Using a radio program to create informative discussions on human rights

Han Dongfang of the China Labour Bulletin (CLB) hosts a radio program to discuss labor issues in mainland China, human rights, and politics.

The CLB was founded in 1994 as a monthly newsletter in Chinese and English. Funded mostly by overseas trade unions and the Solidarity Fund in Hong Kong, the bulletin promoted independent trade unionism and provided information on the activities of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions as well as attempts by workers to organize outside of it. Originally, thousands of copies of the newsletter were sent to the mainland each month, but this was costly and the CLB realized that it was likely not very effective either. Instead, the organization developed a web site and began to collect the email addresses of people who contacted it, thus widening its network.

The new electronic newsletter was supplemented by Han Dongfang’s radio show, which began in 1997. The program is aired on Radio Free Asia, a US-funded short-wave radio station broadcasting in Chinese to the mainland. The program is ten minutes long and airs twice a week, occasionally with a third program featuring news on workers’ demonstrations. Han receives phone calls from people from all over China, including workers, farmers, university professors, business enterprises, managers, government officials, students, and others. Each program includes about four or five minutes of commentary, so Han tries to be concise in order to keep listeners engaged. He does most of the research for the program himself with the help of a few part-time employees.

At first, most callers to the show held strong opinions against the Chinese Communist Party and often wanted to talk about overthrowing the government. Han realized, however, that the show was becoming repetitive and was failing to generate constructive discussions. He began to encourage workers to call and discuss their personal life and problems in the workplace.  From this, information on human rights violations and political issues emerged. Most of the complaints are about the poverty caused by mass unemployment and lay-offs, mistreatment, corruption, and health and safety issues. Han informs the callers of their rights and gives them ideas of what they can do in light of the situation. Other callers inform him of workers’ demonstrations. Some government officials and state enterprise managers call in to acknowledge corruption (sometimes their own), which motivates Han to continue his work.

CLB has compiled the transcripts of all of Han’s broadcasts so far into a set of two books in order to share the information to a wider audience. The books are only available in print format in Chinese, but an electronic English version of the first book is available on CLB’s website.

One issue that Han must confront is security. He asks callers to contact his Hong Kong office from public phones and to call collect in order to ensure their safety.  Most wish to keep the conversation unpublicized. Others agree to let Han record the conversation and air the anonymous comments on the Saturday program, which receives favorable reactions from listeners and generates new calls. However, he notes that some people do not care if the call is safe or not because, as they have told him, they “have not been paid for so long, it does not matter anymore.”

Another problem that Han has faced is censorship. The Chinese government has attempted to jam his radio show, and in some areas in China the jamming is so heavy it is very hard to hear. However, the CLB remains positive about the widespread access and impact of the radio show because short-wave radio is very popular in China. According to Han, about 16% of China’s population, or 150-200 million people, are listening to foreign radio. Despite the efforts of the Chinese government, the labor bulletin radio show has produced positive impact, serving to encourage working class movements in the mainland. It is a breakthrough for Chinese workers because it allows them to overcome the official news blockade and gives them access to up-to-date information on problems, how others react to various right abuses and what forms of protests they adopt. People also consider it a unique place to share their personal stories and opinions.

Han’s radio program is useful in that it opens a space for discussion of the promotion and protection of human rights, specifically workers’ rights, in China, a country with few historical democratic traditions. Han’s advice to others in doing human rights work is to have faith and to put oneself in the workers’ situations. He also thinks that the future of human rights struggle in China has to be a legal struggle, and that Chinese people should be encouraged to trust in the law and use it or the good parts of it to fight for their rights.

This article is based on an interview with Han Dongfang from December 2001 as well as information from the Internet.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 
A key component of this tactic is informing the callers, and listeners, about their rights and what they could do in their situation. Informing the public is crucial because without knowing their rights or the recourses they can take, they become complacent to the violations. 
The use of radio is a creative way to highlight the issues that people face. While it is limiting in how many people it can reach, it provides a space for individuals in a given region to learn about the struggles of others near them. Radio, especially in technologically poor areas and for those with limited literacy, allows people to stay up to date on information and events. It can also be used as a way to call people to action, and unite listeners around a common goal. 
This tactic also teaches us the importance of recognizing when a current tactic is not being effective in its task. When this occurs, it’s okay to change the tactic and try something different. The CLB had to do this when their print newsletter proved to be costly and ineffective. By switching their tactic to an online based newsletter and radio station, they saw a greater impact and were able to reach more people.
The priority of any tactic that involves sharing personal stories is to do no harm. While not every individual who speaks out will want anonymity, the choice should always be with the victim. Full knowledge and consent regarding what might be the consequences for disclosure should be discussed with the victims. Those who wish to remain anonymous must be respected.