Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 18: October 3, 1997 
'We Are Reaching the Limits of Our Endurance!'

Storm Warning to World Bank and Beijing

The surprise is that the glitzy new World Bank report, "China 2020," released with much fanfare in Hong Kong last month, actually puts in a plug for establishing free trade unions in China. In a section on "Shaping a Competitive but Caring Society," the Bank report endorses "worker bodies (such as free trade unions)," and offers this advice to China's government:
"China needs to develop institutions and mechanisms for conducting wage negotiations between workers and employers...At their best, these organizations help balance the need for enterprises to remain competitive with the aspirations of workers for higher wages and better conditions."
Those words were among the bits of cautious advice about the "urban labor market" that the Bank report offered to the government of the People's Republic of China. Apart from that, the needs of China's working men and women were sidelined both in the new Bank report and at the occasion where it was released--the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Hong Kong late in September.

Suits, Suits, and Oh So Many More Suits--But No Clothes

The mighty of the international financial set were there-- more than 14,000 senior bureaucrats, bankers, analysts, and media representatives. What mattered most to most of them were the tribulations of Asia's financial markets and the tiff between two of its key players--Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and George Soros of Wall Street. (See our previous Bulletin, dated September 29.)

A lone worker's voice, speaking from the sidelines, critiqued the World Bank report, as well as the World Bank-Beijing policies it reflects, and dared to say, amid all the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, that the emperor has no clothes.

Under the name of the China Labor Bulletin, a Chinese- and English-language newsletter published monthly in Hong Kong, its editor, Han Dongfang, issued two hard-hitting statements, dated Sept, 23 and 25. In them Han challenges "China 2020" on a wide range of issues.

We have the full text of Han's statements in our "Campaigns" section at "We Say No!". The 162-page "China 2020" is available from the (World Bank) at $30 a copy.
Among the points with which Han takes issue are these: Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Actually, the Bank report does recognize some problems ("new challenges") posed by the recent reforms. It lists "employment insecurity, growing inequality, stubborn poverty, maintaining environmental pressures, and periods of macroeconomic instability." But Han's disagreement here transcends such issues.

The key issue at stake is put this way in his Sept. 23 statement: 

"The past 18 years of reform have proceeded on the premise that the rule of the Communist Party is unquestionable. It is on this premise that corruption has become a permanent feature of government, even of society in general. Every single activity, of any person or organization in China, must serve first of all the interests of the party rather than those of the mass of ordinary people. Change the rules of this charade and it would be almost impossible to hide the sinister scheming of corrupt bureaucrats."
Han emphasizes that he is not charging either the World Bank or foreign investment with complicity in widespread corruption. But "the activities of the World Bank and foreign investors in China are providing endless opportunities for officials to become extremely rich. At the same time, it is the poor and working people of China who must tighten our belts and pay the wages of these corrupt bureaucrats and managers."

Han notes that the World Bank report acknowledges the right of workers to form free trade unions and to bargain collectively. But "when workers in China do stand up and organize, they are locked up in labor camps, abused, and insulted." As a result, Han adds, he suspects that this mention of worker rights is designed only to make the report "a little more creditable."

'China 2020' Report: How Much Reality and How Much Hope?

Since 1993, the People's Republic of China has been the world's largest recipient of World Bank finance. Its China projects total $90 billion (repeat billion). Drawing on another of the Bank's reports, Han Dongfang points out the wide scope of the Bank's role in China:

"Since 1981, the World Bank has involved itself in almost all aspects of Chinese social and economic life. Not only in education, industry, agriculture, forestry, communications, raw materials, environmental protection, local health programs, and urban construction, but also in poverty alleviation, social security reform, and housing reform."
With such enormous involvements--past, present, and future--it is not easy for the Bank to report as a completely impartial observer of trends there. In fact, "China 2020" is partly a self-evaluation of the Bank's China endeavors and a justification of the unprecedented commitments it has undertaken.

In a document laden with data on every page, the report has this note up front, right after the title page: "The World Bank does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this publication." It's a standard proviso in such documents. For this report, a non-standard cautionary note ought to be added up front. Its purpose: somehow to dampen the optimism that the report exudes for the policies of a regime whose Communism, contrary to conventional wisdom (and contrary to the aspirations of China's people), is far from dead.

A Tragedy With a Lesson for the World Bank

 Even as Hong Kong hosted the powers of world finance, farther up the coast of China 32 workers died in a fire that swept a foreign-financed shoe factory. Han Dongfang's Sept. 25 statement analyzes that tragedy and the lessons that the World Bank should draw from it.

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail to

 Bulletin No. II-18: October 3, 1997


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