International Democracy: China

  • The Institute sponsors conferences, publications, and discussions on the prospect for democracy and the struggle of democracy advocates in China.

  • In Memoriam: Eugenia Kemble

    It is with great sorrow that we report the death of Eugenia Kemble, the founding executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, after a long battle with fallopian tube cancer. “Genie” Kemble helped to conceive of and launch the institute in 1998, with the support of the late Sandy Feldman, then president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Endowed by the AFT and named in honor of the AFT’s iconic former president, the Albert Shanker Institute was established as a nonprofit organization dedicated to funding research reports and fostering candid exchanges on policy options related to the issues of public education, labor, and democracy.

    A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the University of Manila, Genie entered the teacher union movement as part of a cohort of young Socialist Party activists who were close to Bayard Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. She began her career in 1967 as a reporter for the newspaper of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the AFT’s New York City local, and became a top aide to then UFT president Albert Shanker. She was a first-hand witness to the turbulent era during which Shanker served as UFT president, including the UFT strike for More Effective Schools in 1967, the harrowing Ocean Hill Brownsville strike over teachers’ due process rights in 1968, the remarkable UFT election victory to represent paraprofessionals in 1969, and the masterful bailout of a faltering New York City government through the loan of teacher pension funds in the mid-1970s.

  • Teacher Strikes In China

    Teachers in China are joining other workers in protesting their compensation and working conditions, reports the China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a workers rights-monitoring and research group founded in Hong Kong in 1994 (CLB’s executive director, Han Dongfang, is a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors).

    Throughout the past three months there have been at least 30 strikes by Chinese teachers. In the map below, which is taken from the CLB article, the numbers are strike frequencies. Many of them occurred in smaller cities and higher-poverty inland areas. For example, last month, over 20,000 teachers went on strike in cities and districts surrounding Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang.

    The article notes that low (and/or unpaid) salaries are a recurrent theme in the protests, but there are a couple of other issues on the table that may sound familiar to those who follow U.S. education policy.

  • Tiananmen Anniversary Reflections

    Our guest author today is Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University

    On the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it is worth reflecting on the effect that tragic event had on labor conditions in China.

    Tiananmen is generally thought of as a student movement, but there was also a great deal of worker participation. A group called the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation took shape during the movement under the leadership of Han Dongfang, then a young railway worker. Today he leads an important worker rights organization, China Labour Bulletin, that works on Chinese labor rights issues from its office in Hong Kong.  Outside of Beijing, demonstrations occurred in more than 300 other cities, also with worker participation. Some of the harshest penalties after the crackdown were imposed on workers, rather than students.

    But workers, students, and other participants had the same goals in the spring of 1989. They all wanted the ruling Chinese Communist Party to open itself up to dialogue with society over issues of corruption, reform, rule of law, and citizens’ rights. One faction in the leadership, headed by Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, advocated that the Party accept this demand. He said that the demonstrators were patriotic and shared the Party’s goals for the nation, and that the Party could work with them. The other faction, headed by Premier Li Peng, argued that if the Party gave in to demands for dialogue, it would lose its monopoly of power and risk being overthrown. In the end, senior Party leaders headed by Deng Xiaoping sided with Li and used military force to end the demonstrations. In doing so, they reaffirmed the basic principle of authoritarian rule: the people have no right to interfere in politics.

  • In China, Democracy Must Begin On The Factory Floor

    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 World Post, and has been reprinted with permission of the author.

    After 35 years of economic reform and development, China's Communist leaders once again find themselves on the edge of a cliff. With social inequality and official corruption at an all-time high, China's new leaders urgently need to find some way of putting on the brakes and changing direction.

    The last time they were here was in 1978 when, after the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, the then leadership under Deng Xiaoping had no option but to sacrifice Maoist ideology and relax economic control in order to kickstart the economy again.

    Unfortunately, the party relaxed economic control so much that it ceded just about all power in the workplace to the bosses. Workers at China's state-owned enterprises used to have an exalted social status; they had an "iron rice bowl" that guaranteed a job and welfare benefits for life. Some three decades later, that "iron rice bowl" has been completely smashed and the majority of workers are struggling to survive while the bosses and corrupt government officials are getting richer and richer.

  • 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.

  • Another Tiananmen Anniversary: Will There Be A Reckoning?

    This Saturday, June 4, 2011, marks the 22nd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where thousands of pro-democracy activists were killed, injured or imprisoned by Chinese authorities.  This year’s Tiananmen anniversary comes at a time of greatly increased political repression in China.  According to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), “Chinese authorities have launched a broad crackdown against rights defenders, reform advocates, lawyers, petitioners, writers, artists, and Internet bloggers in what international observers have described as one of the harshest crackdowns in years."

    Over the last several months, activist groups such as Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) have repeatedly tried to draw attention to this harsh renewal of repression in China. In an article entitled “Missing before Action” in the March issue of Foreign Policy Magazine, a CHRD writer noted that hundreds of Chinese human rights activists, lawyers, and pro-democracy dissidents from across the country have been affected by the crackdown. Police have used “violence, arbitrary detention, "disappearances," and other forms of harassment and intimidation” to put a damper on any nascent protest movement.  Other dissidents --or non-dissident citizens walking the streets -- have been picked up for questioning.

