A Chance To Help Build Grassroots Democracy In China

Our guest author today is Han Dongfang, director of China Labor Bulletin. You can follow him on Weibo in Chinese and on Twitter in English and Chinese. This article originally appeared on the China Labor Bulletin, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

The first of February this year was a historic day in the Chinese village of Wukan. Several thousand villagers, who had chased out their corrupt old leaders, went to the polls to democratically elect new representatives. A few months later, on 27 May, there was another equally historic democratic election in a factory in nearby Shenzhen, when nearly 800 employees went to the polls to elect their new trade union representatives. These two elections, one in the countryside, the other in the workplace, both represent important milestones on the road towards genuine grassroots democracy in China.

Just like in Wukan, the Shenzhen election came about a few months after a mass protest at the ineptitude of the incumbent leadership. The workers at the Omron electronics factory staged a strike on 29 March demanding higher pay and better benefits and, crucially, democratic elections for a new trade union chairman.

And also like Wukan, the authorities did not supress their demands, rather the official Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions listened to the workers' voices and helped to push through the elections and accepted the result in which a production line worker ousted the incumbent union chair. The deputy head of the Shenzhen federation Wang Tongxin explained that enterprise trade union chairs (like the incumbent in Omron) were all too often at the mercy of the boss and did not dare stand up for the workers. The newly elected union chair by contrast had no such problem, stating that his allegiance was not with the boss but with the 800 employees at the factory: "the power of unity is enormous," he proclaimed.

Mr Wang encouraged the workers at the factory to learn about democracy first-hand and stressed that they should not be afraid of making mistakes. "You must give workers time to learn about democracy because democracy is a process," he said. Mr Wang then announced that the Shenzhen federation would target another 163 enterprises for direct elections over the next year.

It is gratifying to see how ordinary workers can, through collective action, force the official trade union to try new things. But I am not yet convinced that Mr Wang and his union colleagues really understand what an election is for.  Knowing the official trade unions' long history of just going through the motions, and of being more concerned with meeting targets and quotas than actually representing workers, there is a danger that these 163 factory elections will turn out to be largely superficial and meaningless.

If the Shenzhen federation sees these elections as simply an end-in-itself, and abandons the project once the election quota has been completed, then the factory unions elected will quickly wither and die. They will have no direction and no purpose and the workers who elected these new representatives will quickly lose interest in the union once again.

To prevent that from happening, I have suggested to the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions that it change its by-the-numbers approach and specifically target those factories in which workers are already organizing strikes and protests and demanding higher pay and better working conditions.  Because it is these factories that have a particular need for, and a demand for, democratically-elected representatives who can both defend workers' rights and negotiate a better deal for them through collective bargaining with management.

If these factories can establish democratically elected trade unions that engage in equal and constructive collective bargaining with the boss, then everyone benefits: The government sees improved political and social stability; the trade union grains credibility, and the workers and employers develop more productive, less confrontational ways of resolving disputes.

The biggest problem right now is that the Shenzhen union federation has very little experience or expertise in nurturing genuine trade unions or in conducting collective bargaining. It will certainly need help, and this might be the perfect opportunity for those international trade unions that do have that experience and expertise to get involved.

We know from our own experience at China Labour Bulletin that ordinary workers are fascinated by the workings of unions in the West and are eager to learn from their experience. If the Shenzhen federation is just as willing to learn, and international unions are willing to participate, then there really is reason to be optimistic. But here again, I would urge the international unions take the initiative to help develop a real collective bargaining system in China rather than just act as trade union tourists enjoying a Peking duck dinner once a year.

If Shenzhen can get it right and establish a model for genuine and functioning workplace democracy, that model could be rolled out in workplaces across Guangdong and eventually the whole of China. We are a long way from that point right now but it is a remarkable prospect.

- Han Dongfang