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Independent unions

January 9, 2001


The key to rights for China’s workers


Bitter personal experience and wide observations of the conditions of Chinese workers led Li Qiang, a 28-year-old worker from Zigong, Sichuan, to become an advocate for independent unions. Li’s activism eventually forced him to flee his country. He now resides in the United States, where he is exploring how to continue the struggle from far away. Luo Bing spoke to him.







LUO BING: You look rather young to me. I heard that you have been actively involved in organizing workers’ movements. Your family and your background growing up must have influenced you. Were there any particular incidents that led you to take action to protest injustice and fight for the rights of workers?

LI QIANG: I was born into a working class family. My father died when I was 11 years old. My mother worked at the Second Construction Company in our city, Zigong, Sichuan. I have a sister who is two years younger than I am. After my father’s death, the three of us lived on my mother’s meager salary. At 14, I finished junior high, but there was no money for me to continue my schooling. I tried to find a job, but since I didn’t study hard at school, I couldn’t pass the exam for recruiting new workers into the company where my mother was working. I had no choice but to stay home.

The first time I became aware of the injustice in our society was when I discovered that children from high-ranking families had all been recruited by the company, even though in the recruiting exam, some of them did as badly as I did, or even worse.

The June Fourth Democracy Movement of 1989 enlightened me. It broadened my vision. It swept away the prestige of the government. I began to recognize the power of the masses. I also learned that we are not the subjects of the government; we are, in fact, the masters of the nation. We have the right to make demands, to protest and to demonstrate. I joined the movement. I gave a speech in front of City Hall, talking about justice and social equality.

But even so, looking back, I don’t think I was fully politically awakened at that time. I believe all my actions were entirely due to the pressures of my life. Something happening in our family made our life even worse in that year. I became depressed, seeing no way out. That year I was 16.

LB: During your years at home did you recognize the importance of studying? I guess you did, otherwise how could you make a speech? What books influenced you?

LQ: Actually, I realized the importance of studying immediately after leaving school. I started to read a lot of books. I took a fancy to writing poetry. When I gave the speech in front of City Hall I recited one of my poems.
Of the many books I had read, two of them impressed me profoundly. One, written by Richard Nixon, talks about leadership. The other is a book by Dale Carnegie. The latter tells people to face up to their weaknesses, then by conquering them, create a new successful life. Since I was in a difficult situation, this book really inspired me.

LB: What happened to your family in 1989? Did this have anything to do with your later involvement in the workers’ movement?

LQ: People often ask me what made me join the workers’ movement. The answer is rather simple: life left me no other choice.

In November 1989, my mother contracted hepatitis and my sister and I also became infected. In spite of her sickness, she was unable to get treatment, and she continued to work. Her salary of 96 yuan a month barely kept us alive. Later her condition worsened, she was coughing up blood and was half-blind. Finally she was allowed into the hospital for an operation. While she was there, she asked us to pick herbs from the field for her to take. She saved up her own hepatitis medicine for my sister.

In February 1990, my mother’s work place, the Second Construction Company, refused to pay her hospital bills. At the same time, the company was constructing a luxurious residential building for the senior cadres and their families.

A worker’s life was worth so little! I was filled with grief and indignation. On March 4, 1990, I wrote to President Jiang Zemin. In my letter, in addition to talking about my family situation, I mentioned the building for senior cadres under construction. I also praised the president’s call for social stability. But I pointed out that if a society can’t give workers a decent life, then how can it be stable?

I was disillusioned about both the government and the official union. At the Qingming Festival, a time to worship at ancestral graves, I put up eight big character posters on the wall of City Hall. Five posters were commemorating the June Fourth Massacre of 1989, the other three called for independent unions to be organized to protect workers rights.

LB: How much did you then know about organizing a union? How were you able to write the posters on this subject?

LQ: At that time, I knew very little about unions. But the reality of life taught me that workers need their own independent union to protect their rights.
I read many books about organizing workers and establishing unions. Ironically all these books were written by Chinese communists in the 1920s. I copied a lot from these books when I wrote those three big character posters.

