Han's lonely struggle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 1996, 12:00am

EXILED activist Han Dongfang apologised and dashed off to a nearby telephone in a Central coffee shop. 'Please excuse me for a minute.' Five minutes later, he returned and whispered in a low voice: 'I can't find Wang Hui, she is supposed to wait for my call. I hope [the police] haven't got to her.' Wang, wife of dissident lawyer Zhou Guoqiang, was in Heilongjiang this week to persuade the authorities to grant her husband leave from a labour camp to visit his dying mother.

Jailed two years ago for printing labour slogans on T-shirts, Zhou was reportedly in such poor health that he himself needed urgent medical attention.

The friendship between Han and Zhou dates back to 1989 when Han first got involved in the labour movement in China.

When the latter was detained after the crackdown on the student movement, Zhou fought fiercely for his release for 22 months until Han was kicked out of China in 1992. Now, Han wants to do the same for Zhou. When Han received his Bremen Solidarity Prize - a human rights award given by the German city every two years (previous winners include Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi) at the Bremen Town Hall on Friday night, he presented the city's Senate with a poem written by Zhou called Amber.

'I have always wanted to translate Zhou's poems into English so that more people will know about him,' said Han.

'That's why I chose to present this to Bremen.' The lives of Han and Zhou have long been intertwined.

Han was stranded in Hong Kong in 1993 when the Chinese Government cancelled his passport and refused to let him to return to China.

Since then, the 34-year-old activist has been stuck here without a job, separated from his family in the United States and denied a future.

His visa in Hong Kong is extended every three months but the activist doubts his chances of further extensions after 1997.

Unless he agrees to join his family in the United States before the 1997 handover (an option he has steadfastly discounted), Han is almost certain to become a stateless person since he does not qualify for a passport from the Special Administrative Region Government.

Like other mainland rebels, Han's bitter love story with the motherland began not on the day he was jailed or exiled but in 1987 when he witnessed the shortlived student movement and believed there was a role he could play in China's transformation.

Two years later, he chose to be the spark which set the prairie on fire. He helped found the now defunct Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation and met Zhou.

Together, Han and Zhou dreamed of building the first independent labour union in China.

But in a country whose rulers have no appetite for challengers, there is a price to pay for such idealism.

This meant prosecution and later exile for Han, while Zhou faced constant harassment until he was sent to the Shuanghe Labour Camp in Heilongjiang two years ago.

Han did not give up easily. He was banished in 1992 and spent 11 months in the United States where he received treatment for the tuberculosis he caught while in prison.

In 1993, he tried at least three times to return to China but was sent back to Hong Kong on each occasion, even though the authorities failed to spell out under which law he could be rejected or how they could refuse entry to a Chinese passport holder like him.

But China's sentencing of prominent dissident Wei Jingsheng last year has convinced Han that the Chinese leadership would not hesitate to put him behind bars if they could get their hands on him now.

'If I return to China, I believe they will put me in jail,' said Han.

'Not that I am afraid of going to jail but I believe this is what they'll do to me.' Fearing that he might be barred from returning to Hong Kong, Han said he would not leave the territory in 1997. Such uncertainty over the future has in a way crippled Han's work. Apart from editing a newsletter for Chinese workers, Han does not appear to have achieved much success in the labour movement on the mainland.

Although he still occasionally receives letters from mainland workers requesting information, he acknowledges that what he can do in China is limited. By insisting on remaining in Hong Kong, Han also has to endure the loneliness of separation from his wife and two sons, and has settled for a little home on Lamma island. But he refuses to give up.

'I guess this is my interest [the labour movement]. This is what I want to do, to promote the rights of workers in China.' However, although Han was a worker at the Beijing Railway Bureau for several years, his lack of experience in union work meant there was little chance of him leading the labour movement in China even if the government were to allow workers to form independent unions. Instead, he hoped to play the role of an educator by making use of his overseas connections and experience.

'When I was in the US, I found that there were people who offered suggestions to workers through mail on how to organise themselves and fight for their rights. I hope I can do this for Chinese workers,' he said. 'I believe what I've done here has laid the foundation. They may put me in jail, but they can't wipe out everything,' he added.

He acknowledged that he faced many limitations and said he never had illusions of becoming the Lech Walesa of China. In fact, he does not believe that the Polish Solidarity model is suited to China.

'I was in Poland last year and met people from the Solidarity Movement and in the union. I can see how the movement gave up fighting for the union once they were in power,' Han said.

'I suppose that's the one thing that sets me apart from the Chinese communists - I am not after power but [workers'] rights.' 'And I will never lead the Chinese labour movement into a political party like Solidarity. The movement must always stay in the grassroots,' he added.

Amber In this cold city In people's petrified hearts There is no more green pasture Millenniums have passed In the fractured layers of the earth Horses maintained their galloping posture There may be one day when only men and rocks are left on this earth When amber remains as precious But no one can tell how they were born By Chinese dissident Zhou Guoqiang. Translated by Daniel Kwan.