Printer Frendly Version

Freedom of Association: Country Studies - China

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 7 Political Rights, 6 Civil Liberties (Not Free)


See Country Study of China in chapter 10, "Freedom of Expression"


See Country Study of China in chapter 10, "Freedom of Expression"

Freedom of Association

For most of Chinese imperial history, there is little evidence of free association as it is generally recognized in Western societies. Religious organization and practice, which might be considered the first example of a non-state-run institution in Europe and Central Asia, in China was officially tied to the state and to the worship of the emperor. In the late 18th century, as China became open to foreign influence, Christian religious missionary movements were established separately from the state.


The Rise of the Chinese Guilds

Around that time, another form of independent organization arose, the guilds, which brought together workers of like skills. The growth of industrialization and trade, especially that which was under foreign domination, made the guilds "the most important element directing both social and economic life," according to scholar William Rowe.1 The guilds, in addition to being the recruiters of skilled labor, served as community centers for religious, social, and cultural observances and inspired the creation of Chinese friendship societies and loan associations (often found in immigrant communities).

Among the first to organize into a guild were tinsmiths, 13 of whom founded the Cassia Society in 1800, so named because "its annual meeting [was] in the fall at the time when cassia flowers were in full bloom [and] tinsmiths would gather to honor their patron deity, Old Patriarch Li (Li laojun)." The guild became open to coppersmiths when the tin and copper shops merged. Membership increased more rapidly with the demands of a growing shipbuilding industry following the Opium Wars in the middle of the nineteenth century. By 1920, there were 40,000 members, mostly educated craftsmen, who had achieved a guaranteed nine-hour day and already obtained sizable property.

More important, the guilds were the foundation for China's independent labor movement, which included organizations of both skilled and unskilled industrial and non-industrial laborers. Until the rise of political parties in the late 19th century, these were the only organizations capable of challenging foreign authority (even sovereignty) over centers of the Chinese economy.

The Politicization of Modern Trade Unions

In 1906, acting on behalf of Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary and political leader generally known as the father of modern China, Ma Chaojun, an apprenticed mechanic from Hong Kong, organized what is considered one of China's first modern labor unions, the Guangdong Mechanics' Association. This marked the beginning of the long period of politicization of China's labor movement that, following a century of foreign domination over China's economy, easily responded to appeals to nationalism. The success of the 1911 revolution and the establishment of the republic were ensured in part by Shanghai-led strikes.

Voting in a Chinese Union

After the revolution, Sun Yat-sen placed Ma Chaojun in charge of the national labor movement. Other political parties also became actively involved in labor organizing.3 But when Yuan Shikai took over power from Sun Yat-sen in 1912 and tried to revive an imperial order, this led to more restrictive labor conditions and the reimposition of a ban on strikes. From that point, the labor movement became more divided, split among nationalist, Communist, organized crime, and independent groupings. During a brief United Front period in the 1920s, union organizing flourished, but it was mainly to the benefit of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After Sun's death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took over the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which was tentatively allied with the CCP. After a coup attempt in April 1927, the nationalist KMT government executed many of the CCP leaders and set out to destroy the CCP and its General Labor Union. It established instead what were known as "yellow unions," which were tied to gangs, the strongest economic force in this period. After the 1937 Japanese invasion, the CCP rebuilt its support by appealing to nationalist themes and, after Japan's defeat at the end of World War II, by taking advantage of the postwar conditions of hyperinflation and unemployment. As the tide turned against the KMT, the CCP accepted the opportunistic support of the same gangs that had allied with Chiang Kai-shek.

The Communist Takeover and State-Controlled Unionism

After the CCP's takeover in 1949, the Chinese labor movement lost its independence, as the CCP concentrated all union activity under the state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which to date functions more as an arm of the party than as a genuine representative of workers' interests. In 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, the ACFTU was dissolved as Mao denounced unions as "counter-revolutionary." It was reconstituted again in 1978 and has since continued to serve as the sole legally sanctioned union.

After the CCP's takeover in 1949, the Chinese labor movement lost its independence...

The ACFTU remains organized according to the Soviet principle of "democratic centralism," under which lower-level branches must be guided by higher levels. It maintains close links both to management—ACFTU representatives often hold senior management positions in state-owned enterprises—and to the CCP—the union's chairman is a member of the Politburo, one of the party's top organs. Recent years have seen efforts to expand the union's reach into private companies and the migrant worker population.