LB: Did you receive a response to your letter to Jiang Zemin?

LQ: Yes, I did. In April, a cadre from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, came to see me. He told me that Jiang Zemin had issued written instructions concerning my case. This officer wanted to find out about my situation.

Afterwards, they started to try to arrange work for me. In the beginning, the authorities asked the street office to find a job for me. Since the whole system was so bureaucratic, no one did anything. The street office shifted the responsibility onto my mother’s work place, the Second Construction Company. In July, I got a job as laborer on the construction site. But it didn’t last long. After two months I was out of work again.

However, our life changed for the better because of Jiang Zemin’s written instructions. My mother’s work place paid up all her medical bills.

LB: Did the public security find out that you had put up the big character posters? Did they come to investigate you?

LQ: They did find out that I had put up the posters. They had followed me for a while. During that time, I studied very hard, preparing myself for the admission exams for college. Every morning at seven o’clock, I went to a park to read, carrying a lunch box. And every evening I attended an evening class.

This was the time I felt very satisfied with myself. I felt there was hope. But the security police didn’t leave me alone.

One day, a plain-clothes policeman came asking me questions, trying to find out what I was thinking. He searched our home but found nothing. Finally he asked me not to listen to The Voice of America, and advised me to study hard. He told me that my mother’s work place would arrange a job for me.

One evening in November, about eight o’clock, the security police came to our home and arrested me. They took me to their office for interrogation. They were mainly interested in discovering if there was anyone behind me responsible for all my doings. They also wanted to know if I had any contacts outside China. They asked me if I intended to carry out counterrevolutionary actions. I denied everything. They couldn’t pin anything on me, and at three o’clock in the morning, they released me. I was told not to leave Zigong City.

LB: You studied hard, and you wanted to enter college. Did that mean you already had something in mind, such as reforming society?

LQ: No, I didn’t have this kind of idea. All I wanted from gaining knowledge was to improve my family’s living conditions. Up to this point, what pushed me to take action had nothing to do with politics; it was purely due to economic reasons.

LB: Did you actually go to college?

LQ: No, I was given a job in my mother’s work unit, the Second Construction Company, from July 1990 to December 1991. This time, it was an office job, probably because I had occasionally published articles in the city’s newspaper. I worked in the housing allocation office, arranging residential units for the employees. When I found out that some senior cadres already had two apartments and were asking for a further one, and many workers who had been with the company more than 20 years, my mother included, had none, I started to collect complaints from those maltreated workers. I helped them write a letter to denounce the corruption. I persuaded many workers to sign this letter. I told them, we have nothing to lose, and only by uniting could we make our voice heard.

My role in complaining about bureaucratic corruption aroused anger. Consequently I was fired. But I had no regrets. You see my mother had worked in the company for 25 years, she had not been given a residential unit. We lived with her sister, my aunt, three of us packed into a small room.

LB: Did this experience deepen your recognition of the workers’ problems?

LQ: Certainly, it did. From this experience, I learned more about the social gap caused by bureaucratic corruption in our society. I hoped to do something for the workers but realized that I had no ability. I lacked education. I made a decision to improve myself by studying law. For two years, in my spare time, I finished all required courses and obtained a certificate from the Southwest College of Law and Political Science.

LB: How did studying law help you?

LQ: Studying law made me want to try my hand at improving the living conditions of workers within the system. From March 1992 to December 1994, I worked as a carpenter in the First Construction Company in Zigong City. There I tried to do something from the inside of the official workers union. I even got myself elected branch head of the company union. But I soon found out that the official workers union, just like so many other official institutions in our country, was only a window display for the government. Nonetheless my participation led me to read a lot of books about the law and workers’ problems. This experience also confirmed to me how necessary it was to establish an independent workers union.

LB: You said previously that you studied only to improve your own personal situation. However, your goal changed when you studied law.

