Han Dongfang Brings Waves of Change

By: Abby Van Buren NYU ’17

During the month of November La Pietra Dialogues will be hosting a series of dialogues on labor market issues and economics. The conference, entitled Generation Jobless: Youth Unemployment and Disengagement, looked at the phenomenon of youth unemployment and trends across EU countries. As the newest generation of students who will soon enter the job market, this dialogue is particularly relevant to us. In addition to this great opportunity, on November 13th, the renowned Chinese labor activist Han Dongfang will come to speak. Who is he and what does he think of the state of the Chinese and global labor movement?

Born in the impoverished village of Shanxi in 1963, Han Dongfang has been a labor activist in China for over 20 years. As a child he experienced extreme poverty as his family moved from the country to the city. He did not speak proper Mandarin when he first arrived to attend school in Beijing. He joined the army at 17 and became a model soldier but then began to question authority and was prevented from rejoining after his first period of service ended.  He was first internationally recognized when he helped found the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (BWAF) as a railway worker during the infamous Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

He was inspired to become an activist after getting involved in discussions about the meaning of democracy with students who began gathering on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square (which was close to where he lived) at the beginning of the movement there in 1989. It was the first time he had heard people discussing democracy in a context other than its association with“democracy under the proletarian dictatorship”. He got more deeply involved with the movement and participated in the protests, as he became more interested in applying the principles of democracy to his daily life.]]] For aiding the creation of the BWAF, which was the first Chinese non-governmental trade union, he was targeted as one of the Chinese government’s most wanted agitators. Believing he had the right to free speech and would get a fair trial, he turned himself in and spent 22 months in prison without trial and faced sleep deprivation, torture, threats of execution, and participated in hunger strikes. After contracting tuberculosis, he received medical treatment in the United States for a year. He was expulsed from mainland China and settled in Hong Kong where he established the China Labour Bulletin, an organization that defends the rights of workers within China and broadcasts Chinese labor concerns over the radio. His organization’s website can be visited at: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/

To prepare for the upcoming dialogue, it is useful to familiarize oneself with his views and the current situation of Chinese laborers, based on a talk given at the “Work, Employment and Society Conference” at the University of Warwick on September 3, 2013.

In the talk, he discussed about a specific strike in May of 2010, where trade union officials attempted to stop the protesters. The resilience of the workers led to a 35% pay increase. This inspired more strikes across China. It forced employers, local governments and official trade unions to take the workers’ concerns seriously. Other strike leaders went to court instead of giving up their roles as protest organizers and wanted not just to continue their efforts but to also continue representing their fellow workers in order to reach an agreement with the company management. Han makes the point that while court verdicts are very important, the mentality of the worker has more value. They are no longer afraid which means they are more apt to fight.

Han believes the laborers have taken their fate into their own hands. This new mentality inspired thousands of workers to begin bargaining with their employer to receive better pay and conditions. One unfortunate part of this struggle is once strikers get partial victory, they often agree to stop protesting since they have already endured months without pay in order to protest. Han explains that there is a consciousness among Chinese workers, but they lack the skills to turn their awareness into action. Social media is increasing public attention as many workers have phones with cameras and promote each other’s protests on Twitter.

With respect to the question of why the Communist government is tolerating worker protests, he explains that better pay and conditions is what usually motivates activism, not a desire to bring down the government. The government actually allows the media to publicize the protests as they would rather see negotiation through dialogue as soon as possible in order to protect their own interests. Recently, companies are now accepting the principle that increasing workers’ wages means a better domestic economy, which improves the greater society.

Although many company executives are refusing to change or only allow for minimal improvements, many things have already transformed for the better. The workers’ mentality, social media’s involvement and the government’s attitude have all improved. Han underlines that China’s workers should not be seen as victims anymore, although they were in the past. He emphasizes that they have become strong and are ready to take ownership of unions. They are no longer victims but, as he puts it, are valiantly fighting for their rights. The impact of the workers’ movement will affect all aspects of Chinese society including social, economic and political aspects, which may, Han hopes, provoke a global revolution for labor rights. A transcript of the full-length talk can be read here: http://www.clb.org.hk/en/content/han-dongfang-discusses-fast-emerging-labour-movement-china.

The dialogue will be at Villa Sassetti on November 13th. The La Pietra Dialogues are accepting R.S.V.Ps at lapietradialogues@nyu.edu or 055 5007202.


Sources: http://newleftreview.org/II/34/dongfang-han-chinese-labour-struggles,



McMahon, Michael. “Dissident Han Wins Work Visa until 1998; Exile Stays On, Writes Quinton Chan.” South China Morning Post [Hong Kong] 15 Nov. 1996: n. pag. Print.

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