From Protester to Peacemaker
/ Author: CLAC Staff
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From Protester to Peacemaker

The China Labour Bulletin has found a better way to bring real union representation to China’s workers: by focussing on win-win bargaining. It’s a lesson all unions can learn from

By Lisa Helder

When Han Dongfang lay dying of tuberculosis in a Chinese prison, his dream of promoting and defending workers’ rights in the People’s Repub­lic of China seemed hopeless.

The year is 1989, and China is engulfed in student-led protests seeking greater accountability, constitutional due process, democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. Up to a million people occupy Tianan­men Square, including Dongfang, a 27-year-old electrician.

On June 4, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army brutally stamps out the protest. Hundreds, if not thousands, are killed, and many more wounded. But for Dongfang, the seeds of workers’ rights are taking root.

Dongfang was a railway worker who had helped set up the Beijing Work­ers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF) during the protests, and he was ar­rested for his efforts. When he contracted tuberculosis, Chinese Com­munist Party officials did not want him dying in prison. So they released him in April 1991. He ended up in the US where he was treated for and re­covered from his bout with tuberculosis.

In 1993, he made his way back to China, but was picked up and expelled to Hong Kong, where he lives today. The decision to send him to Hong Kong turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened to him—and China’s workers.

Within a year, Dongfang had established the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a nonprof­it organization dedicated to protecting the rights of Chinese workers through peace­ful, legal, nonpolitical action. CLAC has sup­ported the work of the CLB since 2008 and continues to do so today through the work of the CLAC Foundation.

I recently spoke with Dongfang about his ex­periences—and the difference that one cour­ageous and dedicated man has made in workers’ lives.

What made you start the China Labour Bul­letin originally? What was your goal?

We started in 1993. We wanted to provide in­formation to Chinese workers on what is the independent trade union movement and how to get a better life. We sent out our first issue of the China Labour Bulletin in 1994.

What is the main focus of the CLB, and has that changed over the years?

I would say our work has had four main blocks in the last 28 years. The first was from 1993 to 2005. We focussed on freedom of association, worker rights violations, ex­posing the facts to the international trade union movement, and educating Chinese workers about the idea of a free, independ­ent trade union. [In China, independent unions are illegal. There is only one union allowed, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU).]

The second phase came in 2005. I was in Geneva at a conference giving a talk, and I criticized the Chinese government. Chinese representatives in the audience responded in a nasty way, but the other trade union lead­ers clapped for me.

After the speech, I was walking in Geneva and I stopped for a bowl of noodles. I didn’t feel happy about myself. I thought this is not what I was put in Hong Kong for. I said to my colleague that we are not coming back again until we have a foothold in China.

From there, we started seriously thinking, how can we establish a foothold? Anyone we touch would be sent to prison.

Thanks to the decades-long invitations by trade unions around the world, the most fre­quent thing the different unions shared with me, including CLAC, was their work on col­lective bargaining. At the time, I thought, I’m from China. China needs freedom of associ­ation. Why share collective bargaining with me? That is not really relevant.

But in 2005, all those 10 years of travelling, listening, and sharing came back to me, and I said to myself, oh . . . bargaining. Unlike free­dom of association, focussing on collective bargaining was a nonpolitical approach.

But I came from 1989, from Tiananmen Square, and I was naturally a political person of interest because of my previous involve­ment in the protest. When I visited Poland in 1995, they made the headline “China’s Lech Walesa visiting Poland.” [Lech Walesa was a leader in the Solidarity labour movement in Poland in the 1980s, which eventually helped to collapse the communist government in the country.] I told them, “Please don’t make that headline.” People do put these things on you. Am I going to let them down?

The labour movement at its very beginning, in the 19th century or even earlier, was an economic struggle. Later on, because the movement was suppressed, political elements were added, and the biggest political manipulation to the labour movement was by the communists. They gave us the illusion that if you support us—using whatever means, including destroying lives—then our comrades will take care of you.

Think about the miserable lives of 19th century working-class peasants. During and after the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression, people looked for saviours. In China, they looked to the communists.

Many of these people as individuals were not bad people. They were sincere. They sincerely disliked the inequality. They just picked up the wrong tool. They themselves were being misguid­ed. You can’t deal with people who disagree with you by impris­oning or killing them.

How are you and the CLB trying to turn this around?

So the political struggle began to be prioritized as opposed to the economic struggle. But I thought rather than struggle, the labour movement is supposed to be about seeking win-win solu­tions for workers and their employers. In this way, it’s a win for human society, too, because we become less and less concerned about hating each other and more and more we try to convince each other in a civilized way.

I realized that focussing on bargaining was perfect. We depoliti­cize the labour movement in highly politicized China.

The only barrier was whether my skin was thick enough to han­dle criticism from my fellow dissidents and friends. So when we announced this depoliticized approach, it was a telling moment.

