Standing out in the babble of loudspeakers haranguing the crowd in Tian An Men Square at around 3 o’clock this morning were the energetic voices of the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation. This is a plucky band of workers who say they organized spontaneously during pro-democratic protests and dream of building something akin to Solidarity, the Polish independent labor union.
It will be an uphill battle, they acknowledge, and a dangerous one now that the hard-line leadership of China’s Communist Party is engaged in a shrill ideological campaign against “a very small number” seeking to “create turmoil.
Already three of their leaders have been hauled away by the police. But rather than slip further underground, these dissidents, supported by some demonstrating students, planted themselves in front of police headquarters Tuesday to protest.
“I’ve made an oath on the flag; I’m putting my life on the line,” said Liu Qiang, 27, a printer who wandered down to Tian An Men Square on May 19 to help protect students on a hunger strike from the threat of military intervention--and has not been back to work since.
‘The Voice of the People’
“What we’re doing represents the voice of the people,” Liu said. “There must be someone who stands up first for worker rights and democracy.”
With the number of students camping out on Tian An Men Square in steady decline--from tens of thousands last week to a few thousand Tuesday night--the sudden emergence of the labor activists is a new twist in the six weeks of raucous agitation for democratic reform.
Hundreds of people crowded around the folding table at the northwest corner of the square, where union members took turns holding a microphone and getting things off their chests. A visitor from the nearby city of Tianjin warned that eight members of a similar labor underground have disappeared in recent days. An old man cracked jokes about his job, eliciting applause and throaty laughter from onlookers.
How many have joined the union, which seems to have its strength among state railway workers, is not clear. Liu, one of the founding members, estimated that a core of about 100 are attempting to build a base. He noted that Poland’s Solidarity, the first major independent trade union in the Communist Bloc, also started small.
“Like the Polish union, ours is illegal at the beginning,” he said. “We hope that after the facts are known the laws can be changed. But maybe the possibility of our surviving is small because of government repression.”
Liu earns about $37 a month, a typical Chinese wage, at a military printing plant, a job that followed a stint in the army and two years of technical college. But it was a vague crisis in ideology, not an economic complaint, that drove him to the barricades.
“We must overcome the slavery of workers,” he said.
The reference is not to exploitation by capitalism, though. Nor is it to the one-party Communist system, which Liu and his comrades said they are happy to work within. Like the students laying siege to Tian An Men, they espouse an amorphous commitment to greater democracy and an end to official corruption.
Liu was interviewed a few hundred feet from a white “Goddess of Democracy” statue that art students had erected in the square early Tuesday. And he suggested that some some old icons of China’s 40-year dictatorship of the proletariat may be expendable.
“Whether Marx fits the Chinese situation anymore should be re-examined,” said Liu, who wore large, square eyeglasses repaired with a safety-pin instead of a screw. “Under some conditions, Mao Tse-tung thought is correct, but things are changing. Our theory must be developed from here on.”
At the heart of the fledgling movement appears to be a sense that the government is aloof and out of touch with the workers it purports to serve through institutional revolution. Union organizers have a keen sense that they are a threat to the rigid party system.
“The government is afraid,” said Zhao Pinglu, 33, a railroad worker and a member of the union’s standing committee. “They are afraid because the truth is in the hands of the people.”
(The previous day, there had been erroneous news service reports that Zhao was among the activists arrested; union representatives said those detained were Shen Yinghan, Bai Dongping and Qian Yuming.)