Published in Free Labour World, journal of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), No. 1389, 30 August 1989, p. 3.
In the carnival atmosphere in Tiananmen Square last May one red banner fluttered defiantly and proudly. Under the banner of the Workers’ Autonomous Federation, hundreds of Chinese workers in Beijing demonstrated their support for democracy and freedom of association. Last month saw the birth of China’s ‘Solidarity’ unions. Autonomous unions were quickly established in Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Hangzhou and other cities in China. The official reaction of the All China Federation of Trade Unions was hostile. Interestingly, one prominent official union leader, the leader of the Beijing Federation, supported the pro-democracy movement. That person, Mr Guo Hai Feng, is now under arrest, having been charged with the incredible offence of setting fire to a bus.
Since the crackdown began, the All China Federation of Trade Unions has strongly voiced its support for the government and exhorted workers to cease support for independent unions.
In Shanghai, the union situation is particularly tense as the autonomous unions were able to recruit many steelworkers, railway workers, aviation workers and restaurant cooks.
The official communist-backed unions demanded that the government demolish the independent workers’ federations all over the country.
The main issues the free Chinese trade unions focused on were the wide income discrepancy between workers and plant managers, poor labour protection and working conditions, the lack of workplace democracy, the lack of genuine workers’ representation in the policy making process and the deterioration of workers’ living standards. On May 25, the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation issued a statement which proclaimed that “in the entire people’s patriotic movement, led by the students since April, the majority of the Chinese workers have demonstrated a strong wish to take part in politics. At the same time, they also realise that there is not yet an organisation which can truly represent the wishes expressed by the working masses.”
The declaration went on to say “the organisation should be an entirely independent, autonomous organisation, built up by the workers on a voluntary basis, through democratic processes, and should not be controlled by other organisations.”
Signalling its dissatisfaction with the approach of the official unions, the document proclaimed that “the organisation should possess the function of monitoring the party of the proletariat – the Chinese Communist Party.”
No wonder Li Peng and Deng regarded these workers as subversive “counter-revolutionary activists”. But the founders of these fresh unions asserted that all they wanted was the right to organise in free association. They rejected the right to strike – much to the relief of some Western companies lured to China on the promise of a strike-free and cheap labour environment. (In 1982 the Chinese Constitution was altered to remove the right to strike.)
In recent weeks hundreds of workers have been arrested. The slaughter at Tiananmen Square claimed the lives of some of the leaders of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation. On June 14 the Public Security Bureau declared the autonomous unions illegal.
The Bureau also placed on the wanted list Mr Han Tung Fang, a Beijing railway worker, Mr Ho Li Li, a lecturer at the Beijing Workers’ University, and Mr Liu Qiang, a worker at the Beijing No. 3209 Factory.
Mr Liu Qiang was arrested on June 16 in the capital of Inner Mongolia and sentenced to death.
The leaders of the Chinese ‘solidarity’ unions fought for the rights of the free labour unions. Their goals were radical, their idealism was genuine and their acts peaceful. They certainly did not deserve to be brutally murdered, beaten and detained by the Chinese authorities.
I submitted this article to John Vanderveken (1927- ), the Belgian-born union leader and President of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), who arranged publication. I first met him, I believe, in 1988 on his visit to Australia for the ICFTU Congress in Melbourne. He was an outstandingly decent, intelligent man who seemed of good judgement. We discussed many issues of international affairs, the role of unions, the challenges the labour movement faced across the globe. He had a curiosity about China. Vanderveken even knew of Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014), alias Simon Leys, the Belgian-born sinologist, who had settled in Australia in 1970. (I came to know Ryckmans personally, through speaking at a meeting in June 1989 at the University of Sydney, where he was then a Professor of Chinese, to protest the suppression of dissent in China.)
In the months after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, I combed through reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International (on whose NSW Board I had once served) for details on what might be happening to particular people.
I knew a few souls who were in Beijing at the time, regular visitors to the students, workers and protestors at Tiananmen Square, including Audrey Donnithorne (1922- ), a Chinese-fluent Catholic convert, born in China to English Anglican missionaries, a former Secretary of the Oxford Conservative Club when Margaret Thatcher was active, who had more recently been an economic history lecturer, specialising on China, at the Australian National University. She looked a bit like the actress Margaret Rutherford, ever so polite, but with an eye for trouble. Mary and I had had her over to our place in Ashfield for afternoon tea and, a few times, we visited her in Hong Kong, going to Mass with her once. In Beijing, she was surreptiously distributing Bibles and cultivating contacts with the underground Catholic Church. She was safe, I learnt a few days later.
