACFTU as the legal representative of workers and employees in enterprises. It also reinforces the legal rights of ACFTU over its assets and revenues. This could easily be interpreted as a positive move in better protecting union organization. Nevertheless, a critical link is missing. The ACFTU is not a workers' organization, but a quasi-government body. Hence the legal boost to the ACFTU can only be interpreted as attempt to reinforce the exclusion of any other representative labour organizations outside the ACFTU. The reforms hope to designate a more specific role for ACFTU at a time when its suffers from a crisis of existence.

Legislative reform has indeed been at the heart of the ACFTU program in the past decade. Hundreds of labour laws and regulations have been passed and supposedly improved. Among them is the first national Labour Law, which was enacted in 1995, was hailed as a milestone in providing the most comprehensive safeguards for workers against abuses at the workplace. Yet the reality shows that it is exactly in the decade following the new law that violation of labour rights and standards has gone from bad to worse. Efforts in the past decade for legislative reform have failed to provide better protection for workers. The key for such safeguards is missing: freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. But rather than address this crucial issue, the ACFTU has chosen to bury its head in the heap of beautifully written words on neat paper.

ACFTU agenda in the international union community?

There has been a continuous lobby within the international union community calling for the establishment of friendly relations with the ACFTU. This lobby frequently cites the ACFTU's appeal for international support and cooperation programs to assist its efforts to improve labour standards in China. Supporters of the ACFTU argue that international collaboration will help improve labour rights in China. The ACFTU also aims, its supporters claim, to move closer to various fundamental labour standards through international contacts and exchanges.

Under closer scrutiny, it is evident that the ACFTU's goal in the international community is defined by the diplomatic task designated to it by the party-state. Their diplomatic mission is to present a rosy and generally glorious picture of the Chinese state. In pursuit of this mission, there are two main objectives. One is representation for China at the ILO. The other is recognition by the international union community.

The ACFTU has been doing nothing more than parroting the government's defence of its human rights record at international fora. At each of the ILO session which discusses Chinese government violation of international labour conventions, the ACFTU has, without exception, defended the government line and refuted any criticisms of the government repression of union organizing.

There has been a constant move by the ACFTU to gain broader recognition and more friendly support from the international union community. Despite the fact that it has made friendly gestures to numerous national centers within the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the ACFTU is primarily hostile to the ICFTU.

Xu Xichen, a deputy president of the ACFTU, wrote a revealing article in 2001 entitled New Trends in the International Trade Union Movement in which he strongly condemned the ICFTU for its cynical and hegemonic stance. The article was published in a magazine which was widely circulated among rank-and-file cadres.

The ICFTU's Wild Ambition for Hegemony over the International Trade Union Movement on the Increase

[I]f we look at the overall picture, the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), the self-appointed representative of the poor remains isolated and weak as it continues in a state of deep internal crisis which it is finding extremely difficult to extricate itself from. Moreover, the power of the ICFTU, mainly under the domination of trade unions from Western countries, continues to expand, as does its wild ambition to control the international trade union movement. Over the last two years, the ICFTU has continued to raise the banners of freedom and democracy as a disguise for its meddling in the trade union affairs of various countries and actively implementing Western values. It continues to issue an annual report on the violation of basic trade union rights in all countries, but concentrates on finding fault with the internal affairs of the majority of developing countries in what amounts to flagrant intervention. At the same time, the ICFTU continues to dominate the business of the Governing Board of the ILO's Workers Group while rejecting the differing opinions of trade unions from developing countries. Of the 14 members of the Governing Board of the ILO Workers Group, all are ICFTU affiliates except the WCL representative, effectively rendering the board an ICFTU closed shop. During the 1999 top-level WTO meeting in Seattle, the ICFTU appointed itself as the so-called representative of the world's workers and by working with the AFL-CIO and various NGOs, succeeded in throwing the meeting into complete chaos. It then boasted that this was proof of the ICFTU's increasing strength. In sum, the ICFTU's domination of the activities of the international trade union movement has reached a new stage which trade unions from developing countries need to pay special attention to. [Xu]

This apparently dualistic position can be explained by the goal of ACFTU to make friends with overseas union, only if they are not openly critical of China's official policies and practices.

