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Upsurge of protests and unrest in China

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Issue 1754

Exclusive interview-Tiananmen Square exile

Upsurge of protests and unrest in China

A NEW wave of discontent is growing in China. Even the Chinese government which is misleadingly called a Communist regime, admits, “Our country’s entry in the World Trade Organisation [WTO] may bring growing dangers and pressures.” An official Chinese government report refers to current protests and unrest that it fears “may jump” with China’s planned entry into the WTO.

Joining the WTO will mean the Chinese government steps up its free market reforms. It was claimed these reforms would benefit workers and the poor who suffered under the old state-directed industries. Instead it will bring more suffering for workers and the rural poor.

Chinese dissident HAN DONGFANG spoke to HELEN SHOOTER about this mood of bitterness inside China. He is now editor of the independent publication China Labour Bulletin based in Hong Kong, where he also hosts a radio broadcast for people to air their grievances.

WHAT IMPACT did the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 have on you?

I WAS an electrician in the railway industry at the time. I got involved in Tiananmen Square by coincidence. My wife and I were riding on a bus past the protest and saw the students gathered there. My wife said, “Let’s go and see what’s happening. We don’t have to stay long.” As we got in I started talking to people and I wanted to stay. From a tent at the square we set up the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation, an independent union.

Up until five minutes before the soldiers opened fire in the square, I argued that they would not shoot at ordinary people. I had spent three years in the army myself when I was 17 years old. It was really awful. It partly broke my Communist dream. When I went there I was trying to be a real Communist. We were told everybody was equal but we saw the officers had a completely different lifestyle. They took the money that was meant for our food. We were always hungry but they had chicken and meat and alcohol.

It did not break my dream completely. That happened in Tiananmen Square. I saw police officers beat students. I saw the army open fire. I saw the bullets in the sky and I was absolutely shocked. It led me to think, if the system makes these things happen, then how can the system be good? There must be something wrong with the system.

Some young people advised me to get out. I left Beijing but I saw my picture in newspapers and on TV screens. I was a wanted person. I was put in prison for two years where I became ill with TB. On my release I went to the US for a lung operation and now I live in Hong Kong. I am not allowed to go back to China.

WHAT IS the situation like for ordinary people in China today?

LIFE IS getting more and more miserable, and more and more confused. People cannot see the future. That is what people tell me when they call the radio programme. We talk about their life and families-what is their job-are they unemployed?

I ask them what the situation is, and usually they say bad pay and corruption. They say the officials are too powerful and the system does not give people a chance to speak out. Many older people who are in their forties to fifties used to hear a lot about equality. But since the opening up of China and the reform policy people can see more of the lifestyle of powerful people.

They are dressing well, driving very expensive cars, using mobile phones, going to expensive five star hotels. People see the different lifestyles and they see themselves and say, “How come I can’t make it? How come those people can make it when their salary should be the same as mine, or at least not so much higher?” The market economy has brought the reality to people from the dream. This is the reality-you won’t be treated in the way they promised-you have to take care of yourself.

CHINA’S ENTRY into the World Trade Organisation will mean even more privatisation and multinationals opening factories in China. What effect has the free market had already?

I WILL give one example. Three or four years ago the government reformed the mining industry. Last month a coal mine exploded in Middle China and 15 people were killed. The coal mine official in the city told me the workers don’t belong to us-we privatised it. They belong to the company. The company said, we just take the coal, not the mine. It belongs to the government. This is the business relationship. I said, “Who is taking care of health and safety?” and both said, “That’s a good question.” This is the difficulty. With the old state contract workers got benefits like medical insurance, education, housing and pensions. This was called the Iron Rice Bowl.

That has now been thrown away. People are coming in from the countryside, brought by a subcontractor. The government-run trade unions say the people killed were not workers but farmers. When the government reformed the mines it was called a great success. They started to make money and laid off workers under the state contract. This is the big picture. This is globalisation.

The global institutions search for the cheapest labour to make huge money. In the export zones in China they open facilities under subcontractors there. I will get calls at midnight or 1am because the workers there have finished work at 11.30pm. They are people from the countryside, mostly young women aged 18 and 19 years old. Some are only 15 and 16 years old.

They buy a fake identity card as 19 to 20 is the legal age to work. They are forced to work 14 hours a day and the peak is 17 hours a day. At first they feel happy they can see some cash and the outside world. But after six months working 17 hours a day and no day off, it is too much. People are not machines.

These people don’t know that they are workers-they are “farmers” from the countryside. But when they start industrial action, get organised and fight, that is when they realise they are workers. They are working together with 1,000 to 2,000 others. Everybody is tired. Then they just go on strike.

There have been many strikes in this area, mostly against long hours and low pay. Activists from the foreign factory export zones and from state enterprises are thinking we want to do something to get our colleagues organised. Under such economic and political pressure they still want to get involved as trade unionists.

MANY PEOPLE have begun to protest in various countries around the world against globalisation and institutions like the World Bank and IMF. What do you think about this?

TO TELL the truth I am not sure what to think. We had a society where the state ran everything and that was bad. Now people are protesting against privatisation and I am confused what the alternative is.

Many workers in China I speak to wish for the WTO. They say we are living in hell and we are hanging on. We may exchange this hell for another but at least its change. One worker from Beijing said to me, “Mr Han, how far have you gone to approach the WTO?” He said under the WTO rules lawyers from the US and Britain can set up law firms to defend our labour rights. I said, what if you are working in McDonald’s and you have a dispute?

You go to the law firm and McDonald’s pay one million and you pay nothing. Who do you think they will take? I told the worker it is a dream. You have to look to your own activity and you have to be strong.

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