Lee Chuek-yan (1957- ), a union leader from Hong Kong, an evangelical Christian, whom I had met a few times in Hong Kong, had joined the protestors. The next morning, after the tanks had rolled in, the demonstations smashed, he boarded a Dragon Air flight for back home. But while the plane was on the tarmac in Beijing, security police raided the plane, fetched him and incarcerated Lee for questioning. I felt that I should do something to protest the Chinese actions, seek the release of dissidents now doomed for execution or imprisonment in Laogai, and to support the Chinese students in Australia.
I persuaded the Labor Council and the Municipal Employees’ Union (MEU) to impose a ban on garbage collection from the Chinese consulate, then in Elizabeth Street, Strawberry Hills, Sydney. I gave the Chinese students, rent-free, an office in the Labor Council building in Sussex Street. This lasted around 18 months. I campaigned for the immigration rules to be relaxed and for all of the students who applied to be granted Australian permanent residency.
Kim Richard Nossal in his The Beijing Massacre: Australian Responses, Australian Foreign Policy Papers, Australian National University, Canberra, 1993, notes the flourish of activity by Australian protesters in the first few weeks after the night before, including the ban put on the Chinese Consulate, but claims at p. 35: “Easson’s initiative for a trade union campaign eventually collapsed completely in the face of opposition from union leaders of the far left, such as the Sydney branch secretary of the Waterside Workers Federation, Jim Donovan, who was reported to have expressed open support for the use of force in Beijing, claiming that had the government not ‘dispersed’ the ‘counter-revolutionaries’, there would have been anarchy.” But Nossal has no reason to say that. The resolution at the weekly Thursday night Labor Council meeting supporting the protest was carried with only one delegate, from a university teachers’ union, voting against. The garbage ban on the Chinese consulate lasted three months. Jack Merchant, the then Secretary of the MEU, a dour, decent, honourable man – the type the NSW labour movement once produced in spades, was staunchly anti-communist and by then felt our point had been well made. Donovan was a hardline Stalinist, a divisive figure who in the late 1980s warned of the perils of Gorbachevism. He was considered an embarrassment to the rest of his union. I despised his thinking. The idea that he would force the Labor Council to back away from any industrial action is laughable.
Years later I read an article where, from an Australian context, one student recalled the events from those times:
Jun Yang (53)
Having arrived in Australia only three months earlier, on a two-year student visa to study English, Yang led thousands of Chinese students to Parliament House for the memorial service. He now teaches the clarinet in Sydney, and has one daughter.
The thing I remember most about being in the Great Hall [of Parliament House, Canberra] that day was the fear. I was sitting at the back of the hall, which was jammed with Chinese students who, like myself, had travelled to Canberra by bus, train, car and plane to tell the Australian government they were scared. Scared of being persecuted once they returned to China. Some were crying, others were angry – we were all moved by the horrific events in Tiananmen Square. Some were carrying white flowers, others wore black armbands.
It was obvious from the moment Bob Hawke stepped up to the podium that he was very moved. Still, it came as a big shock to most of us when he wept. Chinese politicians rarely show emotion and the murder of the students had clearly affected him deeply. When he made the offer to extend the visas, an enormous feeling of relief surged through the hall. It’s hard to describe how momentous those words were to us. In a few seconds our lives changed. We had hope.
I’d only arrived in Sydney in March to study English. On the Sunday morning the news broke about the massacre, I arrived early in Chinatown for a 10am concert. When I saw the headlines I shoved my clarinet into the hands of a guy standing near me, grabbed a white stick lying nearby, and held it up. “If you’re Chinese, and you want democracy and freedom, follow me,” I yelled. By the time we reached the Chinese embassy, which was just over a kilometre away in Elizabeth Street, the crowd had swelled to 4000 or so.
At that time the embassy didn’t have a security fence and I found my face pressed up against the glass entrance doors as the crowd suddenly surged forward. One guy near me had his leg broken in the crush. We stayed there until after nightfall but not one dignitary from the embassy bothered to show his face, let alone come out to speak to us.
I’d already set about forming a students’ group, the Chinese Students Democracy Association. I spoke at university campuses, put up posters, and front-page news stories appeared in Chinese newspapers. Our group grew to more than 17,000 members within a matter of weeks, not just from Australia but from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore. For a few months in 1989 ours was the biggest Chinese student association in the world. So when the massacre happened our student leaders from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth urged all members to converge on Canberra for the memorial service on June 9.
A week or so after the speech in the Great Hall, myself and six student leaders visited Bob Hawke at his Sydney office. In July I was given an office by Michael Easson, the former NSW Labor Council secretary, to run the Chinese Students Democracy Association. We kept the offices open for about a year, helping local Chinese students with their visas and continuing protests against the massacre.
The lesson from Tiananmen is to never forget history. It would be awful if those young people died in vain. China may be a lot wealthier today and more open in some ways, but it’s still a communist country and you’re not allowed to criticise the government.
See: Greg Callaghan, ‘Remembering Tiananmen’, The Australian Magazine, 16 May, 2009, p. 18.