/ 25 July 1997

Ill wind for Hong Kong workers

An unholy alliance between tycoons and trade unionists in Hong Kong seems to be driven by Beijing. Andrew Higgins in Hong Kong reports

TAM YIU-CHUNG, a former department store window dresser who now sits in the inner circle of Hong Kong’s new elite, went to the London School of Economics to study trade unions just as Margaret Thatcher set about extending her victory over the miners into a general rout of British labour.

Today, he is part of a spectacle that not even Thatcher could have engineered. A leader of Hong Kong’s biggest trade union, he is working hard to bury collective bargaining and overturn other modest trade union rights granted in the last days of colonial rule.

“It is easy to be a hero or a martyr but it is not always easy to explain why certain things are necessary,” said Tam, a veteran labour activist and appointed legislator, who last week voted to suspend a raft of legislation expanding trade union powers. “Of course, I feel a bit uncomfortable.”

The end of British rule has made a lot of people uncomfortable, not because they liked the British but because they disliked them. The departure of governor Chris Patten has removed what was for many, particularly in the pro-China camp, the convenient smokescreen of Sino-British struggle.

Tam is vice-chair of the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU), a Beijing-backed organisation that staged violent strikes and screamed Maoist slogans before being ordered to embrace “stability and prosperity”.

Rival trade unionists say the FTU’s loyalty to Beijing has meant selling out the workers to serve the tycoons in whose hands the Chinese Communist Party has placed the management of Hong Kong. Tam sits in the executive council of Tung Chee-hwa, who took over from Patten. He also has a seat in a handpicked legislature stacked with businessmen.

“There is an unholy alliance between tycoons and trade unionists,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, author of the labour rights approved by the old legislature in June and suspended by its replacement last week.

“Behind this alliance is Beijing. China decides the general policy in Hong Kong. And the most important part of this policy for the Chinese government is not Hong Kong people running Hong Kong but Hong Kong tycoons running Hong Kong.”

Tung’s decision to make suspension of labour laws the first task for a new legislature reflects the power of the ascendant business lobby.

“Now the handover has happened, the businessmen are getting their revenge,” said Lee, who leads the Confederation of Trade Unions, a smaller, more vociferous rival to the FTU. “The business sector has complete control of the current administration. They have nothing to worry about.”

The former head of the Chinese underground communist party apparatus in Hong Kong, Xu Jiatun, suggested in his memoirs that Tam was groomed by Beijing from the early 1980s, chosen by Beijing talent spotters to replace the ageing band of clandestine communists who had until then dominated, and largely discredited, Hong Kong’s labour movement.

Tam denies being a member of the communist underground. British sources believe he is.

Laws enshrining collective bargaining and other trade union rights have not been repealed, the government says, merely frozen pending review. But this suggests only a ruse to deflect criticism.

The South China Morning Post reported this week that it had already been secretly decided to scrap the labour laws once controversy dies down. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions condemned the freezing of new rights as “a slap in the face for Hong Kong workers, who were the source of Hong Kong’s economic miracle”.

When Tung appointed Tam to his cabinet, he said it was evidence of a commitment to the welfare of ordinary Hong Kongers. None of Britain’s 28 governors had a trade unionist in his inner circle. Tam’s voice, though, is unlikely to upset Hong Kong’s plutocrats.

He says he supports the principle of collective bargaining – a right already recognised in many other Asian countries – but opposes abrupt changes that could jolt Hong Kong’s economy.

“We want to fight for workers’ rights, but we can’t have too much confrontation … We must move forward step by step. If we lose trust between employers and employees we lose everything.” Hong Kong’s experience of collective bargaining, he said, was scant and mostly bad.

China, worried that ideas incubated in Hong Kong could easily infect the mainland, supports the rollback of union rights. It coincides with reports from Sichuan that a big protest by laid-off workers was put down by force. Tens of millions of people in China are underemployed or unemployed, a potentially volcanic source of instability.