The reaction was huge. A typical reaction from the international unions was, “Dongfang, you know how much trouble you’ve creat­ed for us in Geneva? This will legitimize the Chinese government.”

I said, “I’m so sorry for that, but my duty, my frontier, is in China. That’s my battleground and I have to think of a strategy that works there that can bring me as close as possible together with workers.”

It was really a surprise to everyone, but eventually it worked.

Can you explain how this depoliticized approach works in more detail?

For the official union in China, the ACFTU, the only thing that they could do to legitimize themselves was to create fear of the communist regime. They worried that if you allow independent unions, the communist regime will go down. Look at the Polish and the influence of the labour movement, and Lech Welesa, in ending communist rule.

When the CLB announced that we’re non­political, we looked for solutions under the communist regime. I was sure we could find solutions since the communists claim that they are a representative of the work­ing class. So let’s find a solution together in­stead of hating each other.

Four years later, people from Beijing, from the Chinese Communist Party, reached out to Hong Kong to start regular meetings with me and the CLB, and they were very inter­ested in understanding collective bargaining. What are win-win solutions and how do we create them? Look at America and the West­ern countries. Their union movement is go­ing down, they’re losing jobs, so we gain jobs in China. And if we have a strong trade union focussed on the political, we will repeat the same mistakes, and the jobs will leave our country, they think.

This is a strange kind of position for the CLB to be in, that we are reeducating the com­munists. They asked us, “What is worker representation? Is it possible to create win-win solutions without a highly politicized labour movement?”

And I told them that it was their mistake as communists to politicize the labour move­ment and use it to gain political power. That’s why they have strong fear of this movement and not us. We are not politicizing the move­ment. We are just staying as close as possible to the ground level of the workplace. We are not aiming to change the regime, and par­ticularly, we’re not aiming to change the re­gime by using guns. Our solution is bar­gaining—civilized bargaining and respect.

How does the move to bargaining work in practice?

In the third phase we had the chance to work with labour NGOs [nongovernment organiz­ations] in China. Without the second phase of depoliticization in 2005, we wouldn’t have the third phase. Because if anyone would touch us, they would end up in prison.

We worked with Chinese labour NGOs for about 10 years. They were really able to ex­tend our influence on collective bargaining possibilities into workplaces, when work­ers are dealing with three months of no pay, or when a factory closes down and doesn’t compensate workers, or when workers get silicosis but aren’t allowed to get diagnosed and get no compensation.

So they go on strike. They destroy the ma­chines and the factory. Our partners in China are able to quickly step in to calm down the situation. They help us elect representatives and start bargaining to find a win-win solution.

Sometimes, we get very good solutions, some are only halfway successful, and some fail. But we are able to show the possibil­ity of a peaceful solution. And the work­ers are able to bargain. Although they’re not well educated—most have only had middle school or even primary education—some of them are natural-born representatives. You don’t need an education to be a workplace leader, to be a representative.

We were able to prove that we can negotiate civilized settlements in workplaces without confrontational events and strikes. This is also a win for the government because they don’t have to send in the police to beat up workers, which damages their political repu­tation, and instead leave it to the representa­tives to work out a settlement.

What comes next?

Now we have the fourth stage. If we can persuade the communists in China to be­lieve in collective bargaining, then we can do the same for workers in India, Vietnam, and other countries in Asia. We started our program in India in 2016. So now we most­ly work with the government workers union and also in Burma.

We are trying to expand collective bar­gaining and the trade union movement and the win-win approach. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We just try to remind people that for the trade union movement, the first thing is always bargaining. Later on you can talk about influencing policymakers.

Which sectors are in most need of your help?

The construction sector has been one of the worst sectors in China regarding health and safety and back pay. Health and safe­ty doesn’t only mean wearing hard hats and fall arrest. There is also the threat of silicosis from digging the foundation, and nothing is being done for that.

People work three months digging the ground. They’re dying. The stronger you are, the quicker you get silicosis because when you work hard, you breathe hard.

There is also a lot of corruption in construc­tion. There was an explosion in a coal mine recently that killed 20 workers. We inter­viewed the local union guys. I asked, “Do you have a unit in that coal mine?” They would say no. But the union leadership had been saying they did. But how come there’s no safety inspection? According to the law, the union should do this. They said they set up all these things. But if they really did that, those 20 people wouldn’t have been killed. So we don’t attack the communist regime, but we find the people who are most closely involved and make them accountable to that event.

Construction, coal mining, food delivery, and courier and truck drivers are the major sec­tors that we’re trying to tackle inside China. And of course that doesn’t mean we don’t think the manufacturing sector is not im­portant. It also has issues with contracts, so­cial security, and working hours. Different sectors have different issues and we tackle them sector by sector.

