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Rethinking the rethink

January 18, 2001

The Chinese working class, the ACTFU & engagement


While sharing some of the concerns raised by Kent Wong and Elaine Bernard about US organized labor’s “China Campaign,” the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) and China Labour Bulletin (CLB) argue against their proposal for engagement with the official union in China.






Racism, ignorance, distrust and erroneous policies have been endemic in the history of relations between Chinese and American workers. We view the recent reappearance of these specters in the alliance between the anti-worker, anti-union far right in America and some sections of the US labor movement over the China question as inimical to the interests of labor everywhere. It has left a sour taste in the mouths of independent trade unionists all over Asia, especially here in Hong Kong and China. Trade unionists from the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) were alarmed as they watched a minority of US trade unionists line up with racists in a problematic attempt to prevent China from being granted Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) by the United States last year. In fact, during a recent international conference for union educators held at the George Meany Center in Washington, and attended by delegates from many unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO (the main US union federation), HKCTU Chief Executive Elizabeth Tang raised our concerns regarding the racist overtones distorting the “China Campaign.” Sister Tang’s remarks were addressed to AFL-CIO leaders, including vice-president Trunka, and received widespread support from conference participants.

For us, much of the bluster around the PNTR debates was little more than a charade that ultimately would make little difference to problems facing Chinese workers. At the end of the day, whether China was granted PNTR, or whether China joins the World Trade Organization (WTO), China’s economic “reforms” are set to continue, as will their disastrous impact on the Chinese working class. There is no escaping the fact that China is a major trading power that attracts more foreign investment than any other country in the world except the United States. To be sure, WTO membership will increase the pace of foreign capital’s penetration into China, but this doesn’t alter the basic issue: in the face of the government’s anti-worker, anti-union, “trickle-down” economic policies, we are left unorganized and unrepresented, our genuine leaders are locked up or forced into exile, and our lives are marked by unemployment, poverty, violence and despair.

It is against this framework that we must consider Wong and Bernard’s call to rethink US labor’s China campaign. There is much with which we can empathize. But by concluding that opening up direct exchanges between the AFL-CIO and the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) will somehow further the interests of Chinese and US workers, Wong and Bernard belittle the principles of solidarity they wish to further.







Much has happened to US workers over the last decade that resonates in Hong Kong and China. The Reagan and Clinton administrations provided the political backdrop to a systematic ratcheting up of the exploitation of US workers that has fueled the race to the bottom for workers everywhere. Likewise, the US labor movement has provided us with inspiration: the strikes by workers at United Parcel Service and Frontier Hotel were both examples of how to resist what AFL-CIO President John Sweeney referred to as the “American model” of production. It is a model that has led to a dramatic increase in working hours, for less wages, in deteriorating conditions.

At the same time, Wong and Bernard’s proposed evaluation of US labor’s PNTR campaign and whether it lessened the impetus of the broad-based fight-back that started in Seattle is ultimately the responsibility of the US labor movement itself. There are aspects to Wong and Bernard’s evaluation that will assist the process of evaluation. We must part company, however, with the solution they offer and the “bold step” that they urge the AFL-CIO to take—namely to explore channels of contact with the ACFTU.

The presentation of such a step as a way of atoning for anti-Chinese sentiment in the US labor movement, or to “reach out” to workers in China is nothing short of bizarre. The crux of their proposal - to open up contact with a “trade union” whose very existence depends on its role as a crucial ingredient to the apparatus of a dictatorial regime - is not without precedent. Nor is it a brave step into the unknown. We speak not just of the Chinese experience of “yellow” trade unions but also of trade unionists elsewhere who have faced a similar dilemma.

For example, while there were many profound and important differences between the former USSR in the late 1980s and today’s China, there is one aspect of these two societies that must remain paramount for trade unionists: an organization that professes to be the embodiment of organized labor while simultaneously boasting political, legal and constitutional allegiance to the - usually dictatorial - government of a country, is one that cannot begin to represent the interests of the working class.

