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."


They did, and Han was entranced. "Suddenly, I couldn't pull myself away," he recalls. "I began to talk to people" in the square, workers with serious complaints about their pay and working conditions. The student demonstrators, somewhat arrogantly seeking to preserve the "pure" democratic nature of their discussions, had banished the workers to a corner of Tiananmen Square. "I didn't even know what the word 'democracy' meant before then," says Han. What he did know was the situation of workers, and, amid the heady discussions of China's future that April and May, he wanted to change things. He and a handful of others founded the Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation, a makeshift umbrella group that attracted 20,000 members in a matter of days. When the tanks roared into Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3, Han was asleep and didn't at first grasp what was happening. Complete strangers half-dragged him away from the shooting. He was shocked by what they said: "Han Dongfang, you are not the same as other people. In the future, our country will need such a leader as you. We need a Chinese Walesa. Other people can die, we can all die, but you must not die."


Han set out to bicycle around China, naively thinking he might take a sabbatical away from the turmoil. From that brief period, he remembers a Lei Feng moment. "I went to lie down by a river," he says with a laugh. "The first thing that came into my mind was that the Communist heroes I'd heard about died with dignity." He was arrested within weeks. In prison, he had something of an epiphany. "I was so happy. It was my dream. When we were in school reading the stories of the Communist heroes, I was disappointed that we would never get the chance to be like them. When the bright lights came on [and my interrogation got serious], I was very proud."


Because he refused to admit wrongdoing, Han was pushed into a tiny cell crammed with 20 prisoners racked with tuberculosis and hepatitis. He soon contracted tuberculosis; his weight and physical strength dropped precipitously. He was finally released when the authorities judged him near death. Pressure from international human rights agencies finally enabled him to leave for the United States for medical treatment in 1992. The following year, his diseased right lung was removed at Columbia Medical Center in New York.


Other Chinese dissidents might have applied for political asylum and stayed in the United States to await the eventual demise of the current regime. But Han went back to China in August 1993, through Hong Kong, determined to carry on the struggle for workers' rights. Furious at the reappearance of the troublemaker, the Public Security Bureau arrested him in a Guangzhou hotel, transported him under guard to the Hong Kong border, and pushed him across. "People like you have no right to call yourselves Chinese," the Chinese police told him.


Han has stayed in Hong Kong, despite its transfer from British to Chinese rule in 1997. His China Labor Bulletin, founded in 1993, documents China's appalling labor conditions, and since 1997 he has broadcast regularly into China on Radio Free Asia. He announces his phone number on the air, and workers and officials from all over China phone him anonymously to vent their grievances. When callers consent, Han broadcasts their calls back into China. His is one of the most popular voices on the radio.


For Han, workers' rights are a core ingredient of democracy in China. He shows no personal rancor or desire for revenge against his Communist tormentors. Indeed, in seeking to bring change, he is deeply concerned to avoid triggering a revolutionary explosion. "People call me, and I [broadcast] what they say," he explains. "Some people call to say, 'You are the last Communist in China, because you use the term "working class.'" But I don't believe in communism anymore. I am a socialist and a trade unionist, and I believe in God."


It's a powerful and potentially combustible mixture, but in Han's view not contradictory. He is not opposed to capitalism for its own sake, only to the extreme harshness of some of its manifestations in China. Throughout the country, the regime's official labor unions are toothless instruments of the party, and workers are prohibited from organizing on their own initiative. Routinely, moreover, the labor laws go unenforced because officials accept bribes from businessmen, both Chinese and foreign. "People have always said foreign investment is the hope of China," Han has written. "This is our bridge to the world. But what comes across the bridge are 12-hour shifts, seven-day workweeks, and only two trips to the bathroom a day." When China's workers "begin to understand and to use equal negotiations to struggle to protect their own rights and interests," he predicts, "it will be inevitable that Chinese society will have properly begun an orderly process towards democratization."


Han says he gets upset when he hears that workers anywhere in China have been demonstrating or disrupting traffic. "Seven years ago I would have said that this is a chance to overthrow the Communist party," he explains. "But now I see that to make people more angry, to make them hate more, is not a way to solve problems. This is Mao's idea. We should change ideas."


Han's own ideas were powerfully affected during his few months in New Jersey in 1993 before and after his lung operation. He became a Christian and was baptized in a Protestant Chinese Christian church. "I believe that the power of God comes from forgiveness and love," he says. "I feel a real release from hatred. In religion, God works a miracle in each person. I have found the reason for my life from my faith." Though Han is guarded about his beliefs and seldom discusses them publicly, they seem to have permeated his approach to political change in China. He is confident about the long term but deeply worried about national chaos in the short term, foreseeing worker riots and demonstrations that could lead to nationwide bloodshed. "I try to tell the Communists," he says with a certain weary exasperation, "'You are going to lose power any day. Only you, Communist leaders, can stop this from happening.'"


Han acknowledges that there is no Chinese Gorbachev in sight, and he painstakingly deflects the adulatory calls he receives from listeners. "I tell them that I am not a leader, I am a railroad worker. The reason I say this is that in Chinese culture there is a strong, strong feeling in people's minds that we are waiting every day for a human savior. But look back at our history. Every human savior we have created has (in the end) killed us." He becomes distressed when people compare him to Walesa.


But though there are obvious differences -- Walesa led an anti-Communist strike in the very heart of Poland, whereas Han is a popular broadcaster living on China's fringe -- his reputation stands high among both Chinese fellow-exiles like Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan, and Harry Wu and Americans who follow China. "He's been the world's conscience on labor rights in China," observes an official who has worked closely with the AFL-CIO on Chinese labor issues. "Most people would say that he accurately reflects workers' thinking." At the National Endowment for Democracy, which awarded Han its Democracy Award in 1993, Louisa Coan Greve, senior program officer for Asia, who knows Han well, says, "He is just extremely admirable. There isn't a steadier, more thoughtful, hard-working person in the entire circle of people working for the oppressed in China. He is at the top of the league of people in Asia thinking strategically."


Watching his homeland closely from his office and the modest apartment on Hong Kong's Lamma Island where he lives with his wife and their two U.S.-born children, Han exudes an unusual combination of concern, indignation, and hope. He may not yet be China's Lech Walesa, but he long ago surpassed Lei Feng.




David Aikman is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.