This article takes a historical perspective about the possibility of democratic grassroots trade union representation in Chinese factories. It documents previous trade union elections at supplier factories of multinational corporations (MNCs), from the first election organised by Reebok in 2001 at a supplier factory in Shenzhen to a recent election instigated by workers. For a decade and a half, a number of high-profile union elections were variously organised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on behalf of MNCs, or by the Chinese trade union, or by workers. The article examines the political and social contexts in which these elections took place, the problems encountered by the newly elected trade union branches, their successes and failures, and how these elections prompted China’s trade union federation to hold similar elections at domestically owned Chinese factories. It concludes with an analysis of the current labour scene in China and the prospects of genuine collective bargaining.