The Magazine

The Lech Walesa of China?

Chinese exile Han Dongfang was always an idealist. Can he lead a movement for freedom in China?

Oct 2, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 03 • By DAVID AIKMAN
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Hong Kong

The office, on the eighth floor of a slightly declasse building here, is decorated in classic dissident utilitarian: white walls, water coolers, and styrofoam coffee cups democratically dispersed among desktop computers and rent-an-office bookshelves and collapsible tables. But the man who presides here is one of natural distinction, a tall, handsome Chinese who speaks excellent English and emphasizes his points with long-fingered hands. He is Han Dongfang, 37, founder and editor of the China Labor Bulletin, a broadcaster on Radio Free Asia, and potentially someday the Lech Walesa of China.

Like Walesa, Han stumbled more or less by accident onto a stage where labor unrest and sudden, exhilarating hopes for change were unfolding, only to end abruptly in political repression. A railroad worker, he was galvanized into activism on behalf of workers' rights by the Tiananmen Square democracy protest in 1989, which landed him on China's most-wanted list. Insisting he'd done nothing wrong, he turned himself in to the authorities and spent nearly two years in prison. Unlike Walesa, whose house arrest after the Communist government of Poland declared martial law in 1981 was relatively benign, Han paid a physical price for his views: tuberculosis and the loss of a lung. Today, Han looks healthy and vigorous, though he remains vulnerable to arrest any time the Chinese authorities decide he is inconvenient.

Up until 1989, Han's life was unexceptional. Born in 1963 in Shanxi province to a couple who divorced when he was young, he moved to Beijing with his mother to complete his secondary school. Neither teachers nor peers let him forget his provincial origins. But he was hugely idealistic. At school, he was enraptured by tales of Lei Feng, a People's Liberation Army soldier whose alleged selfless dedication to the cause of the people transformed him, with help from Mao's propagandists, into a paragon of Communist virtue. At 17, Han joined the People's Armed Police, a law-enforcement wing of the People's Liberation Army. "I was looking for my dream," he says today. "I wanted to be a hero, like Lei Feng." Within months, his leadership qualities had attracted the attention of his superiors, who promoted him to section commander, a one-in-a-thousand slot for a new recruit.

But the idealism wouldn't leave him. He was shocked that officers dined on meat and alcohol while the enlisted ranks subsisted on coarse dumplings. "I was caught between the people in my tent and my boss," he recalls. "I began to choose my heart." This led to a quarrel with his section commander, who tore up Han's Communist party application before his eyes. Han's reputation for integrity spread among the soldiers. During his post-Tiananmen imprisonment, a prison guard would approach him and say he knew Han from his military days and promise to get him anything he needed.

After three years in the army, Han found a six-month job as a librarian at Beijing Teacher's University (an odd parallel to the career of Mao Zedong, who spent six months as a librarian at Peking University in 1918). Han read widely, from the Greek classics to Freud. But he was restless and objected to being told by fellow librarians not to be in such a hurry to do his job. The customers could wait, they said. Han's next job was as a railroad worker accompanying refrigerated trains across China. Then one day in late April 1989, riding through Beijing on a bus, he and his wife noticed that students had gathered in Tiananmen Square. "Come on," his wife told him, "let's go and listen."