Wall Street Journal: A Protest Veteran in Hong Kong

China Labour Bulletin Director Han Dongfang is quoted extensively in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Oct. 9, 2014
Hong Kong

As the only leader of the 1989 Beijing protest movement living in Hong Kong, Han Dongfang is in demand for interviews. “Everybody wants to talk about Tiananmen,” Mr. Han says wearily, switching off a phone that rings nonstop.

While Hong Kong’s Occupy Central With Love and Peace movement bears a superficial resemblance to the 1989 demonstrations, Mr. Han explains that they have less in common than many think: “The big difference is, at Tiananmen, we were asking for reform and democracy, which didn’t exist in China. We wanted something we didn’t have.

“Here in Hong Kong, they already have free speech and rule of law,” Mr. Han says. “They can go out on the streets and protest. They are fighting so Beijing doesn’t take that away.”

That difference helps explain why Mr. Han is optimistic about the future of the movement. “Much has been accomplished here,” he says of Hong Kong’s protests, which are still standing firm in several neighborhoods, including Mongkok, just blocks from his office. “This has been a great first step.”

However, Mr. Han also counsels the students to take a different approach from his fellows in 1989. Hong Kong’s battle for self-determination will be long, he says. Now is the time to leave the streets, allow tempers to cool and give the city room to recover.

That might seem like surprising advice from someone who has challenged Beijing so many times. However, Mr. Han is hardly the stereotypical fire-breathing labor activist. “Within any process, there are opportunities for compromise,” he says.

Mr. Han was imprisoned for nearly two years after 1989 and then forced into exile. In Hong Kong, he founded the China Labour Bulletin, an advocacy group supporting workers’ organizations in China; he also has a call-in program on Radio Free Asia. He often advises workers to look for creative solutions through negotiation rather than confrontation.

Mr. Han is very proud of how Hong Kongers took to the streets and supported the struggle, especially after police responded with tear gas and pepper spray. Yet there is no talk of vengeance or vindication. He prefers to assess strategies coolly.

“This was a big step, and a big achievement.” Mr. Han adds: “We have showed our power, made our voice clear—and I have no doubt that it was heard in Beijing.”

“Twenty years ago, nobody dared speak up. To do so was a sure way to prison,” he says. Nowadays, strikes are commonplace in China, where workers’ rights are no longer linked with politics. “Now, nobody thinks twice if they don’t like their situation.”

Mr. Han’s strategy has taken a major shift too. Instead of unionization, a bugaboo to Beijing, he focuses on collective bargaining. International labor groups have criticized him, saying unions should come first. He doesn’t care. His aim is to improve the lot of the workers themselves.

Confrontation in China isn’t as effective as compromise. Balancing worker grievances and the level of improvements that company bosses can handle, as well as avoiding public outcry against the government, results in a win-win-win, he explains.

The vast growth of the economy and private business has largely removed the Communist Party from worker confrontations, Mr. Han notes. “Before, every worker action was seen as a political challenge,” he says. “Now there are strikes every day.” The Party doesn’t feel challenged and only cares about maintaining economic production and stability.

That wasn’t the case after Tiananmen, a time of national darkness he terms “the Devil’s Deal.” He explains that in that atmosphere of fear, pragmatic policy making was impossible. Dissent was relentlessly suppressed at all costs. “The entire 1990s in China was a nightmare.”

Now Mr. Han works with worker organizations sprouting across the mainland. “Ten or 15 years ago, labor used to be the most sensitive topic in China.” Now, he says, the focus is more on land struggles and environmental issues. Often the government’s worry about stability can be leveraged by workers to gain concessions from companies.

Taking a step back, he hopes a similar strategy can work in Hong Kong. “This has sent a big message, without a doubt. Hong Kong has really showed its voice.

“The most important lesson is for the government in Hong Kong and in China—don’t underestimate the anger,” he says.

Now protestors and the government must find middle ground. The rigged selection process for chief executive, which sparked the protests, might be reworked to allow freer Hong Kong consultation without pushing Beijing’s red button. “Within a process, there are many opportunities for compromise,” he says.

And the long game? “There is no option for the Chinese government but to become more democratic. It’s just a question of timing.”

He adds: “Democracy isn’t the arrival hall. This is a journey. If you focus too much on the arrival hall, you will always think, ‘Am I there yet?’ You will be disappointed.

“But if you focus on the journey, each step is an achievement.”

Mr. Gluckman is a Bangkok-based journalist.

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