The Multinational Monitor



Free Expression and
Chinese Repression

An interview with Lin Muchen

Lin Muchen is a leading figure in China's independent labor and democracy movements. As a leader of "Shanghai Spring" in the late 1970s, he was repeatedly arrested, detained, interrogated and sentenced to prison labor camps. He left China in 1994. He lives in San Francisco, California, where he works in a small advertising firm, paints and struggles for labor and human rights in China.

Multinational Monitor: What were the conditions in the Shanghai factory where you began work at age 17?

Lin Muchen: It was a small hospital supply factory with about 100 employees who made devices such as incubators and surgical instruments like scalpels and tweezers. Before the Communist victory in 1949, it was owned by private businessmen. After 1949, it became a joint private-state venture until the Cultural Revolution in 1966, when the state took it over.

As for worker safety conditions, they underwent several important changes in China. There had been increased worker accidents in the late 1950s. In 1958, with the Great Leap Forward, the No. 2 leader of China, Liu Shaoqi, who was very aware of worker safety and who died during Mao's Cultural Revolution, established worker protection rules and regulations. During the Cultural Revolution, all these regulations were criticized and portrayed as aspects of a capitalist system that turned workers into machines and prevented them from thinking. In fact, this was a way of attacking Liu Shaoqi.

The rationale for the Great Leap Forward political campaign was that, if we follow the Western way, by the time China would match Western technological levels, the imperialists would have already destroyed our people. We needed a dramatic way to catch up. We needed iron and steel to make weapons, ships and airplanes. But we didn't have the resources. People would tear off their metal doorknobs, collect their woks and rip out metal guard-rails along the roads to melt down in the factories. There was a desperate push to meet annual quotas for steel production or whatever. Production, not safety, was the top concern.

The safety conditions for workers in the plant where I worked for 21 years were better than average. There were some safety devices provided. Nonetheless, the workers had no safety training. On my very first day of work, without receiving proper safety training in advance, I cut off the ends of three of my fingers in a metal punch machine.

MM: Were you compensated?

LM: I received a medical leave of about one month and certification that I had a work injury. This certification gave me access to a market where I could buy special pork bones. Soup made from these bones is supposed to speed recovery.

MM: What role did the labor movement play in the struggle for democracy?

LM: There have been many labor unions in China since the Communists took over but none has ever been controlled by the workers. They are manipulated by the Communist Party. That is why the Preparatory Committee of the Laborers' Rights Protection Alliance was set up in Beijing to protect worker rights. Myself and two other people founded the Shanghai chapter.

In one sense, the struggle for labor rights is indistinguishable from the struggle for democracy in China. In another sense, labor rights have been neglected by the movement. In the overall democracy movement, the major goal is political reform. So this movement dealt with theory and the system, instead of dealing with more practical issues.

The Preparatory Committee, while maintaining its links with the democracy movement, tried to address more specifically the problems and issues the workers have. The most basic thing is the right of the workers to express what they think about the working conditions. In China, the workers are treated like parts of a machine. If they say anything against the decisions of management, they will be laid off. There is no protest or strike allowed, even though the Chinese Constitution says that workers have these rights.

The Preparatory Committee planned to register its existence with the government. But members in Beijing were being arrested and, in Shanghai, all three founders were arrested after the spring of 1994.

MM: Was repression more severe against the labor movement than the broader democracy movement?

LM: The government takes a harder line against workers than students. The students are young and, after graduation, they go in different directions. But workers are more established and affect the economy more directly. That is why the government is more afraid of their organization. This repression explains why most strikes and worker rebellions in China are spontaneous. Once the government knows of an independent labor organization, they break it up.

MM: What was your role in Shanghai Spring?

LM: Shanghai Spring was a spontaneous movement by the people to discuss current issues in China. This was the first time that such open criticism had been aired since the Communists took over. People started talking in a significant way about the Communist regime, comparing it to the Western parliamentary system.

There were two major places where this discussion took place. One was in the People's Square. It was a large square that had a public wall where people would post large-character letters expressing their opinions. During Shanghai Spring, people started putting up letters criticizing the Communist Party. The other place, called Democracy Wall, was on one of the major streets in the downtown Shanghai shopping district. These kinds of discussions were also going on in Beijing and in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province in southwest China.

MM: What linked the Tiananmen Square students with Shanghai's democracy movement in 1989?