Unfortunately, all attempts by overseas union bodies to make representations on human and labour rights issues in meetings with the ACFTU go totally unreported to the public in China. Press reports of such meetings invariably highlight only two points, ie, the visiting bodies praise and support the wonderful achievements of the state and wish to continue their friendly relations and cooperation with the ACFTU. This throws into question what ends are being achieved by such international contacts.

ACFTU's role in independent unions organizing

There have been momentous rise of workers' organizing in China. This presents one of the gravest concerns of the present regime. This reality has received considerable attention and investigation by the ACFTU. The analysis below is produced by a local branch of ACFTU in the northeastern city of Qiqiha'er, Heilongjiang Province.

Special Characteristics of Workers' Spontaneous Collective Incidents:

One of the key functions of ACFTU is to assist the government in the suppression of labour organizing. In an in-depth analysis of the growing incidence of spontaneous collective actions taken up by workers, an official of the Qiqiha'er City Federation of Trade Unions, Sun Shaoyong, wrote about the importance of collaboration among all relevant official bodies, including the ACFTU, to prevent outbreaks of mass actions.

As the representative and upholder of workers' interests and the transmission belt between masses and the Party and government, trade unions have an irreplaceable function of establishing an early warning system for collective disputes. [Sun]

Despite all talk of reform, the ACFTU has never shown nor provided support to workers who organize their own unions and workers' organizations or attempt collective bargaining with their employers. On the contrary, the ACFTU has been an active agent of surveillance, denunciation, and suppression during all incidents of independent organizing. The ACFTU designated role is that of a whistle-blower, but only to the party-state instead of the workers.

[Unions must] establish and perfect a system of complaints and information network that will concentrate on gauging the mood among workers and analyse ideological trends. This information must feed into the system the general reaction to popular issues of the time and current problems. The Seven Must Reports scheme and reporting of spontaneous disputes must be further improved in order to eliminate workers' spontaneous collective incidents at their early stages. [Sun]

The president of ACFTU, Wei Jianxing, highlights the importance of the union efforts to stop mass workers' actions for the sake of not only internal stability in China but also preventing subversive external intervention.

When it first breaks out, a labour dispute may not be serious, but because there is no mechanism [for dealing with the contradictions] it is very hard to solve at a primary level, to nip it in the bud. As such, it can become a major incident involving many people. If we do not turn this situation around quickly, it will not only have a devastating effect on the overall situation for stable reform and development. It will also give our enemies, at home and abroad, who are doing their best to split the Chinese working class, an ideal opportunity. These people strive hard to win the masses away from us, vainly try to use trade unions as a weak link in the chain. Their aim is to set up a so-called independent trade union separate from the ACFTU in an attempt to westernize and pluralize us. They seek to overturn the leadership of the Party and subvert the socialist system. [Wei]

One clear example of the ACFTU's response to independent union organizing can be found in the recent attempt of union organizing in Daqing which has taken place since the first week of March, 2002. Fifty thousand oil workers in this model Daqing oilfield in northeast China staged mass demonstrations and organized an independent union in a struggle against retrenchment. The Daqing Retrenched Workers' Provisional Union Committee, still a clandestine body, stands as the first successful independent union organizing effort in China since the 1990s. Police and the armed forces have moved in to control the situation. There has been a news blackout of the events in the official media. Contrary to the common practice one would expect of nearly all functioning democratic unions, the ACFTU first failed to report or publicize the highly significant event. It did not try to get involved nor support the workers' struggle who were confronted with army intervention. Worst of all, it promptly condemned the independent union organizing as unlawful which should be stopped. In the above-mentioned interview, the official of the Heilongjiang (FTU) explained why his union would not have anything to do with the Daqing Oilfield workers' organizing initiatives.