Wong and Bernard rightly point to the mistakes that sections of the US labor movement made in allying itself so closely with the interests of the American state - and therefore of capital - during the Cold War and after. But it is also worth recalling what independently-minded Soviet workers thought of the idea of “constructive engagement” with trade unions in the West who attempted to build “solidarity” with the official Soviet trade union organization, the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. In answer to a question on what trade unions in the West could do to provide solidarity to Soviet workers, one member of a budding underground independent trade union argued:




What else could be done? While getting information out [to Soviet workers] it is necessary to help all trade unions and strikes that begin…It is necessary to break all links with the apparatus…But in the West they don’t seem able to understand this at all. Delegation after delegation arrives. But we consider them simply traitors. They are all phony, the Communist Party, the representatives of the [Soviet] trade unions, but the
delegations always come, get drunk, most likely with our officials…We already demanded the United States under no circumstances allow our trade union bureaucrats the right to enter America as long as our trade unions remain state controlled. These trips back and forth must be stopped…To hold conversations with our bureaucrats is not in our interest. But they don’t understand these bureaucrats are to us even worse than the exploiting class…The Party itself, bad as it is, is not as damaging and harmful as the “yellow” trade union bureaucrats.

These observations highlight the risks of Wong and Bernard’s proposal that US labor should open up dialogue with the ACFTU. For many independent labor activists, “yellow” unions operating in countries where they enjoy a monopoly are more dangerous to workers than the actual owners and controllers of capital themselves. In the context of China becoming progressively enmeshed in the global economy, where labor rights violations are increasingly linked to the activities and policies of powerful multinationals, this viewpoint has tactical ramifications that space
prohibits us from exploring further. While CLB and HKCTU do not necessarily contend that the greatest enemy facing the Chinese working class is the ACFTU, we are painfully aware of its influence on the lives of ordinary workers.

One illustration is how the “conceptual embezzlement” of the very notion of trade unionism by government-backed trade unions in states that profess to rule in the name of the working class has proved to be a major obstacle in building worker-controlled labor organizations. For independent labor organizers in China, as well as risking imprisonment, Reeducation Through Labor or “psychiatric” treatment, the difficulties of their work include the day-to-day task of winning back their weapons of resistance. These are the bread and butter of workplace organizing anywhere: collective action, strikes, overtime bans, signature campaigns, meetings, unity and democracy. These traditional methods of struggle have been so effectively appropriated and neutralized by the ACFTU that ordinary workers often dismiss them as irrelevant. Not without reason, the notion of a “trade union” is more often than not associated with the state, the employer or the local leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and therefore part of the problem. In short, “conceptual embezzlement” can reach to the very heart of trade union consciousness and action.




Many readers of China Rights Forum will be aware of the political and legal instruments that bind the ACFTU to the Chinese government. However, although Wong and Bernard have characterized the organization as admittedly “not independent,” they still maintain Chinese trade unions “are legitimate worker organizations with 100 million members, and reflect great diversity depending on the industry, sector, geographic area, and individual union leadership.” Clearly, it is worth reexamining the role of official “worker organizations” in China, from top to bottom.

To begin with, there is only one legal worker organization in China. While the Chinese Constitution mandates that the Chinese people and all Chinese non-profit organizations accept the leadership of the CCP, the ACFTU Constitution and the Trade Union Law give legal expression to straight-jacket restrictions on independent organizing and freedom of association. Article 12 of the Trade Union Law forbids organizing outside the ACFTU. When China recently ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it simultaneously entered a reservation on the clause in the Covenant that guarantees the right of a worker to form or join a trade union “of his choice.” CLB and HKCTU do not believe that any amount of international exchanges with the ACFTU will change what is an entrenched position of the CCP - absolute denial of the right to freedom of association - any more than such exchanges would convince Chinese workers that the ACFTU is the union of their choice.

