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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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."