Freedom of Association: Country Studies — China

China Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Not Free. Freedom Ranking: 6.5; Political Rights: 7; Civil Liberties: 6. 

Summary and History

See Country Study of China in Section 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. Even religious organization and practice was officially tied to the state and the worship of the emperor. Chinese guilds and independent trade unions emerged in the 19th century, but these were later politicized during China’s political struggle between the Nationalists and Communists. In the People’s Republic of China, trade unions were made into an instrument of the Communist Party and state. Workers have no formal rights to freedom of association and efforts to organize free trade unions during and after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were wiped out in the government crackdown. Since then, workers and other citizens continue to try to organize independent actions, initiatives, and groups but the China’s police state works continually to suppress them.

The Rise of the Chinese Guilds

Around the beginning of the 19th century, workers of like skills organized a new form of independent organization called guilds, which were also common in Europe among skilled craftsmen. The first to organize were tinsmiths, 13 of whom founded the Cassia Society in 1800. The guild opened itself also to coppersmiths when tin and copper shops merged. Membership increased 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. In addition to being the recruiters of skilled labor, the Cassia Society and other guilds served as community centers for religious, social, and cultural observances and inspired the creation of Chinese friendship societies and loan associations. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the guilds were the only organizations capable of challenging foreign authority in their control over parts of the Chinese economy.

Voting in a Chinese union today..

Trade Unions and their Politicization

In 1906, Ma Chaojun, an apprenticed mechanic from Hong Kong and a follower of Sun Yat-sen, was sent by the Chinese revolutionary leader to Guangdong province to organize what is considered China's first modern labor union, the Guangdong Mechanics' Association. This marked the beginning of a long period of politicization of China's labor movement. The success of the 1911 revolution and the establishment of the Republic of China were ensured in part by strikes led by workers in Shanghai associated with Sun Yat-sen’s nationalists.

After the revolution, Sun Yat-sen placed Ma Chaojun in charge of the national labor movement. Other political parties also actively partook in labor organizing. When General Yuan Shikai replaced Sun Yat-sen as president of the Republic in 1912, he banned strikes and tried to restrict worker organization. From that point, the labor movement split among nationalist, Communist, and organized crime groupings. During a brief United Front period in the 1920s, union organizing flourished, but it benefited mainly the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Upon Sun Yat-sen's death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek took over the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) party. After a coup attempt in April 1927, Chiang renounced the United Front and the nationalist government executed many of the CCP leaders and set out to destroy both the CCP and its General Labor Union. In place of the General Labor Union, the KMT established what were known as "yellow unions" tied to criminal gangs, China’s strongest economic force at the time. After the 1937 Japanese invasion, a second United Front allowed the CCP rebuilt its worker support. At the end of World War II, the CCP took advantage of postwar conditions of hyperinflation and unemployment to gain workers’ allegiance to its revolutionary platform.

The Communist Takeover and State-Controlled Unionism the CCP's takeover in 1949, the Chinese labor movement lost any independence.

After the CCP's victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese labor movement lost any independence. The CCP placed all unions under the control of the state-run All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which functioned as an arm of the party instead of representing 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 under Deng Xiaoping and since then has continued to serve as the sole legally sanctioned union federation.

The ACFTU is organized according to the Soviet principle of "democratic centralism," under which lower-level branches must be guided by higher levels. The ACFTU itself is guided by the Communist Party. ACFTU representatives often hold senior management positions in state-owned enterprises and top positions in the CCP. Until the latest party congress, the union's chairman has been a member of the Politburo. In the last decade, the ACFTU has tried to extend its reach to private and foreign companies and the migrant worker population. At the local level there have been stirrings of independent activity but these are generally not sanctioned by ACFTU policy or practices (see below).