LM: There were a number of communication channels. First, students in Beijing called or sent faxes or telegrams to brief students in Shanghai, who would post the information in public places. Second, correspondents were sent to Beijing and would report back to news rooms in Shanghai. Many newspapers relaxed their restrictions and began to report the truth for the first time since 1949. Even the information that was not printed in those papers would filter out. Finally, the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America were another major channel. Everybody was listening.

MM: Who were your collaborators?

LM: Fu Shenqi was a factory worker in a Shanghai electrical plant. Prior to his involvement in Shanghai Spring he got acquainted with Wang Shenyou, a college student who was executed in 1977 after speaking out against Party corruption and writing critiques of Mao.

Later, Fu Shenqi was involved with Fu Xing, which means Revival, the main organization posting letters in People's Square. We got together in 1978 and started to publish a journal called Minzhu Zhi Sheng, meaning Voice of Democracy. The government banned this journal in 1979. The following year, we began publishing another journal called Duty. Fu Shenqi was sentenced to seven years imprisonment in 1981, after being charged with trying to form a political party, which is illegal and which was not true. He was released in 1986, two years before the end of his term. In 1993, he was sentenced to the same laogai, or labor camp, that I was in 14 years ago. He is there now and expects to be released next summer.

MM: Why were you arrested in 1981?

LM: I was sick at home when a messenger informed me that the director of the factory wanted to see me about an application I had made to quit working at the factory. When I arrived, the director said he had to step out. After a long wait, police officers showed up, handcuffed me and took me to the station, charging me with counterrevolutionary activities. Another group of police went to my house and took away almost everything related to the publication of the journals, some money, my diary, my writings and some photos I had taken of the poor living conditions of people in the country.

When I was later sentenced to three years of labor, the more detailed charge was that I was a leading member of the Shanghai Spring and an editor of Voice of Democracy and other journals and had written many anti-Communist articles.

I was supposed to be released in October 1984. Without explanation, my imprisonment was extended for another year and I heard that I was going to be kept in internal exile in the countryside. But the director of all the Shanghai labor camps came to my cell for a long talk. It seems that he believed that I was a good person who could be reeducated. By the end of the fourth year, I was released.

MM: What were laogai conditions like?

LM: In the labor camp, every prisoner is called a student but the nature of the treatment is no different than a prison. The living area is surrounded by walls with electric wires and towers, where the guards can keep an eye on prisoners. The work is forced and the labor is generally harder than that performed by those in real prisons. This is because the laogai are in remote, undeveloped areas. We had to, for example, dig a canal in the winter. It was hard labor. This was in a remote, huge plain in the northeast of Jiangshu Province, close to the coast of the East China Sea, maybe 350 miles from Shanghai.

MM: Did this camp produce export products?

LM: I don't think so. The quality was very low and we produced things that had no international demand, such as wine and construction materials. But prison labor elsewhere in China is used intensively for export products. A good example are wrenches and screwdrivers and more delicate tools designed for factory use. Such export tools are made in Shanghai Prison.

MM: How important is the work of Harry Wu?

LM: Harry Wu's findings prove with numbers and statistics the extent of prison labor in China, things that people knew but could not prove. Also, his actions provide great inspiration. Previously, democracy activists were very pessimistic about anything being accomplished on behalf of laogai prisoners because it was considered too dangerous. Now we see that there are opportunities to bypass the control of the authorities.

MM: Why did you decide to come to the United States in early 1994?

LM: I had discussed leaving China with people in the movement several times. They suggested that I might be more useful outside of the country, coordinating the overseas democracy movement with the one inside the country.

I had been detained and arrested many times, but the authorities didn't really have serious charges to stick on me. I did things that were legal under the Constitution. I heard that I also had some supporters in the government who would speak out when I was arrested, saying that I had done nothing wrong. I had become a headache to the authorities. They wanted to get rid of me. Several times the police said, "Your brother is in America, why don't you go there?"

MM: Would you comment on Deng Xiaoping's apparent willingness to pursue economic reforms without commensurate political reforms?

LM: For 5,000 years, Chinese leaders treated their people as tools for running their machine. Deng Xiaoping's belief is that if these animals that we call people have regular meals, then they will be happy. Ultimately, it will be impossible to make economic progress without progress in the political system. Although China's progress on human rights and democracy has been limited, the foundations of the society have changed and it is impossible to go backwards for long.

Last Words

Let my life disappear forever
In the wilderness
Like a rabbit on the prairie,
Even the falcons of memory
Won't be able to catch it.
Let my love transform
Into the afterglow of a sunset,
Rising slowly into a dream,
Leaving a smiling hallucination
On the mountain peak.

-- Prison poem by Lin Muchen

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