LQ: The result was unexpected. Studying law helped me find a sales job at a trading company. From this job, between December 1994 and June 1997, I earned 200,000 yuan. I became rich. My life style changed totally. During that time, every evening I either played mahjong or went to banquets. Although I continued to give legal assistance to laid-off workers and help them seek official compensation,
I indulged myself to a high degree. The idea of establishing an independent workers union, if not completely absent from my mind, was shrinking in importance.

LB: But you became one of most prominent activists in China, both organizing demonstrations and advocating independent unions. What brought you back from that life of luxury to the movement again?

LQ: It was in February 1997, during the Chinese Spring Festival period, when someone told me that a worker was attempting to commit suicide by self-immolation because he was out of work. It was in front of City Hall. I rushed there. I witnessed the unemployed worker pouring gasoline on his body and on the stairs. Though the worker was dragged away, this incident lashed at my conscience. The more I learned about him the harder I felt this. The worker, who was over 40, had a wife and a child. After he became unemployed, he could see no hope for his family. They had nothing to live on, no means of survival. Their situation reminded me of what I had personally experienced. The old feeling swept over me, I felt I had to do something.

LB: So what did you do?

LQ: I didn’t know what to do at first. So I went back to books. I hoped to form a certain theory, but it was difficult. I felt restless. I urgently wanted to take action.

Since I often listened to The Voice of America, I took any chance possible to use its call-in program. This was the only channel I could use to tell the outside world the truth about Chinese workers, especially the unemployed. The government’s economic policy gave no consideration to the needs of the workers, caring only for economics.

In April 1997, the local government imposed a yearly fee of 28,000 yuan on each taxi, in addition to a heavy regular tax. This policy enraged the taxi drivers. Previously, if a taxi driver worked hard, he would have been able to make a comparatively good income. But imposing another 28,000 yuan, meant they would be unable to make ends meet.

The first step I took was to call on the taxi drivers to co-sign an open letter to the local government. In the letter, besides protesting the unreasonable extra fee to be collected ,we asked for permission to set up an association to protect our own rights. The government simply ignored us.
On June 5 and 6, 1997, I took a second step. I mobilized about one hundred taxi drivers to block traffic on the main street. From that time I was labeled a troublemaker by the authorities.

Although I was watched, nonetheless from October to December in 1997, I helped organize several rallies, such as Zigong No. 3 Wireless Factory, Zigong Well Salt Factory, Zigong Transportation Machinery Factory and Zigong motorized pedicab drivers.

On December 24, 1997, I was arrested and taken to the police station. There I was interrogated till two o’clock in the morning and then I was released.

This incident taught me that though it was possible to earn money by our own efforts, the government could take it away in a twinkling of an eye. It deepened my belief in the need to establish the workers’ own independent union. I became a fugitive, immediately leaving for Shanghai.

LB: During your days on the run, what did you do? What did you find out?

LQ: I didn’t stay in Shanghai all the time. I went to many places and met a lot of friends who shared my ideas. During that time, I worked for several factories run by foreign enterprises. While there I helped organize strikes, protests and demonstrations. I took every opportunity to spread the idea of independent unions, even forming underground unions. I also conducted research on workers’ working and living conditions.

All over our nation workers face the same problems. Rallies, demonstrations and protests flourished like mushrooms after rain. But the media were forbidden to report on them.

LB: Now you are in exile in the United States, what plans do you have?

LQ: First of all, study English. At the same time I’ll continue to work for Chinese workers. These are my plans: firstly, collaborate with international human rights and labor rights organizations; secondly, encourage awareness abroad about the Chinese labor situation; thirdly, promote independent unions in China; and fourthly, encourage labor policy research in order to improve labor legislation in China.

LB: I have just one more question. I learned that in China the police often throw so-called troublemakers into mental hospitals. Did they try this method on you?

LQ: I didn’t give them the chance when I became a troublemaker in their eyes. I took my friends’ advice, and left Zigong immediately.

However, the first time they took me in for interrogation, they did want to send me to a mental hospital. They suggested that it was for my own good. According to them, if I was treated as a mentally ill person I would be exempted from going to jail. My mother absolutely refused to sign the permission. Finally they let me go. Maybe they did not take me seriously at that time. After all I was very young.




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