The Man Who Beat Beijing

At midnight on July 1, 1997, the world watched as China reclaimed possession of the British colony of Hong Kong. The territory is a treasure, but it comes with a catch: Tiananmen dissident Han Dongfang

By Ron Gluckman/Hong Kong

HARDLY ANYONE NOTICED THE notorious Chinese man marking the minutes to midnight in Hong Kong's central square. Certainly not the foreign journalists. Some six thousand of them had converged on the city for Hong Kong's Handover, perhaps the Most Over-Hyped Event in History. 

For weeks, they had fallen over each other, filing soundbites for a story that cried out for context. From press briefing to handover ball they rushed, leaving no landmark unfilmed, no cliché unreported. And yet as the Magic Moment neared, the scribes failed to record for posterity the historic feelings of Han Dongfang -- the Man Who Beat Beijing.

"It's hard to believe," said Han, as the raucous crowd counted down the seconds to mainland rule. "After all these years, here I am, back in China."

Thousands had thronged Statue Square outside the domed legislature to await the end of Empire -- and witness a piece of political theater. Elected leaders who refused a role in the Beijing-appointed legislature were about to address the crowd from the first-floor balcony. It would be Hong Kong's first political demonstration under communist rule. For some, these moments were tinged with sadness. Others were just thankful it was all over. For Han, the handover had special meaning. It was making good his pledge to return home: the Chinese authorities had exiled the labor activist, but the mainland was getting him back just the same. Savoring victory, Han rubbed his thick hair and struggled for words. "It's hard to say what I am feeling," he said. "It's many things: happy, excited, worried."

Han Dongfang, 33, makes hot copy, especially in Western capitals. He is handsome, charismatic. He is the last Tiananmen activist in Hong Kong. His name means "The East" -- an echo perhaps of that quintessential revolutionary anthem, The East is Red. In the West, Han's perceived struggle against the tyranny of one-party rule has taken on mythic proportions. He has been likened to a Chinese Brad Pitt playing David to Beijing's Goliath. That he has chosen to remain in Hong Kong adds extra spice. In the run-up to the Big Moment, Western reporters hounded him relentlessly.

Through June, Han's face appeared on TV screens from Iceland to Tierra del Fuego. Yet he has steadfastly maintained: "I'm not the story. Hong Kong is. I'm only here to speak for workers in China." Labor unrest, he was saying, posed the greatest threat to social order. In March factory workers in Sichuan province took a manager hostage; they hadn't been paid in six months. Tens of millions of people are roaming China looking for work -- a "time bomb" says Han. By contrast, Hong Kong's return to the motherland is an historical footnote. Han was trying to explain to the media hordes the more important lessons of history. "The Chinese people will keep quiet, even when they have no food and the pressure keeps rising," he says. "They will keep quiet until the day they can keep quiet no more. Then we will have rebellion."

Han has been talking this way ever since his giddy days in Tiananmen Square. Student leaders hogged the limelight and bellowed about democracy, but Han and his friends were there, too, talking about workers' rights. Their Beijing Workers' Autonomous Federation was probably China's first independent labor group since the People's Republic formed with the aim of addressing many of the same grievances. After the tanks rolled into Tiananmen, the world focused on the so-called democracy heroes. Yet many observers believe Beijing considered Han's organization a greater threat.

Han was jailed without trial. In prison he recalls other inmates coughing blood. Before long he was sick, too. After 22 months behind bars he was released on the verge of death. Han received a rare visa to travel to the U.S. for medical treatment. There he recovered and embraced the Christian faith. After overcoming tuberculosis, which cost him the use of a lung, Han spurned offers of asylum. He could think of little else but returning to fight for workers' rights. Turned away at the border to China, Han retreated to Hong Kong, where he remained an exiled but potent critic.

"People have always said foreign investment is the hope of China. This is our bridge to the world," he wrote in a recent article. "But what comes across the bridge are 12-hour shifts, seven-day workweeks and only two trips to the bathroom a day. What comes across are factory fires that kill hundreds of workers who are locked in because their bosses are afraid they will steal the products. The Chinese government has put an invisible net across the bridge that allows money to come in but not the freedoms of a civil society, not the rule of law and not free trade unions." Han understands the authorities' dilemma only too clearly. They must close the money-losing state firms. But what to do about the millions of laid off workers? "China must let the workers talk," Han insists. "That's the first thing. They must release the pressure."