Workers Protest Against Communist Control

Workers have not easily submitted to this system. There have continued to be many cases of industrial unrest that indicate workers often do not accept the leadership of the Communist Party or the ACFTU. Nevertheless, large-scale protests and attempts by workers to organize independent unions have been continually repressed. There was labor unrest from 1949 to 1952, after which the Communist Party organized a number of political campaigns aimed at repressing worker protest. In 1957, inspired by the Hungarian revolution the previous year, workers protested the use of trade unions as an instrument for fulfilling the first Five-Year Plan (1953–57) and established Grievance Redress Societies. After the criticism encouraged by the Hundred Flowers Movement (1956–57) snowballed into more than the government anticipated, these societies were forcibly repressed during the Anti-Rightist movement, which labeled the workers "bad elements." Toward the end of the Cultural Revolution, after the death of widely respected senior leader Zhou Enlai in 1976, hundreds of thousands of mourners—mostly workers—congregated in Tiananmen Square for memorial ceremonies. The size of the crowds alarmed Mao and the CCP leadership, who suspected they were planning antigovernment protests, and they took severe action, forcibly removing those who had not already fled.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping's "Four Modernizations" launched major economic reforms that introduced private enterprise but maintained the state's overall control over the economy. This resulted in a period of unprecedented economic growth, but also in two phenomena that increased workers' demands for independent representation. First, seeing the loosening of CCP control over the economy, some workers sought similar relaxation of the party's grip on political life. Second, with the privatization came the closure of many state-owned enterprises and the end of the "iron rice bowl," an idiom for guaranteed life employment and social welfare benefits from state enterprises.

Chinese migrant worker

In 1989, workers joined with students in the Tiananmen Square protests that spread throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of workers created branches of a new Worker Autonomous Federation (WAF). When the regime cracked down, one of its key aims was the total suppression of WAF. Thousands of workers were arrested or forced into exile. Despite this repression, workers have continued to organize independent unions, including the Free Labour Union of China (1992–94), League for Protection of the Rights of the Working People (LPRWP), and Hired-Hand Workers' Federation in Shenzhen (1994), among others. None have survived for long. Since 1999, worker protests have gained strength, with strikes sometimes involving tens of thousands of people lasting weeks and even months. If there is an attempt to organize a new or permanent worker organization, Chinese authorities have acted severely, as in Liaoyang City, in Liaoning Province. There, in March 2002, several thousand workers marched under the banner of the independent Liaoyang City Unemployed and Bankrupt Workers Provisional Union to demand a government investigation into corruption that had bankrupted their factories. The arrests of the workers' representatives after six days of protests led to larger protests, and after a year of governmental manipulation and intimidation, the leaders were sentenced to several years in prison. In other instances of informal protest, the response has been milder.

If there is an attempt to organize a new or permanent worker organization, Chinese authorities have acted severely...

The Era of Communist-Capitalist Fusion

The large growth of China's economy has not led to significant improvement of worker conditions and in many cases has created a serious deterioration of working conditions that resemble the earliest days of industrial capitalism. Today, there are approximately 150 million migrant workers whose overall average monthly salary is around $138, although it varies regionally. Most of the private sector workers are employed by producers for American and other multinational companies looking for cheap and efficient labor conditions. In a 2004 petition to the U.S. Trade Representative, the AFL-CIO reported:

[Migrants] often step into a nightmare of twelve-hour to eighteen-hour work days with no day of rest, earning meager wages that may be withheld or unpaid altogether.... [F]actories are often sweltering, dusty, and damp. Workers are widely exposed to chemical toxins and hazardous machines, and suffer sickness, disfiguration, and death at the highest rates in world history. They live in cramped cement-block dormitories, up to twenty to a room. . . . They typically face militaristic regimentation, surveillance, and physical abuse by supervisors during their long day of work and by private police forces during their short night of recuperation in the dormitories. Ten to twenty million workers in China are children. No one knows the precise number, because statistics of that kind are state secrets, and anyone disseminating such data is subject to criminal punishment. Another one to six million are detained without fair trial and forced to labor in China's prison system, under threat of violence and torture.

A newspaper published by China's Department of Labor and Social Security quoted Han Zhili, who runs a citizens' rights center, as saying, "Our labour relations are going back in time, back to the early days of the industrial revolution in 19th century Europe.. . ."5 Indeed, a 1994 labor law supposedly intended to "protect" workers' rights in the new economy has had the opposite effect. It has instituted "individual labor contracts" for all workers, which has given employers of private enterprises nearly complete control, much as they had during the period in Western countries before legal protections for workers were enacted.

The China Labour Bulletin writes:

The days of the socialist planned economy in China are long since gone, and the reality today is that many millions of workers have been left to sink or swim in an economy dominated by private capitalism. In order to keep their heads above water in this new environment, Chinese workers urgently require three basic tools: the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.

In June 2007, the National People's Congress passed a Labor Contract Law meant to crack down on sweatshops, protect workers, and empower the party-controlled unions, but the degree of enforcement and genuine protection it provides workers remains to be seen. Human Rights in China reported in December 2007 that many companies had been firing and rehiring employees under new contracts to circumvent protective provisions of the law before it was to come into effect on January 1, 2008.

The Free Union Movement's Oasis: Hong Kong

One area where free trade unions have continued to exist is in the Autonomous Region of Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1997 under a Basic Law that guarantees respect for a number of freedoms under a policy of "one country, two systems." Until 1990, the union movement was a political battlefield between nationalist and Communist unions, but a new independent movement emerged under the banner of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU, not to be confused with the Federation of Trade Unions), with nearly 160,000 members, including textile workers, dockworkers, teachers, and government employees. The HKCTU does not shy from criticism of the PRC, and its leaders are strong pro-democracy spokesmen, but they also maintain independence from any state or party.