If an accident or strike happens, do you reach out to the union officials, or do they come to you?

I call them, 100 percent. I tell them, “My name is Han Dongfang. I’m calling from China Labour Bulletin.” They don’t know who I am or that I’m calling from Hong Kong, not China. I speak the Beijing dialect, so at the end of the conversation when they ask me where I’m from and I say from Hong Kong, it’s a big surprise.

I talk about the issue and the solution, and offer a friendly, sincere approach. I do not challenge or demonize them.

We talk for a few minutes about the case it­self. And then about their inaction. Then I quickly run into a possible solution. I always make sure that what they say will not get them into trouble. Because sometimes they do start to criticize the system, saying there is nothing they can do because of it.

I try to redirect them—what can you do in­stead of blaming your limitations. Be cre­ative. I believe it’s also my duty to make sure these union officials do not get fired because they have a sincere conversation with me. That’s why I always end the conversation with a solution.

What advice do you have for worker representatives?

In my conversation with the local unions, I criticize them when they don’t act and chal­lenge them by constructively giving them recommendations. Some of them will say, “I have been working in the union for 20 years. This is the first time I ever heard about how a real union functions.”

They take notes and thank me and say they will send their notes to the leadership. Of course it depends on whether the leader­ship will accept the recommendations or not. If the representatives are young people, I will tell them, “Look, if you’re waiting for the party leadership’s guide, China’s reform may not happen.”

And I will encourage them. Young people are supposed to have the courage and inspira­tion and the imagination to look for a solu­tion and not wait for leadership’s orders. I tell them, “The leadership is high up and they see less. You see the reality on the ground. If you can do it first then show the results to the leadership, that is more convincing than you sending my recommendations. They have many other things to deal with, and the notes may end up in a file folder.”

When I train worker representatives, I teach them about the difference between argu­ment and bargaining. In an argument, you raise your voice and you don’t care about the opposition’s feelings. And you use any kind of words possible to win every argument.

But in win-win bargaining, you have to al­ways look into the opposition’s eyes. You want to keep the relationship. So my goal with the training is to make people more civil and patient.

I believe, if we can achieve that in China, if the 1.4 billion population starts to believe in win-win bargaining instead of arguing, of be­ing good neighbours to each other instead of constantly taking shots at each other, that will be a huge achievement.

Where do you see the future for yourself and the CLB?

People put very high expectations on me with this label of China’s Lech Walesa, which would completely pull me out from my own roots. I’d dry up and turn into some sample on the wall in a museum. Like a vanished tree or dinosaur.

I’m lucky that I am still able to put my roots on the ground in Hong Kong, and continue to suck the water by keeping as close as possible to the workers’ reality in the work­place. And that’s the CLB’s tone, policy, and focus—to stay close to the workers’ reality in this country.

When I talk to Chinese officials, they say, “I’m on the other side of the border in Hong Kong.”

I tell them, “But I am the closest to the work­ers’ reality, even though it’s through a very thin telephone line. I don’t have a bound­ary. In the morning, I am calling about a case that happened in the southwest of China. And in the afternoon, I go 4,000 kilometres away to the northeast. No boundaries.


Han Dongfang, Lech Walesa was an electrician by trade, but for the shipyards, not the railways. And like Dongfang, he was also a trade union activist and arrested—several times. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1983. 

A leader of the Solidarity trade union movement, Walesa was elected president of Poland in 1990. He was the first Polish president elected by popular vote. He served five years and narrowly lost reelection in 1995. He established the Lech Walesa Institute on December 22, 1995—the last day of his presidency— “to popularize the achievements of Polish Solidarity, educate young generations, promote democracy, and build civil society in Poland and around the world.” 



Workers in China struggle with low wages, limited rights, discrimina­tion, and a lack of health and safety protections. The China Labour Bul­letin (CLB, began in 1994 with the vision of becom­ing an influential labour group that defends the rights of Chinese work­ers by organizing them in their respective workplaces.

Today, it is a thriving organization, having overcome the challenges of operating under a communist re­gime that has banned and censored the CLB for most of its existence. In addition to successfully organizing, training, and advocating for workers all over mainland China, CLB works alongside a network of labour law­yers to provide its members access to legal representation.

Its founder, Han Dongfang, broad­casts on Radio Free Asia three times per week, sharing the plights and victories of Chinese workers with tens of millions of listeners through­out China. In a country known for its censorship of the media, this is one of CLB’s greatest successes.

With no small thanks to the CLB and its ongoing efforts to influence officials, there has been a significant political shift in regard to labour, to the point where government has be­gun to embrace collective bargain­ing as a way to create a healthy la­bour relations system in China.

CLAC, through the CLAC Foundation, is proud to support the China Labour Bulletin in its important work. If you would like to support the CLB’s work, please go to donate.

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