That is the message Han puts forward in the China Labor Bulletin and his weekly show on Radio Free Asia. Four thousand copies of the Bulletin are mailed to the mainland each month, but Han can't say how many elude censors or confiscation. The reach of radio is easier to gauge; Han gets calls and letters from all over China. Beijing officials have lashed out at international labor organizations for funding Han's crusade. To be sure they support him, but in a style to which his foes -- factory bosses, bureaucrats -- are definitely unaccustomed.

Han lives with his wife Chen Jingyun and two U.S.-born sons, Jonathan, 3, and Nathan, 4, in a simple third-floor flat on Lamma Island, 40 minutes by ferry from central Hong Kong, but a world apart from the city's neon hyper grind. The island has no cars, roads or supermarkets. It was a major event a few months ago when Lamma's lone cash-dispensing machine got a rain awning. Cheap rents and rural living have long lured backpackers, artists, writers and dissidents. Han likes looking out his windows and seeing trees.

The way Han tells it, before he found his current flat, another landlord first accepted and then returned his deposit. Apparently not everyone wanted a famous labor activist under their roof. The Han household looks like the family has just moved in, when in fact they have lived there for a year. The walls are bare save a mirror, family photos -- and two revealing mementos: a clock and cheap banner, both emblazoned with the logos of Poland's legendary Solidarity union. Han has been likened to its leader Lech Walesa, who became president after a workers' revolt drove the communists from power. Time and again, reporters have made the inevitable comparison, and Han invariably has chuckled: "Me? President of China. Ha, ha, ha. No, I don't think so."

He taps out copy for his radio shows and newsletters at a cluttered desk in the main room. There is no sofa; indeed little furniture of any kind. The decor speaks to Han's modest circumstances -- and to a grim, generally unspoken worry. Why put down deep roots when your future is so clouded? Many times Human Rights Watch/Asia chief Robin Munro has urged his friend and neighbor to leave Hong Kong. "I'm worried the Chinese government would regard him as their public enemy No. 1," Munro confides. "That scares me to death." But Han is staying put.

Han prefers not to talk about worst-case scenarios, not even with the wife he married nine years ago in Beijing, the woman who waited as he wilted in prison. Munro recalls the day the activist got out. "I felt sure, as Beijing must have when they released him, that he was going to die." Han fears jail, but his main worry is that Beijing will curtail his activities in Hong Kong. Han has a Chinese passport but it expires this month. The big test will come when he tries to renew his Hong Kong work permit 17 months hence. He has not traveled abroad all year for fear authorities might refuse to let him back in. "I want to stay in Hong Kong, but that's really up to Beijing," he says. "There's not much use in worrying. I'm concerned, but not afraid."

Every weekday he commutes by ferry to the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee office on Peking Road, in a part of the Kowloon district frequented by travelers and copy-watch vendors. The run-down building is better known for the ground-floor Spaghetti Factory than the labor activist three flights up. The office looks like union halls from New York to Paris. Tea and instant coffee; dirty cups; a water cooler; angry labor posters. Nearly a dozen workers man phones or wrestle with ancient computers arranged around piles of leaflets and binders. An earnest, just-cause atmosphere permeates the place. Here, during handover hell, Han hosted Friday meet-the-press sessions, his only real concession to international fame. Ten days before Hong Kong's date with destiny, Han played to a full house. "This is too much like a press conference," he said at the outset, uncomfortable in his role as media star. "I have nothing special to say," he quipped, then rearranged the chairs into a more informal circle. Smiling at the new setup, he added, "Good. Now we can talk."

The day dissolved into a long series of interviews that relentlessly trod familiar ground. It was like shooting Handover the Movie, take after take. Han offered details about labor unrest and strikes in China. He quoted official statistics, such as the fact that 9,000 mainland miners died last year. But the quote collectors were keener for his opinion of the Communist Party and its Hong Kong intentions. By the end of the day his enthusiasm had waned. He hadn't had much sleep, and more reporters kept arriving, each seeming less prepared than the last. A Toronto reporter wanted details of Operation Yellowbird, the underground pipeline that moved dissidents from China to safety through Hong Kong. Han, who entered Hong Kong legally, calmly repeated for the umpteenth time: "I don't really know about that. I'm not a dissident. I'm a trade unionist."

A week later, Han did it all over again. And in the frantic final days, crews began filming him on the ferry. By now reporters were looking for that fresh angle. "They all say they want to ask different questions," Han sighs. "But they never do." On Lamma itself, TV people in Italian jeans and Dexter shoes whispered into cell phones and bumped into the isle's self-styled Bohemian inhabitants, wearing Save-the-Earth T-shirts and bemused expressions.

