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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.