Published: 18/06/2014

An estimated 180,000 citizens of Hong Kong took part in the June 4 public commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre, as always with the enthusiastic support and participation of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the only independent trade union in China. On the mainland, security police prepared for the date with a nationwide sweep of preemptive detentions and scrubbed the internet and social media clean of any references to the events of 25 years ago.

Why has June 4, which marks both the brutal suppression of a mass democracy movement and the re-emergence of independent worker action in China, been significantly downplayed, even forgotten, outside China?

The world’s richest economies now depend on the Chinese government and companies to provide favorable returns to capital and a steady flood of cheap imported consumer goods to finance their own massive social failures. We can expect – though we should not accept – this dependence to shape their policies towards a regime whose power rests on the massive denial of democratic and human rights. The labour movement has its own, fundamentally different principles, among them the principle of solidarity. Are unions acting in solidarity with workers’ struggles in China?

TanksWorkers emerged as an independent self-organized force in the 1989 democracy movement with the formation of the Workers Autonomous Federations, which mobilized workers to take part in the protests and organized pickets to defend the protesters in Tiananmen Square. “We are the stalwarts of the democratic movement”, proclaimed the Workers Autonomous Federation in May 1989. Worker activists paid a heavy price for their involvement; some are still in prison and labour camps.
Much has changed in China since 1989; the regime’s fundamental hostility to independent organizations of the working class has not. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), now a familiar presence at international trade union gatherings, remains organically tied to the ruling Party.

Popular protest in China has never been so widespread. Workers – especially since the massive 2010 strikes in the auto industry – regularly engage in mass strikes and protests. Citizen initiatives are bravely challenging corruption, land grabs, and the monumental pollution and destruction which is the environmental price of the repression of democratic rights. The ACFTU’s core role is to contain, not to challenge, this unrest. Workers who spontaneously act to defend their rights, and the rights of their class, find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

In May last year, Wu Guijun, a migrant worker employed for 9 years at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, was arrested and held in detention while the police attempted to charge him with “assembling a crowd to disturb social order”. In fact, workers at the factory had elected a group of representatives to negotiate with the employer in response to an apparent closure and production transfer to a factory in the interior. The workers approached the ACFTU for assistance; the ACFTU ignored them. The workers briefly struck and petitioned the city government to intervene. Their leaders, including Wu Guijun, were arrested.

The charges against Wu Guijun were only dropped on June 9, following a year in detention during which he was denied contact with his family. On several occasions, workers and labour rights supporters packed the courtroom hearings. The IUF organized an international solidarity campaign, mobilizing thousands of messages to the authorities. The ACFTU was silent.

Wu Guijun spent a year in police detention for defending the right to strike. Are some parts of the international trade union movement counting on the ACFTU – which in this year’s elections to represent workers in the ILO governing body received the highest number of votes cast – to defend this and other basic rights against sustained employer assaults when they do not defend these rights at home?

China’s enormous working class is engaging in mass collective action to define and defend its interests. This wave of struggle will ultimately generate organizations to challenge the power structures which have so far succeeded in containing it. Our role is to give support and solidarity.

June 4 belongs to labour’s shared heritage. China’s rulers rely on amnesia as well as repression to enforce their rule. Will China’s workers, now and in the future, view unions as “stalwarts of the world’s democratic movement”, or as organizations tainted by engagement with an ACFTU that remains inherently part of the very machinery that brutally repressed courageous workers and students 25 years ago.