At the top of the ACFTU is one of China’s most powerful men, Wei Jianxing. He is not a man to mess with, especially if you are a worker inclined to resist current government policies. As far as Wei is concerned, the ACFTU’s subordination to the CCP is beyond question. Indeed, the point is so endlessly labored in ACFTU literature and in Wei’s speeches that to quote it again here would be sheer indulgence. In fact, Wei Jianxing himself epitomizes the structural bond between the ACFTU and China’s ruling class. He is the fourth most important member of China’s Politburo and head of the Central Disciplinary Inspection Committee, which is supposed to be spearheading the drive against corruption. Along with fellow Politburo member Luo Gan, Wei has frequently traveled across China encouraging the anti-graft campaign and its closely linked anti-crime campaign “Strike Hard.” Strike Hard has been consistently
criticized by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations for leading to rights violations, brutality and executions. These campaigns play on genuine concerns about crime among ordinary workers and use them as an excuse to shore up the legitimacy of the CCP by instilling fear. In short, Strike Hard has far more in common with the capital punishment barons of the West’s far right than a genuine attempt to tackle the causes of crime and corruption. In working for the effective implementation of Strike Hard and related Maoist-style disciplinary and anti-graft campaigns, Wei is hardly behaving as a traditional trade union leader.

Like most trade unions, the ACFTU is organized on a hierarchical basis with ultimate power resting in the top echelons. Democratic processes apart, where the organization differs dramatically from genuine trade unions is that every single activity undertaken at a lower level must be approved by the next level up - before action is taken. This important administrative obstacle to effective trade unionism has even been written into the Trade Union Law. An “approval” given by a trade union committee at county level must be in turn ratified by the township level trade union committee. Obviously, the onset of routine and the presence of a paid bureaucracy renders this process workable - in terms of keeping the organization running - but it certainly rules out labor action to defend jobs, wages and working conditions as the case of Zhang Shanguang illustrates. Zhang was in the process of attempting to register the Xupu County Association for the Rights of Laid-Off Workers with the local Civil Affairs Bureau when the local branch of the ACFTU stepped in to block the registration. Zhang was subsequently arrested and is now serving a 10-year sentence on the ludicrous charge of leaking “intelligence” to foreign journalists.

Confronted with workers in struggle, the local branch of the ACFTU will almost always defer to the next level before intervening. Far from supporting and leading workers’ struggles, intervention acts to suppress them and ensure a return to “stability” as soon as possible. This means getting the workers back to work and if necessary assisting in the arrest of the workers’ leaders. Examples abound. The 1997 case of south China labor activists Li Wenming and Guo Baosheng is a case in point. Their attempt to set up a workers’ night school in Shenzhen was not initially opposed by the local ACFTU leadership. However, as soon as the activists demonstrated some independent views on local labor issues such as forced overtime, health and safety and illegally low wages, the two were arrested and imprisoned. The ACFTU did nothing to defend these activists and referred to them as criminals in telephone interviews with CLB. This reaction has been repeated all over China, as witnessed by the continued denunciation of independent workers’ organizations by ACFTU representatives at the International Labor Organization and other international fora. Hardly a sign of what Bernard and Wong refer to as “great diversity.”







The call for engagement with the ACFTU is nothing new. According to the People’s Daily, the ACFTU reported that between 1994 and 1998 Chinese trade unions established “cooperative relations” with 419 trade unions from 131 countries and regions. These included 267 trade union delegations to China and 200 ACFTU delegations sent abroad to 191 countries and regions. In addition, between 1996 and 1998, the ACFTU sent over 400 cadres on labor-related study missions abroad. ACFTU Vice-Chair Zhang Dinghua made clear that such exchanges were not an attempt to build links in the international labor movement’s struggle to resist the increasing international power of capital and multinational companies. On the contrary, the exchanges were an integral part of the Chinese
government’s foreign policy. As Zhang put it:




The ACFTU’s international work is an important part of both China’s foreign policy and our general trade union work. As a result of the hard work at all levels of the ACFTU, we have achieved an important breakthrough on this aspect of our work that has developed continuously as a result. Indeed, we are now entering a new era in which the influence of the ACFTU has been increased through our hard work. This work in the international union arena falls directly under the guidance of the government’s overall foreign policy. Under this guidance, we need to consolidate our independence, broaden our contacts and bring in to full play the advantages and special aspects of foreign exchanges through trade union and people-to-people exchanges. (emphasis added)

We must continue to publicize [the decisions] of the Party’s 15th Congress and strengthen and build on the foundations of our external affairs work as well as actively add impetus to our contacts with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. The ACFTU’s international work must improve and expand its facilitating role in state foreign policy.