Workers Protest Against Communist Control

Workers have not easily submitted to this system. As in the Soviet Union, there were many cases of industrial unrest in which workers rebelled against the control of the Communist Party and the official union federation. But worker rebellions were brutally suppressed. In response to ongoing labor unrest from 1949 to 1952, for example, the Communist Party organized several ideological campaigns to repress workers. In 1957, during the brief Hundred Flowers Movement, workers protested the use of trade unions as an instrument for fulfilling the first Five-Year Plan (1953–57) and established Grievance Redress Societies. When the Hundred Flowers Movement was suddenly stopped by Mao Zedong for fear of the growing discontent, these societies were a target of repression during the subsequent Anti-Rightist Campaign, which labeled the workers "bad elements."

Chinese migrant worker

In 1978, a brief “Democracy Wall” movement arose in which activists used a brief loosening of censorship to post large character banners with news and articles along the wall of a major Beijing street. After initially encouraging the Democracy Wall postings as a means of fostering Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations (see Country Study in Freedom of Expression), officials quickly eradicated the Democracy Wall as activists went further to call for human rights. The most famous wall posting was by Wei Jinsheng, an electrician, whose eloquent editorial called “The Fifth Modernization” advocated democracy and worker rights as indispensable to the other four modernizations. Along with many others, Wei was arrested but targeted for special treatment as a worker activist. Before being forcibly exiled in 1997, he spent a total of eighteen years in prison over two decades, mostly in isolation and without treatment for worsening medical conditions (see Resources for link to a review of Wei’s memoirs by Liu Binyan). 

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. Its leaders were arrested, along with thousands of worker activists. One of its leaders, Han Dongfang, was imprisoned and deliberately exposed to tuberculosis. As a result of international labor protests, he was released and forcibly exiled to seek treatment. 

The Beginning Era of Communist-Capitalist Fusion 

The Four Modernizations begun in 1978 propelled China on a path of unprecedented economic growth over more than 30 years. China’s growth was fueled mostly by export-driven expansion and an enormous transplant of manufacturing jobs from the US and EU foreign companies seeking cheaper labor costs. For the first twenty years of growth, labor costs were kept extremely low by abundant labor and urbanization. Economic modernization ended China’s so-called “iron rice bowl,” an idiom referring to the previous policies of guaranteed life employment and social welfare benefits from state enterprises. Shutdowns and reorganization of state-owned enterprises put 30 million workers out of work in the 1980s and 1990s. Additionally, millions of Chinese sought to escape rural poverty by seeking employment in the growing manufacturing sector that fused private and state initiatives. Migrant labor increased from 50 million workers in 1990 to 250 million workers by 2010. 

The conditions of work in China’s manufacturing sector, especially in private and foreign-owned companies, resembled some of the worst practices found in the early days of industrialization in the West (see History). The U.S. labor federation, the AFL-CIO, chronicled these working conditions in annual petitions to the U.S. Trade Representative, arguing that the rampant violation of ILO standards constituted unfair trading practices by China according to U.S. trade law. In a 2004 petition to the U.S. Trade Representative (see reference in Resources), the AFL-CIO reported on migrant working conditions: 

[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. 

The New “Workers Movement” Han Dongfang wrote in 2007 in the China Labour Bulletin still remains accurate: ‘Chinese workers urgently require three basic tools: the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.’

Despite such conditions and the ongoing repression following the Tiananmen Square Massacre, workers continued to organize protests and independent unions, including the Free Labour Union of China, the League for Protection of the Rights of the Working People (LPRWP), and Hired-Hand Workers' Federation in Shenzhen. None survived for long, however. Even locally based organizations were suppressed. In Liaoyang City (Liaoning Province), several thousand workers marched in 2002 under the banner of the Liaoyang City Unemployed and Bankrupt Workers Provisional Union to demand a government investigation into corruption that had bankrupted their factories. Arrests of the workers' representatives led to larger protests, but they subsided when the union’s leaders were sentenced to years in prison.

