HONG KONG — COME 1997, China labor activist Han Dongfang thinks he could be back in jail. So could other outspoken trade unionists in this British colony poised to revert to Chinese rule next year, he says.
Mr. Han is among a core of workers' leaders that China fears most. A prominent activist during 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations, Han was imprisoned for almost two years and then released for medical treatment in the United States. When he returned to China in 1993, Chinese security officials barred him from returning.
Worried that Hong Kong labor unrest could penetrate the restive mainland workers, Beijing is expected to swiftly contain and, if necessary, crush the colony's politically charged and polarized trade unions next year, analysts say. Given the high stakes, China is not expected to tolerate labor dissent in Hong Kong.
"The trade-union movement in Hong Kong will be in for some hard times after 1997," predicts Han, who says China's harsh rejailing of dissident Wei Jingsheng last year causes worry about his own future. "I believe I will go to jail after 1997. I will stay in Hong Kong, but I am nervous."
Growing workers' discord in China is among one of Beijing's Communist leaders' biggest concerns. China's economic transformation from central planning to market-style reform is mounting pressure on stagnant state-run factories to stand on their own or face collapse.
Labor unrest in China
Fearing labor unrest and a possible replay of 1989 nationwide protests, the government is swallowing rising deficits to prop up the biggest state industries and prevent massive layoffs. Still, many other factories are cutting pay and benefits. Those layoffs have fueled a rising tide of protests and petitions over unemployment, delayed salaries, and falling living standards, Hong Kong analysts say. During 1995, more than 12,000 demonstrations erupted nationwide, some involving thousands of workers and miners who enjoyed cradle-to-grave benefits under socialism, labor observers here say.
The government, which controls all labor organizations in China, has dealt harshly with activists who have tried to mobilize workers or establish independent unions. To pacify the disgruntled, China has increasingly turned to emergency funding and struggled to create a new social-security net for the unemployed. But the threat of unrest looms.
"Labor rights in China are very much of a central issue for China's future. The government is very nervous ... because there is so much potential for unrest," says Robin Munro, director of Human Rights Watch Asia in Hong Kong.
Mr. Munro, who wrote a book on the 1989 pro-democracy campaign, said the brutal military crackdown targeted protesting workers more than students. "Students can close down universities.... But workers can bring the whole country to a halt."
Traditionally, the no-holds-barred capitalism of Hong Kong has had little tolerance for unionization. Of the colony's 2.8 million workers, only about one-fifth are organized, a low level by international standards.
Still, unionization has been on the upswing during the last decade as Hong Kong's economy has undergone a major change. As the emerging mainland economy opened to foreign investment, Hong Kong factories and jobs shifted to lower-cost cities just across the border. Disappearing jobs and eroding living standards have propelled more workers to join unions. Since 1984, the share of unionized workers (of the total work force) has jumped to 22 percent from 14 percent.
The impending 1997 turnover is also sharpening the divide between labor and big business and within the labor movement too. Despite its proletarian pretensions, Beijing has courted Hong Kong business as the cornerstone of a power structure that is basically a carry-over from the British past. "This will be government of the tycoons, by the tycoons, and for the tycoons," says Ming Chan, a labor historian at the University of Hong Kong.
"We will end up with a pro-business, antidemocratic set-up which was exactly what it was under the British," complains Lee Cheuk-yan, a labor and democracy activist who sits on Hong Kong's elected legislature, which China pledges to disband.
Beijing's best-organized grass-roots core of support is the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, a pro-China umbrella dating back to 1948 that now accounts for more than one-third of all unionized Hong Kong workers, mainly from manufacturing, transport, construction, and civil service employees. A pro-Taiwan umbrella group, the Hong Kong and Kowloon Trade Unions Council was also established in the late 1940s but is fading in membership and influence.
Once known for violent demonstrations aimed at importing Communist radicalism to Hong Kong in the 1960s, the pro-China federation has become a successful business conglomerate. The labor syndicate owns various businesses and is believed to get strong financial backing from Beijing. Federation officials refused to be interviewed.
Pitted against the pro-Beijing forces is the second-largest Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, formed as an alternative during China's political turmoil in the late 1980s and now boasting 120,000 members, including teachers and white-collar workers.
Group pushes democracy
Mr. Lee, the trade-union activist and the confederation's chief executive, and other leaders have given the group a high pro-democracy profile. That has rankled members who think the labor syndicate should do less to rile China and may be hesitant to follow the confederation's political lead after 1997.
Lee predicts China will continue to build up the rival, pro-Beijing federation but pledges to go to the streets to protect labor rights. The confederation has fought to restrict numbers of imported workers, but has taken up grievances of many migrants from the mainland. "Our political strength may be weakened after 1997, but our individual grass roots strength is increasing. We will continue our work and continue to survive and fight back."
Indeed, the pro-China forces, which have never mounted a strike, also could become more militant. its workers could become a weapon in Chinese hands against businessmen who refuse to play along with Beijing.
"China serves as a restraining factor in the left-wing unions. If the economy is good, maybe the unions will keep quiet. But the unions also could unleash a new militancy against tycoons who do not toe Beijing's line. They could be used to trim the sails and tone down misbehaving capitalists," says Mr. Chan, the historian.