    Although authorities  began tightening the political screws in the period leading up to  the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it appears that the recent democratic uprisings in the Middle East have given added impetus to this policy.

  • China Flunks Its Own Standards

    In the "dog bites man" department, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a devastating report, which found that the Chinese had "failed to deliver" the human rights gains promised in its much-ballyhooed, first-ever "National Human Rights Action Plan" for 2009-10.

    The report is timely, since Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington this week to discuss a wide variety of issues with President Obama and other U.S. leaders, including human rights. In terms of "promises made and promises broken," the U.S. will surely have China’s human rights record of the last two years in mind.

    HRW reports that the years 2009-2010 witnessed a "rollback of key civil and political rights" in China, as the regime, among other actions, stepped up its practice of "enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, including in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as ‘black jails.’" It also:

    • "continued its practice of sentencing high-profile dissidents such as imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to lengthy prison terms on spurious state secrets or "subversion" charges;
    • expanded restrictions on media and internet freedom;
    • tightened controls on lawyers, human rights defenders, and nongovernmental organizations;
    • broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans."

    This is a serious report. By taking China at its word as to the sincerity of its Human Rights Action Plan, HRW throws a lot of cold water on the theory that has been a critical part of U.S. China policy for nearly half a century: that engagement will lead to democratic change.

  • Death Of A Teacher Union Icon

    The New Year brings sad word of the passing of Szeto Wah, celebrated Hong Kong democracy activist, legislator, and teacher union leader. He died on January 2 at the age of 79.

    Once recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 25 most influential people in Hong Kong, and known by millions as "Uncle Wah," Szeto came to prominence in the 1970s as the firebrand founder of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union (PTU), which he led from 1974 to 1990. He was also a founder and leader of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, served in the Hong Kong legislature from 1985 to 2004, and was the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The alliance was the leading organization offering support to the pro-democracy movement in Mainland China, which organized yearly protests on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

    While condolences flow in from all over the world, the political question of the day in Hong Kong is whether or not the Chinese authorities will allow exiled democracy activists back into Hong Kong to attend Szeto’s funeral. Wang Dan, one of the most prominent of the Tiananmen Square democracy leaders, said that, for him, the loss is personal: "Uncle Wah has always been my personal mentor and a leader in the democratic movement. The greatest achievement he has made has been to pass on his beliefs before he left us. The younger generation now remembers June 4," he said.

    We at the Shanker Institute also feel this as a personal loss. We met Szeto in 2002, when he travelled to Washington D.C. to deliver the Institute’s Albert Shanker Lecture. In it, he credited Al Shanker with helping to shape his political and organizational perspective:

  • Walmart To South Africa?

    South African unions are rightly disturbed at prospects that anti-union retail giant Walmart will move big time into their country. Walmart executives have announced a $4.6 billion bid for South Africa’s Massmart, an important, unionized company.  Massmart Holdings Limited operates more than 290 stores in Africa, most of them in South Africa

    "We will oppose the setting up of any Walmart stores in the Western Cape," a spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) said. "These companies are notoriously anti-union and anti-workers' rights."

    Probably thinking of the three weeks of tumultuous strikes that recently swept the country, Massmart leaders hastened to reassure COSATU that its intentions, and the intention’s of Walmart, were strictly on the up and up with regard to its employees and their union. In this context, the company placed the following statement on its website:

    We are committed to the principles of freedom of association for our employees and regard union membership as an important indicator of this commitment .… We have no doubt that Walmart will honour pre-existing union relationships and abide by South African Labour law. 
    The statement cited the comment of a Walmart vice-president, who said that his company hoped for a “continuation of the relationship that Massmart has with relevant unions in the country."
  • Standing Up For The Rights Of Others

    "...part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others..."   - President Barack Obama

    In an extraordinary speech at the United Nations last Thursday, President Obama asserted his leadership and the leadership of the U.S. in the promotion of democracy and human rights around the world. Think that’s a "no news" story? You’d be wrong. The Bush administration’s effort to frame the Iraq invasion as an effort to bring democracy to the region has had the effect of linking traditional U.S. democracy promotion to military intervention in the minds of many people, in the U.S and abroad. And, although Mr. Obama campaigned in support of democracy promotion, his administration has approached the issue cautiously. In fact, the administration has been criticized for backing away from a tough democracy and human rights line in its bilateral relations, especially in the Middle East and China. Moreover, although he promised to increase the budget for the National Endowment for Democracy, in his first budget, the President actually proposed a funding reduction, but in the subsequent compromise legislation, signed off on a small increase.

    In this context, apparently anticipating a skeptical reaction to the speech, the White House released a "fact sheet" outlining activities and initiatives to illustrate its commitment to promoting democratic ideals.