Han has lived on Lamma for four years, and in that time he has undergone a remarkable transformation, from shy exile to confident talking head. Eighteen months ago, Han began learning English with a tutor so he could deliver workers' sermons with aplomb. Within months, a man with no university experience had achieved his goal. When Han flew to America for medical treatment, he knew one word of English -- tea. "I drank a lot of tea on that flight!" he recalls.

Much has changed since then. Han's English reading skills are still slim, but he has become an eloquent speaker. It is hard to believe that he suffered from a severe stutter when he was a child. Han used to be "more angry. Now I am more peaceful." Perhaps, but his basic nature remains unchanged. In a free society, Han would be a self-made intellect and a natural leader. In China, his gift for saying it like it is was bound to bring him trouble.

Han Dongfang was born poor in Nanweiquan, a village of 2,000 people in Shanxi province, but was mostly raised in Beijing, where his mother fled following the Cultural Revolution. After graduating from high school in 1980, Han joined the Public Security Soldiers Corps, a precursor to the People's Armed Police. He was 17. He served three years as a guard at Tuanhe, a prison camp south of Beijing that is eerily like the one he would later visit under different circumstances. Authorities may have had some inkling of Han's irksome qualities -- even then he was involved in battles over workers' treatment -- but they recognized his motivational skills and gave him his own squad. Next he worked as an assistant librarian at Beijing Teacher's College. The pay was meager, but the fringe benefits handsome for a man with a curious mind. Han read most everything on the shelves -- Hemingway, Freud, Greek classics. He left for a better-paying post at Fengtai Locomotive Maintenance Section. There he furthered his grassroots education, traveling the nation and seeing first-hand the parlous lives of people outside the cities. Along the way, squabbles with petty officials made Han feel that the People's Republic was anything but. He became politicized when his family was moved from an apartment block undergoing redevelopment. Authorities promised alternative housing but never delivered. He moved back in and refused to budge. When students started gathering in Tiananmen, Han was ready to speak out. By April 1989, he was in the square every day, passing out leaflets.

Until the handover media onslaught, Han had continued to work in relative anonymity on Lamma. As the big day loomed, he maintained an outward calm. But cracks began to appear. His wife asked him what would happen if he went to prison. "I don't think I can face that again," he confided. "If that knock comes on the door, I don't know what I'll do." On handover eve, he was acting confident, cheerful. His sons were excited. "We're going to see the fireflies," Nathan enthused. The boys had little sense of the possible fireworks ahead. For them, like much of Hong Kong, the handover was a party.

Eight hours later, the Man Who Beat Beijing stood in Statue Square. He was smiling. He had not come to boast. "Welcome home, Han," a woman suddenly said. It was midnight; the media hadn't noticed him yet. "Good luck, and god bless," she added. And that was how Han's first seconds back in China began, with a message of faith between two Christians. "I pray often," Han said the next day, after waking for the first time in Hong Kong, China. "I pray to the Lord to open the eyes of the rulers of the Communist Party, to make them realize how people are suffering. If they could only see the suffering, then maybe there would be hope." Now that the foreign reporters are no longer chasing him down the ferry dock, Han is left with his own thoughts; they veer between confidence and anxiety. "I'm not sure when [the authorities] will come to me," he says. "But I'm sure they will. I expect it." In the next instant he sees himself on the mainland, possibly running an education network for laborers. Only one thing seems sure: Han Dongfang won't give up.


Ron Gluckman is an American journalist who has lived upon Lamma Island, a Bohemian island community in Hong Kong, since 1991. He freelances for a number of publications, including Time, Newsweek and the Asian Wall Street Journal, and is the Hong Kong special correspondent for Asiaweek, which ran this story in July 1997.

NOTE: Following the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, Han Dong Fan continued his advocacy of human rights and better conditions for workers from Hong Kong. When his visa expired in late 1997, the new Chinese government in Hong Kong gave him a three-year permit, at the end of which, he can apply for permanent residency.

As of 1999, there has still been no late-night knock on Han's door, but he has not been allowed to return to his native China.

For related stories by Ron Gluckman on the upcoming return of Macau, the Portuguese colony across the Pearl River from Hong Kong, to Chinese rule at the end of 1999, please click on the other colony or the Godfather of Macau.

The photos on this page, and all the scanning for this web site, are by David Paul Morris, an American photographer in Hong Kong who often travels with Ron Gluckman. For other examples of Mr Morris' work, turn to the Urge to Merge, Melbourne Comedy, Hung Le, Coober Pedy, China Beach and Spears of Death.Or visit his new web site:

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