Han Dongfang, a longtime Chinese labor activist, has some ideas about democracy in China. But unlike most of the liberal Western critics and prominent exiled dissidents, Han is not focused on freeing Tibet, street rallies for human rights, or freedom of the press—though he understands that all those issues are vital to the debate on China’s political future. He thinks democracy begins not by casting a ballot for far-away political leaders, but electing your shop steward. And the interesting part is that the foundation for this emerging in workplaces across the nation that is defining, for better or worse, our global economy.
As an early leader of one of China’s first independent trade union movements and a veteran of the Tiananmen Square uprising, Han now heads China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong–based labor advocacy and research organization group. Speaking with me on a recent visit to New York, he explained how he sees organized labor as a unique nesting ground for a democratic polity in the new China.
He draws from the past quarter-century of observing China’s capitalist transition, the breakneck industrial development and ferocious pace of urbanization, along with the more recent opening to neoliberal global trade regimes and digital technology. Yet he’s also informed by an older legacy of trade unionism and workplace-justice activism going back to the emergence of democratic socialism in Europe. If you graft the trendlines of the Industrial Revolution onto China’s economic trajectory over the past generation, you start to see the basis for comparison between two histories of political and economic transformation. Han’s ideal is to use collective bargaining and industrial relations as a vehicle for restructuring power in the workplace. And perhaps, he says, China can develop independent trade unions that could sow new forms of social and economic citizenship, as they did in Germany and Sweden.
It may sound naive, but there’s overall more political space for labor unrest in China today than there is for any other form of social conflict. Anything smacking of political insurgency or harsh criticism of the one-party state is likely to meet with some degree of suppression or censorship.
But in the past few months alone, China has seen scores of wildcat strikes, demonstrations, periodic riots and even the occasional boss taken hostage. The government generally treats this strife as part of the dynamics of China’s astronomical growth. And the labor market is, in a way, akin to the country’s churning consumer market: the state knows it cannot control every aspect of Chinese society and is willing to allow a measure of market “freedom” as a self-regulating social ecosystem. Fostering commercial exchange keeps workers busy and fed and keeps factories humming. On the factory floor a parallel balancing of interests plays out, between workers—who, at established firms, generally belong to the government-run union—and employers—who, like their Western counterparts, want to keep profits flowing above all else. Manufacturing workers typically have some form of labor contract and are hooked into a national, employer-funded social insurance system, at least in theory. The system works if labor has enough autonomy to exert some control over their working conditions, through negotiation with bosses or bringing legal complaints. That doesn’t happen nearly enough. So CLB seeks to equip workers with collective bargaining skills and legal savvy to represent themselves to their employers and the government.