HONG KONG—Western media coverage of China tends to be dominated by two competing narratives. The first is all about economics. China, it contends, is an epochal success story. The economy is booming and national wealth is on the rise. The Chinese themselves are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lot. There's nowhere to go but up.
The second focuses on politics. China is in the grip of communist party dictatorship. People have no democratic rights. Everywhere you turn, there is social turmoil -- seething popular anger over corruption, environmental degradation, illegal land grabs, and summary arrests. Something's got to give.
To be sure, both of these interpretations contain grains of truth. But it turns out that there's another way of comprehending the reality of modern-day China -- one that captures the contradictions of the place and allows them to co-exist.
All you have to do is pay a visit to the Hong Kong offices of China Labor Bulletin (CLB), a non-governmental organization founded in 1994 by activist Han Dongfang. Han and his colleagues are pushing hard for grassroots change in China -- and they're doing it openly. But they are also doing it within the existing system, not against it. "We don't see any of them as our enemies," says Han, referring to officials of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party. "We see all people we're dealing with as social partners."
The picture that comes through as you listen to Han looks something like this: Today's Chinese workplace is a mess, as one might expect. Safety conditions are terrible. Work-related illnesses are rife. Employs often hire workers without issuing formal contracts, making it near-impossible for wronged employees to fight back. Confronted with these problems, government agencies often look away or collude with the offending companies' management.
Yet China also has a full-fledged body of labor law, a comprehensive court system, and a growing army of private lawyers. That's where CLB comes in. It provides legal aid to embattled workers, helping them to navigate the intricacies of the labor code and urging them to assert their right to collective bargaining, up to and including the right to strike. Demands for the creation of independent trade unions are notably absent from CLB literature, presumably because unions would pose a direct and provocative challenge to the Communist Party's monopoly power.
Han's organization also defends imprisoned lawyers and labor organizers. It publicizes cases of employer malfeasance and advocates legal reform. One of the group's most potent tools is its thrice-weekly radio program, beamed into China by Radio Free Asia. (The Chinese authorities block CLB's website on the mainland, but staffers say the group manages to quietly advertise its services on other sites.) Workers call in or send emails explaining their legal travails. Then, Han responds on the air, explaining the cases, discussing possible legal strategies, and sometimes actively intervening.
Last summer, for example, a group of 170 construction workers got in touch. The men explained that they were suffering from silicosis -- a lung condition also known as potter's rot that's caused by inhaling silicone dust -- contracted at a Shenzhen building site. Local authorities had stymied their efforts to obtain compensation for their obviously work-related affliction. So, CLB staffers drew up a legal memo on behalf of the workers that the men used to press their claims against the Shenzhen Labor Bureau. To everyone's surprise, the hitherto recalcitrant authorities offered the men a "humanitarian fund" -- giving the workers cash without admitting any legal accountability for the workplace injury. Some happily accepted.
Others, though, decided to press on with a lawsuit against the regional labor office. With the help of a CLB-provided lawyer, they accused the office of neglecting its oversight duties. "At first the workers were begging for help," says Han. "But now they see that the government bears responsibility [and] that they have rights. They've made a big jump -- now they're much closer to being citizens." It is all part of CLB's strategy to strengthen the rule of law one case at a time. "Many little differences can make a big step," says Han.