Feature

Beijing's Labor Pains

Why the conventional coverage of China may be missing the most interesting story of all.

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.

It all adds up to a powerful case for the virtues of incremental change -- a point, Han acknowledges, that has been known to fuel disagreement between him and his erstwhile companions from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. (Han was working to set up communist China's first independent trade union in a corner of the square when the government sent in the troops.) Not long after the protests were bloodily crushed, Han was arrested and sentenced to a two-year jail term. After his 1992 release, the authorities deported him to Hong Kong, where he set up CLB.

The Party persists in refusing him the right to return home. Even so, the government in Beijing tolerates most of CLB's activities on the mainland. "Other activists tell me, ‘You should be fighting dictatorship. That should be your job,'" says Han. "But I think that we have a duty to help Chinese workers improve their lives, to make them as confident as possible."

He sketches a typical scenario: "A coal miner has just died. He left behind a wife, old parents, a kid. What do you want me to tell his wife? Go out and overthrow the [Communist Party]? Or, ‘Here are your rights vis-à-vis the employer. I'll help you get a lawyer.' So I don't argue with the Chinese government. I don't argue about my right to reform my country."

In 2007 and 2008, CLB provided legal support in 600 cases. It won 95 percent of them. In modern-day China, says Han, that is incontrovertible evidence of positive change -- as well as a sobering indication of just how badly Chinese employers abuse their workers.

It also demonstrates that the Chinese authorities are increasingly recognizing the usefulness of keeping labor disputes labor disputes, rather than allowing them to metastasize into political conflicts. Ten years ago, if workers went on strike, the Communist Party sent in the police and threw the organizers in jail. Now, the Chinese government is more likely to send in a labor mediator. "Now labor unhappiness is aimed at the boss," he argues. "Now the government is no longer the target."

CLB's website is filled with hair-raising tales of cruelty, exploitation, and injustice. But you can also find intriguing signals of change. In 2008, China's civil courts accepted 93 percent more labor disputes than in 2007, for a total of 280,000. A sample headline: "A 25 year-old university graduate with Hepatitis B has, for the first time in China, successfully sued a hospital for violating his right to privacy after it gave the results of his blood test to a prospective employer." And three months ago, a long article in the magazine Liaowang, published by none other the state-owned Xinhua news agency, explained why the country needs to guarantee collective bargaining rights.

The problem is that China's pervasive corruption is eroding people's trust in the law. Popular frustration about the issue is one of the driving forces behind the rising signs of civil unrest around China. By one estimate, there were 127,467 "mass incidents" in China in 2008. In one government poll last year, 75 percent of respondents cited corruption as the number one problem facing the country. It's easy to see how the resulting cynicism could poison the country's future.

So the tug-of-war continues, and the stories keep rolling in. The bigger story is a long way from over. Stay tuned.

China Photos/Getty Images

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