Han Dong-fang: This brings us back to speeches made by the chair of the HFTU and also Wei Jianxing, the chairperson of the ACFTU. Namely that wherever there are workers, the union needs to organise them. If the union doesn't do this, then the workers will organise themselves.

HFTU: Correct. Chairman Wei Jianxing said that. Han: Why did he say that? HFTU: Because if the trade union doesn't uphold workers' rights, then the workers will go and find an organisation that does. He meant that the union cannot permit this. If we don't set up trade unions in new enterprises, non state-owned enterprises and private companies, then what kind of organisations will emerge spontaneously? This is what he was getting at. Han: But how can workers who organise themselves to stop their rights being violated and protect themselves be harming the ACFTU? HFTU: Our main work is, it seems, to defend the present trade union system and organisational structure.

[RFA 16/03/02]

This episode provides a classic illustration of what the ACFTU really does when workers try to organize their own unions and collective bargaining. While Deng Xiaoping did not make much distinction between the black and white cats, workers in China know all too well which unions work for them and which do not. Such sentiments have even been expressed by a local rank-and-file government official during the Daqing workers' struggle in March,2002.

Han Dong-fang: How does this provisional union committee compare to the official one?.

Cadre: One is for workers, another for the capitalists. They are completely different. That's it.

Han: So this is a union belonging to the workers?

Cadre: Yes, this is a union of the workers.

Han: What about the other one?

Cadre: That is a union of the capitalists. The one belonging to the workers is called Committee of the Provisional Trade Union of Retrenched Workers of the DPAB.

[RFA 05/03/02]


There is overwhelming evidence that the ACFTU continues to be an arm of the party-state. It has consistently tried to stop independent union organizing. Focus on legislative reform in labour standards is only a window-dressing attempt by an otherwise irrelevant organization to give the impression that it is performing some meaningful and useful role.

The ACFTU is hostile to any moves by the international union community which call for better protection of basic labour rights in China.

Behind the facade of the ACFTU, workers in China have become more vulnerable and marginalized than at any time since 1949. Worst of all, workers are deprived of their fundamental labour rights. Labour organizing has been systematically and relentlessly repressed by the government, with support and assistance from the ACFTU. Yet despite all this adversity, increasing numbers of workers are taking up labour organizing in their struggle against continuous attacks on their livelihoods and interests. >From this struggle, an alternative to a union body controlled by the party-state may emerge, a century after the ACFTU was founded.


Guan, Ming, Investigation and Thoughts on Union Organization, Gongren Ribao, 20 February, 2002.

RFA 16/03/02, China Labour Bulletin interview by Han Dong-fang, The Limits of the ACFTU for Daqing Workers; Difficulties of Independent Organising, broadcast on Radio Free Asia, 16 March, 2002.

RFA 05/03/02, China Labour Bulletin interview by Han Dong-fang, Daqing Workers' Struggle, broadcast on Radio Free Asia, 5 March, 2002.

Sun, Shaoyong, Investigation and Thoughts on the Special Characteristics, Causes and Countermeasures for Dealing with the Rise in Workers' Spontaneous Collective Incidents, from Heilongjiang Federation of Trade Unions web-site, 2001: http://www.hljgh.org/html/ghtx/dcsk/dcsk_index.html

Wei, Jianxing, Conscientiously Implement the Spirit of the Fifth Plenary Session of the 15th Central Committee and speed up the organising and establishing of trade unions in new enterprises. A speech delivered on November 12th, 2000 at the Work Meeting on Organising and Establishing Trade Unions in New Enterprises. Beijing Federation of Trade Unions website, www.bjzgh.gov.cn.

Xu, Xicheng, New Trends in the International Trade Union Movement, Ban Yue Tan Magazine, Issue no. 12, 25 June 2001. Ban Yue Tan is run by the Propaganda Department of the CPC, targeting rank-and-file officials of the mass organisations of the Communist Youth League, the All-China Women's Federation, and the ACFTU. The magazine, different from most other party propaganda publications, is written in popular style.