Listening to the voices inside China

Han Dongfang's passport says Hong Kong, but his voice says Beijing railway worker.

When mainland listeners hear Han on Radio Free Asia, they can tell that he spent years riding the rails, seeing first-hand the trials of workers across China. He sounds like a man who has suffered on the inside, even if theauthorities now force him to live on the outside.

"In China you can tell the truth or you can tell the lie," said Han, who in 1989 formed the land's first independent labor union since the triumph of Communism. "If you tell the lie, you climb higher. If you tell the truth, you are a threat to those whose power is built on lies."

Han paused. His English is excellent, but he still struggles to find the right words, especially when his Christian faith bleeds into his socialist convictions and his hopes wrestle with his fears.

"It is easy to get angry," he said. "There is so much injustice. ... But we must control our anger and not give in to hate. After all, Communism is built on anger and class struggle. God wants us to tell the truth. That will be enough."

When describing his work, Han stresses that he is labor activist focusing on workers' rights. He smiles, but visibly winces, when anyone calls him the "Lech Walesa of China." He publishes the monthly China Labor Bulletin, but does not consider himself a journalist. Short-wave broadcasts carry his voice across China, but he does not consider himself a professional broadcaster. He has declined appeals to slip religious messages into his radio work.

Whatever Han is today, it's easy to pinpoint the moment when he found his calling. It was in April 1989 that Han and his wife first noticed a rally in Tiananmen Square. Student leaders were pushing the common workers back into a corner and Han quickly found other activists who shared his concerns. Soon, he helped set up a broadcast booth and called the first meeting of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation.

After surviving the June 3rd military crackdown, Han refused to confess to wrongdoing. Then he contracted tuberculosis in prison. Faced with global protests, Chinese officials let him go to America in 1992. After all, he was almost dead.

Minus a lung, Han returned to Hong Kong the next year and made several futile attempts to enter China. Today, the 38-year-old activist, his wife and their two American-born children have settled in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Han remains hard-wired into the mainland. The concept behind his radio work is simple. He uses telephone wires to build a bridge. When Chinese workers dial his Hong Kong office, he asks if he can tape their reports about local conditions. Then he airs the anonymous tapes, which generates new calls.

Han knows China's regional accents and he knows how to use telephone operators in remote areas to find the middle-management leaders and laborers who have stories to tell. Many appreciate that Han still talks about old values such as justice, "solidarity" and workers' rights. They have seen disasters, followed by cover-ups. They help him contact the families and friends of the dead and injured. There are many unheard voices.

"I get calls," said Han, at a recent Barcelona conference about faith, journalism and human rights. "The voice on the other end of the line says, 'I am a party official. I am a high party official. Do not ask me how high a party official I am. I cannot believe what I am seeing and I have to tell someone.' "

Then there are other calls that say: "Everything here is perfect. CLICK."

Han assumes that his telephone is tapped, so he focuses on simple, yet revealing questions about daily life. He refuses to air speeches about overthrowing the government. He could do entire broadcasts about religious liberty, but he has, so far, tried to avoid that explosive topic on the air.

"There is a great religious hunger inside China," he said. "This hunger is at the grassroots, out in the villages and it is spreading into the cities. Those voices will keep growing louder and louder and, soon, people will have to listen."