Online Extra: A Blacklisted Labor Leader Speaks Out

Lee Cheuk Yan of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions talks about the challenges of protecting workers

Hong Kong Legislative Councillor Lee Cheuk Yan, 48, hasn't been in China since participating in the Tiananmen Square protests that culminated in a bloody massacre on June 4, 1989. He is one of 10 to 20 Hong Kong residents blacklisted from entering the mainland for supporting the protesting students.

Yet rather than be cowed by that restriction, Lee has continued his activism. As general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, he now works to improve the lives of Chinese workers. BusinessWeek Beijing Bureau Chief Dexter Roberts recently met with Lee in the historic former Supreme Court Building -- now the Legislative Council Building -- in Hong Kong's Central district, where they talked about the labor movement in China. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: How much room do labor groups have to organize on the mainland now?


That's an interesting development in China. For the first time, labor NGOs [non-governmental organizations] seem to have some sort of space to operate. As long as you don't get the workers organized [it's OK.].

You can serve workers as a labor lawyer, as a resource center, as a research center, or as a service center. But still unions are very sensitive, as are real workers' organizations. For example, lately there have been more detentions of strikers in textile factories.

The government will allow some labor organizations to develop as long as it is under Beijing's control. That's so that the grievances don't build up to such a point that they cause social instability.

Q: Why is Beijing being more tolerant toward labor now?


It is because of the need to ensure that the transition toward a market economy and further privatization and further foreign investment won't lead to labor disputes and [the rise of] organized labor.

One safety valve is the labor NGOs. The other safety valve is [the government] tries to make the official union pretend to be a union. When you look at the recent amendments to the Trade Union Law, very clearly it is still controlled by the Communist Party -- that hasn't changed.

But they have begun to allow a sort of [limited] union elections, and are using the jargon that says they need to [better] represent workers' interests. And they are moving the union into private enterprises and into foreign enterprises especially. So there is new union formation going on in the private sector.

Q: What roles is played by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, China's official government-controlled union?


The ACFTU also wants to play the role of a safety valve. It wants to show the workers that there is [an organization] to represent them. But [in reality] it still represents predominately the interest of the Communist Party. So this is more of a move toward the official union pretending to play the role of a real union.

Q: How effective can the official union be?


There have been some cases where within the union they have held elections where they have successfully gotten rid of ACFTU candidates and other worker candidates have won. So these are some cases where there has been more opening up of opportunity for ordinary workers. But even if through an election you get elected to the enterprise level, workers still can not rise to the industrial level or to the provincial level of the official union.

Take the Liaoyang case [where thousands of workers protested over unpaid salaries in 2002 in Liaoyang, Liaoning in Northeastern China] with worker organizers Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang. They were both arrested, and even now are still in prison. They emerged out of this struggle [for worker rights] but even before they had formed an [independent] union, they were arrested.

Q: How serious is the Chinese government about improving worker conditions in China? The Premier, Wen Jiabao, for example, publicly puts much emphasis on improving safety conditions for workers.


Premier Wen Jiabao wept over a mining accident where 160 people were killed, but not long after that even more people died in another accident. This regime is more concerned with stability [than protecting workers].

Of course they are also concerned about labor and peasant unrest. But what really triggers the anger of the working people is corruption [and Beijing knows that]. And mining accidents are always connected to corruption. It is either illegal mines that are allowed to operate by corrupt officials or official disrespect for safety conditions, which also occurs in state-owned mines.

So this regime is concerned [about workers] because they don't want to trigger instability. But in a way they are helpless. That's because the only way to fight corruption is if you have transparency and democracy. They always try to do it from the top down. But actually they need to allow bottom-up [supervision.]

And it is very clear that this regime is politically more controlling than even the Jiang Zemin regime. Look at the way they control the media and stifle the development of democracy on the Internet. The [regime] is sort of a benign dictator. I think that is the right word to describe them.]

Q: Are there signs that workers are becoming more knowledgeable of their rights and more demanding?


Yes. First there is more publicity in the press about labor law. Secondly, there are more [resources] -- labor lawyers, service centers, NGOs -- devoted to legal education now. But everyone in China knows their limits. They know they can not organize an independent union. And I think that is the main frustration of the workers in China now.

Q: What is the role of your organization?


We here in Hong Kong are trying to work with international unions and put pressure on China to open up in the area of freedom of association. We are an independent union in Hong Kong. We are representing 70 affiliates with 170,000 workers. Our constituency is just in Hong Kong. But of course we support workers' rights in China. And we have also established a liaison office to inform the international union movement about what is happening in Hong Kong and China.

We also monitor changes in labor conditions in China. We are doing research on the impact of the WTO [World Trade Organization] on Chinese workers, and we have put out a guidebook for international unions that want to go into [or do work related to] China. We are also thinking of using this strategy: putting pressure on foreign enterprises in China to allow their workers to elect their own representatives within the Chinese operations of their companies.

Q: How optimistic are you that China will eventually have real independent unions?


In a way I feel not really very optimistic. Because the overwhelming concern of the Chinese regime -- even this new generation of leaders -- is too much focused on political control. The Chinese regime is very much worried about the Solidarity experience in Poland coming to China. And they don't want the workers movement to rock their power base.

With Hong Kong it is the same. We had a half-million people march for democracy. And at that outpouring of anger and discontent and in support for democracy here in Hong Kong, we have seen Beijing's reaction: to be even more hardline. They have ruled out the right to universal suffrage in the years 2007 and 2008. So I say if the people of Hong Kong have democracy, then the workers in China will have freedom of association. It is the same struggle against political control.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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