One of the chief decisions of the Party’s 15th Congress was to speed up the privatization of Chinese industry. This decision has since been pushed with vigor by the Party and has led directly to large-scale unemployment and increased social inequality. Yet these are policies that the ACFTU aims to “strengthen.” This weakens Wong and Bernard’s argument for US labor to jump on the bandwagon as the many engagements the ACFTU has promoted have brought no positive results to Chinese workers. Conversely, during the mid-1950s - the years in which Chinese workers in the post-1949 period were at their most militant and independent—there was very little, if any, engagement by Chinese trade unions with the West.

Following the 15th Party Congress, chaotic and unregulated privatization of China’s mining industry also picked up pace—as has the appalling number of fatalities among miners. Following an explosion in a Xinjiang mine in February this year, CLB interviewed an ACFTU cadre about the tragedy. When asked if her organization could do nothing about falling safety standards, the cadre replied that the ACFTU must accept Party and government policy and could not do anything that might damage the Ministry of Coal’s efforts to render coal-mining more profitable. She went on to acknowledge that while the CCP remained in charge of the “union,” “only Jiang Zemin” could answer the question of union independence. We believe he has already answered it.




If engaging with the ACFTU brings little or no benefits to the Chinese working class as a whole, one does not have to look hard to find the negatives. Following the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) delegation’s visit to China in 1999, CLB talked to an ACFTU cadre from Qinghe County near Tianjin City. When asked for his reaction to the visit, the local-level ACFTU said he had never heard any news of the visit. He said the leadership would not see this as having anything to do with lower levels of the organization.

Easily the most important result of engagement between the ACFTU and independent unions is the effect it has on independent labor activists, already operating under grave risks. CLB and HKCTU have consistently stated that we do not oppose any trade union visiting China in an attempt to learn more about the conditions of the working class. If members of a democratic trade union vote for such a course of action, all we can do is point to the pitfalls. However, if such a visit is arranged under the auspices of the ACFTU, such an exchange is directly harmful to those in China trying to promote labor rights in China—either within the parameters of the official “union” or outside it. Even where engagement has taken the form of trying to offer concrete assistance on issues such as collective bargaining or health and safety issues, none of this assistance has trickled down to where it really counts. Collective bargaining is reduced to a farce when the “union” involved is not independent of management or government. Furthermore, numerous studies show that health and safety in China is deteriorating from what the General Secretary of the International Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers has referred to as an industrial “killing field” as far back as 1992.

Perhaps more complicated is the question of encouraging the “reformist wing” within the ACFTU. While it is clear that the international labor movement can and does provide solidarity to detained independent labor activists (witness the current campaigns on behalf of Cao Maobing and Xu Jian), this does not have a direct influence on the position of the reformers. Unfortunately, the ACFTU leadership milks the publicity opportunities that engagement offers, using it to shore up its credibility while clamping down on independent labor activists and silencing the reformers. To date, the latter have drawn no strength from these exchanges. Privately some have admitted the contradictions inherent in being legally and constitutionally tied to the party leadership, but not one has been able to say so publicly. Indeed, the main weakness of “constructive engagement” is that it actually helps cement in place the worst elements in the existing repressive regime. It is not simply a waste of time; the kind of engagement the ACFTU allows has consequences that do no favors to trade unionists.

Along with many of our partners in the international trade union movement, CLB and the HKCTU do not believe that engagement with the ACFTU will bring any benefit to the Chinese working class. While offering encouragement to reformists within the ACFTU, we believe our primary task is to continue to provide support to the people who will eventually bring about a democratic labor movement in China - Chinese workers themselves. The way forward is not to make calls for engagement in order to somehow make amends for the racism that has plagued US-Chinese labor relations. Since when have two wrongs ever made a right? Instead, we must redouble our efforts to provide support and solidarity to detained militants; publicize and support strikes and demonstrations in defense of workers’ interests; and call on the Chinese government to grant workers the right to strike. Most of all, we must constantly campaign for the reform of China’s Trade Union Law that not only violates the Chinese Constitution, but also violates the most basic and hard won right of the working class—the right to freedom of association.t





  • Colin Barker, Festival of the Oppressed, Solidarity, Reform and Revolution in Poland, 1980-81. Bookmarks 1986
  • Marilyn Vogt-Downey (ed.), The USSR 1987-1991: Marxist Perspectives
  • China Labour Bulletin is available on-line at: