Chinese labor leader, 29, quietly perseveres despite imprisonment and torture

May 10, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- The embodiment of courage here is a mild-mannered railway worker who sits in his spare quarters talking without a trace of fear about the exploitation of Chinese workers by the Communist Party.

Han Dongfang played a key role in founding China's first independent labor union during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests -- perhaps the most frightening aspect of those demonstrations for Chinese leaders.

It was an effort that earned Mr. Han the epithet "China's Lech Walesa," after the labor leader who led the anti-Communist uprising in Poland and became its president.

Mr. Han, 29, has paid a heavy price: 22 months in prison, repeated torture at the hands of his jailers, a case of tuberculosis that almost killed him and constant surveillance by security agents to this day.

Mr. Han's wife is three months pregnant. He remains too sick to return to work, scraping by on a meager stipend from his former employer. Friends have been threatened by the police.

But he will not knuckle under.

This spring, during the annual meeting of China's Parliament, he boldly but unsuccessfully tried to stage a one-man protest to lobby for free labor unions in China. He spends most of his time these days quietly but openly working to achieve that goal.

"I've never felt anyone should be afraid of what I'm doing," Mr. Han said almost nonchalantly during an interview yesterday. "And I have no reason to be afraid."

Such calm persistence -- along with international pressure over his case -- has struck enough of a nerve within the Chinese government that authorities may have decided to allow him to leave the country.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Arnold Kanter said Friday that officials have promised that Mr. Han, longtime dissident Liu Qing and perhaps other activists can emigrate. This is the second time China has made this promise to senior U.S. officials.

But it was news to Mr. Han yesterday, who has heard nothing of the kind from Chinese officials. Although he believes that he should have the basic right to leave China, he is not at all eager to emigrate.

Instead, Mr. Han remains steadfastly dedicated to creating an independent union to fight for the interests of the more than 100 million workers in China's government-controlled trade federation.

"A labor union should be made up of workers," he said. "But in China, the government is the boss of the factories, and it also runs the labor unions.

"A union is supposed to protect workers. But China's unions have just aided the government in controlling workers for the last 40 years. They say they represent the interests of workers, but that's a lie."

He says that many other workers feel the same way but are afraid to speak up. But recent reports suggest he is not the only worker willing to put aside such fears.

A dozen underground labor groups were found by security agents in Beijing late last year, a Hong Kong report said. In February, one group reportedly distributed copies of an anti-government statement. Last month, a huge watch factory in nearby Tianjin was closed by protests -- unrest rumored to have been finally quelled by the army.

Even China's official union admitted last fall that more than 50,000 workers across the country had participated in more than 2,000 strikes and other kinds of protests since June 1989.

An independent union movement is among the most frightful of all possible developments for the Communist Party, which has long been more confident of support from peasants than urban workers. China's paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, has warned against the rise of a Polish-style labor movement that could overturn the party's power.

However, instead of challenging the party's power, Mr. Han believes, free labor unions are vital if China is to carry out Mr. Deng's renewed drive to reform the nation's moribund state industries.

That Mr. Han should want to support the Chinese government, even in this sense, is remarkable, given his suffering following his arrest a few weeks after the brutal crackdown on the Tiananmen protests.

In prison, he went on a hunger strike to get medical treatment; officials then force-fed him in a way that choked him. Another treatment involved an acupuncturist who stuck a needle deep into his hand and intentionally injured him by moving it back and forth.

Finally, he was put into a cell with more than a dozen other inmates suffering from tuberculosis, which led to his own case of the disease. He was released from prison in April 1991, he said, only because officials "thought I was going to die."

The only time that Mr. Han evidenced much emotion during a long interview was when he was asked about these events. He said that his experiences were not much different from those of many other inmates in Chinese prisons and that he preferred not to dwell on them.

"I don't want to continue with these bad feelings," he said. "If I'm willing to get rid of the hate from the past, then the government ought to be able to get rid of its own hate."

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