[Documents menu] Documents menu

A Review of the CCP's Ten Years of Repression of the Independent Labour Movement in China

China Labour Bulletin, 21 February 2000

In 1989 Chinese workers stood up and for the first time since 1949 organised Workers' Autonomous Federations to oppose the dictatorship. They were repressed and charged with setting up illegal organisations and spreading counter-revolutionary propaganda.

In 1992, the underground Free Labour Union of China (FLUC ) was established but ended in the arrest and heavy sentencing of its members on charges of establishing a counter-revolutionary group and secretly plotting to overthrow the government.

In 1996, Liu Nianchun, founder of the League for the Protection of the Rights of Working People, was sentenced to three-year re-education through labour.

In 1997, Li Qingxi, a laid-off worker from Shanxi province, put up a handbill appealing for the right to organise trade unions and was sentenced to one-year re-education through labour.

In 1998, Hunan worker Zhang Shanguang applied to the local government for permission to register a laid-off workers' organisation, the Association for the Protection of the Rights of Laid-Off Workers and was sentenced to ten years. In the same year, Sichuan worker Li Bifeng was sentenced to seven years after reporting strikes and demonstrations to foreign news organisations.

In July 1999, Gansu workers Yue Tianxiang and Guo Xinmin were sentenced to ten and two years respectively after representing colleagues at a Labour Disputes and Arbitration Committee in a dispute over wage arrears. In August 1999, Guo Qiqing, a worker at a chemical factory in Hubei province, was sentenced to one year for disturbing public order after he led workers in a demonstration demanding that the company pay back capital borrowed from the workforce.

From Pure Political Repression to Political and Economic Repression

In these cases of workers' leaders being locked up, we can see a direct link between the setting up of the workers' federations in 1989 and the arrests that have followed in the ten years since then. The thread that links these cases together reveals a steady deterioration in the condition of the working class: from 1989 when workers took part in the Democracy Movement; to the attempt to organise underground; to trying to register a legal organisation with the authorities; to today, when workers are being suppressed at shop-floor level simply for struggling for the right to survive. The government's policy is simply that workers can go hungry but they cannot unite together and protest their plight. CLB made a call to the trade union at Guo Qiqing's enterprise expressing the hope that the local trade union would do something to defend Guo. However the chairperson of the union replied that without the support of the higher levels of the ACFTU the local trade union could do nothing. Clearly, if the ACFTU had energetically intervened on behalf of the workers' leaders mentioned above, their fate might have been different. Such a course of action has yet to be undertaken by the ACFTU. The fact is that the mere existence of grassroots workers' leaders with local support, such as Yue Tianxiang and Guo Qiqing, is a threat and a challenge to the system where the official trade union is totally under the Party's domination. As such it is in no way a surprise that the ACFTU refuses to assist these workers' leaders.

The Aspirations of the International Trade Union Movement and the Strategy of the ACFTU

Faced with the fact that Chinese workers do not have the right to organise, the international trade union movement has placed its hopes in the fact that constructive contact will influence the ACFTU and encourage it to reform. But the crucial point is does this opportunity for reform exist? CLB has paid great attention to this problem and is continually looking for signs of a change in attitude from the organisation.

In March 1999, the ACFTU's Labour Movement College published a collection of essays entitled Guidelines for Chinese Trade Unions in the 21st Century . The book sets out the future policy direction of the ACFTU. There are three important points in the guidelines concerning the ACFTU's international work. First is to assist the Chinese government's foreign policy, especially in areas where the government faces difficulties in foreign relations. Second is to use exchanges with foreign trade unions to develop the ACFTU's own business enterprises, especially its tourist activities. Third is to increase the ACFTU's influence and standing in the international trade union movement.

Constructive Engagement's Failure in the Face of ACFTU Principles

It is clear to see that the aspirations of the international trade union movement and the international work of the ACFTU stand contrary to each other. International trade unions seek to unite with Chinese workers and trade unions, while the ACFTU seeks to supplement Chinese foreign policy and achieve effective results where the government has been ineffective. International trade unions hope that their contacts and co-operation with the ACFTU will bring about some improvement in working conditions in China, while the ACFTU seeks to improve its business operations, especially in the tourist industry. International trade unions hope that constructive dialogue and exchanges will help the ACFTU to gradually accept the concept of independent trade unions, while the ACFTU hopes that this process will persuade their guests to understand the position of the Chinese government in not allowing independent trade unions. These entirely contrary aims of both sides lead us to doubt whether anything positive can come out of these exchanges. Moreover, if we look at how this situation has developed, to date the ACFTU has not made any concessions in its approach to constructive dialogue while the international trade union movement has abandoned its principle of insisting on the right to visit detained independent trade unionists and labour activists. We feel shock and regret at this development. We do not believe that this form of constructive contact will advance the Chinese workers' right to organise anymore than it will improve working conditions or safety at work.

CLB and the Constructive Contacts

Although the unchanged position of the ACFTU towards the constructive contacts with the international trade unions raises embarrassing questions, CLB certainly hopes that such contacts will lead to some progress. We believe that the most important target of such contacts should be workers, including shop floor level cadres of the ACFTU. Through our radio programme, CLB has come into contact with many workers struggling for their rights. We are also having increasing contact with shop floor level union cadres. These often develop into discussions on how best to defend workers' rights in the current environment. The amount of common ground between us is definitely increasing. We believe that contact with workers can put pressure on and improve the work of ACFTU shop floor-level cadres and this process can spread upwards through the organisation, increasing the pressure on the ACFTU to reform. Furthermore, we believe that this is the only way the ACFTU will ever transform into a genuine trade union. At the same time, encouraging workers organising activities remains the most effective foundation for the development of an independent trade union movement in China.

CLB's Hopes and Requests to the ICFTU

Finally we sincerely hope that the ICFTU delegation will demand that the ACFTU facilitate visits to detained independent trade unionists and workers' leaders, particularly, Yue Tianxiang, Guo Xinmin, Guo Qiqing and FLUC leaders. We also demand that the ICFTU provide urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the families of these labour leaders.