Starting around 2000, as the ever-increasing growth in manufacturing ultimately created a labor shortage, there was an upsurge of spontaneous worker protests and wildcat strikes sometimes involving tens of thousands of people lasting weeks and even months. The China Labour Bulletin, started by Han Dongfang, the exiled leader of the Workers’ Autonomous Federation, chronicled 90,000 mass actions and 30,000 actual strikes by workers over the period of 2000–10 (see Resources). As a result of these protests, state authorities amended the labor law in 2007-08 to increase the minimum wage and to broaden coverage of collective contracts represented by the ACFTU over individual employment contracts, which were the norm in private and foreign-owned enterprises. In 2010, workers launched strikes at several Japanese-run Honda parts factories that resulted in trend-setting agreements to improve wages (to an unprecedented $300 per month). This trend has continued. In 2012-13, for example, news spread of worker mistreatment at subsidiary factories in China that made Apple’s signature iPads. The U.S.-company, embarrassed by the revelations, agreed to improve its employment practices. In early 2014, Walmart had to suspend its closings of factories and stores due to worker blockades. In this case, even local ACFTU officials backed the worker protests.

Still, improvements lag well behind Western standards. As of 2013, the overall average annual income had risen only to $2,100 per year (see The New York Times article “Survey in China Shows a Wide Gap in Income.”). There has not been a substantial increase since then. Although there are now some instances of local representation of worker interests, the ACFTU overall continues to act as an agent of the state with the main purpose of controlling the workforce. Independent unions remain anathema to China’s socialist hybrid economy. What Han Dongfang wrote in 2007 in the China Labour Bulletin still resonates: 

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.

New Citizens’ Initiatives and NGOs

Over the last decade, the Chinese authorities allowed the registration of more non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The Economist reports that at the end of 2013, there were 500,000 registered “NGOs” as well as millions of informal associations. Most officially registered organizations, however, are service organizations that supplement state services. They operate under strict supervision and are forbidden to receive foreign donations. They are also required to include Communist Party members or officials in their structures. Advocacy organizations or organizations seeking to deal with taboo subjects (such as the Tiananmen Square massacre) are generally banned. Still, many citizens have registered legal and other organizations that press for local and national policy changes, defend migrant workers, or educate citizens on various issues.

One notable initiative, the Citizens’ League (Gongmeng in Chinese), was started in 2003 by Xu Zhiyong, Yu Jiang, and Teng Biao “to promote constitutionalism and the rule of law in China.” In short, they advocated for greater civil rights in accordance with China’s own constitution and laws. Gongmeng defended wrongfully convicted defendants, including an entrepreneur who had legally raised funds for a humanitarian campaign. It also started an education rights campaign for migrant workers whose children are denied public education based on their inherited household registration (or residency) status. Xu even won election to a local council as an independent candidate taking advantage of openings in the local election laws. In May 2012, Xu published an essay encouraging citizens to use their civil rights under China’s legal system, sparking what is called the “New Citizens Movement.” The authorities have responded quickly to repress it. Xu was arrested in July and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. He was charged with “disrupting public order” for organizing education rights and local anti-corruption campaigns. In the last half of 2013, other leaders of the movement were imprisoned and sentenced to at least two years’ imprisonment, including Ding Jiaxi, Li Wei, and Zhao Changquing, and Zhang Baocheng (see “Chinese Activists Test New Leader and Are Crushed,” in New York Times links in Resources).

Several activists connected with the New Citizens Movement were also sentenced in 2016. One leading member, Liu Jiacai from Hubei province, was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power” in articles posted online and in public gatherings of fellow activists. 

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." (See also Country Study in Freedom of Expression.) Until 1990, the union movement was a political battlefield between nationalist and Communist unions, reflecting the early history of China’s politicized trade unions. But a new independent movement emerged under the banner of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), with nearly 160,000 members, including textile workers, dockworkers, teachers, and government employees. The HKCTU, although under increasing pressure from Beijing, does not shy from criticizing the PRC, and its leaders are strong pro-democracy spokesmen, independent from any state or party. The founder and long-time leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Teachers, the late Szeto Wah, also helped initiate the Democratic Party and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which has served as a focal point for Hong Kong’s civil society to turn back anti-democratic initiatives as well as the organizer of the annual commemoration of the June 4 suppression of the Tiananmen Square. Demonstrations. In 2014, the 25th anniversary of the events, 500,000 Hong Kong citizens participated in a candlelight vigil despite police threats of use of force to prevent the gathering.

Current Issues

See Country Study of China in Section 10, "Freedom of Expression."