Trials May Spell End of Era for Chinese Labor Activism

Last month saw the long-anticipated trials of three Guangdong labor activists charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.” ’ Center founder and two associates received suspended prison sentences which, though unexpectedly light due to their admissions of guilt, are likely to constrain their activities for years to come. Following repeated recent warnings of foreign conspiracies against China, state media emphasized the Center’s relationship with Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin. In a televised confession, Zeng said he had “incited and organized workers to use extreme methods” on behalf of “foreign organizations which regard China with hostility.” An online video shared by the Communist Youth League and state-owned tabloid Global Times underlined the point, accusing diplomats outside the courthouse of conspiring to overthrow Communist rule. A fourth Panyu activist, Meng Han, who has reportedly refused to confess, will be tried separately on November 3 amid what CLB calls “intimidation and blatant procedural violations.”

The prosecutions are part of a broader official response to a rising tide of labor unrest and organization, which New York University’s Mark Selden and Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s Jenny Chan recently described at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Analysis Blog:

China has become not only the workshop of the world, but also the epicentre of labour unrest. Increasingly, aggrieved workers are taking legal and extra-legal actions to defend their interests in the absence of leadership by trade unions. Based on our field research of Taiwanese-owned Foxconn Technology Group and other scholarly studies in China, we highlight the fact that at key nodes of production, the integration of large manufacturers in transnational supply chains and tight delivery schedules for electronic and other consumer products have enhanced workers’ bargaining power at the workplace level. With workers’ growing awareness of the opportunities presented by the fact that giant corporations face pressures to meet quotas for new models and holiday season purchases, they have repeatedly come together at the dormitory, workshop, or factory level to voice demands or to stage . Access to internet and social networking technology also enables workers to disseminate open letters and to tweet urgent appeals for support.

Thus far, collective labor actions are mostly short-lived and confined to a single workplace or an industrial sector. If some of these struggles have resulted in limited wage gains, the harsh reality remains that worker victories have not translated into long-term gains in the form of unions responsive to labour or the emergence of a movement with a comprehensive labour agenda. Following the recent state-led repression of worker leaders and their supporters in , where internal migrants have been forging active cross-border links with non-governmental organizations, the prospects of mainland Chinese labour activism remain problematic. [Source]

Selden and Chan also discuss the often frustrated aspirations of younger migrants for urban lifestyles, higher skills, more security, and greater prosperity.

Also at the CPI Analysis blog, SOAS’ Tim Pringle examined the work of Chinese labor NGOs like the Panyu Workers’ Center, as well as “the monopolistic role of the All China Federation of Trade Unions” and its “obedience to the CPC’s prioritizing of stability (维稳) over rights (维权).” He also focused on the special case of Guangdong, and the implications of the Panyu prosecutions.

[… I]n the glaring and global publicity of widespread labour law violations and growing militancy, Guangdong’s political leaders adopted a more relaxed attitude to LNGOs than anywhere else in China. Although LNGO funding remained – and remains – a profoundly sensitive issue, the capacity of LNGOs to provide legal assistance to workers dovetailed with the state’s declared goal of channeling labour grievances into juridical channels of dispute resolution – dispute arbitration committees and the courts. The Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions even formed cautious partnerships with some more service-minded LNGOs.

In short, LNGOs in Guangdong were able to take advantage of what Jude Howell and I have formulated as ‘pragmatic authoritarianism’: a variation of authoritarianism that astutely combines sufficient levels of coercion to maintain social order with sufficient flexibility to concede demands to preserve economic growth. The big question now is whether or not the recent trial and clampdown spells the end of an era of pragmatism.

[…] 杀鸡儆猴 (sha ji jing hou) is a well-known Chinese idiom that conveys warning: to ensure that the monkeys witness the killing of the chickens. It is certainly possible to interpret the recent clampdown on a specific LNGO in Guangdong as a warning to others that they have gone too far in their strike interventions [….] If this is the case, the problem for the authorities is that the monkeys – LNGOs and workers – are not likely to remain cowed for very long. The antagonistic interests between labour and capital that LNGOs were relieving to a certain extent via the promotion of collective bargaining will not go away. As I argue elsewhere, taking out skilled labour organizers and negotiators such as the still detained activist Meng Han whom I referred to at the start of this article means that strikes are more likely to be repressed rather than resolved. The historical evidence suggests this will generate more intense and widespread resistance further down the capitalist road. [Source]

In the words of CLB founder , “they can try to blame the firefighters, but if those who were helping put the fire out are not allowed to do their job, it can only get worse.”

expert and CLB Deputy Director Shawn Shieh also highlighted the contrast between the recent prosecutions and Guangdong’s formerly relaxed stance:

The sentences were bittersweet. They were lighter than expected, especially that of Zeng Feiyang who was the target of a high-level smear campaign conducted by state media organs soon after his arrest and not allowed to see his lawyer for six months. And the suspended sentences mean that they can now go home to be with their families. But the lighter sentences came with a cost. The plaintiffs had to admit they were guilty of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” even though their efforts to organize workers to engage in collective bargaining had the opposite intention, which was to get workers to the bargaining table and find a peaceful, orderly way to resolve their dispute. And as already mentioned, their sentences mean they may have to abstain from the work that they excelled in, which was to organize and train workers on collective bargaining.

The politics of this case are interesting and there should be more analysis forthcoming. The impetus for the arrest of these activists appears to have come from the center, but local law enforcement were charged with carrying out the arrest, investigation and prosecution of this case. In the past, Guangzhou and Panyu law enforcement had cooperated with Feiyang on a number of occasions and knew him well. Did local law enforcement officials play a role in getting a lighter sentence for these plaintiffs and making the best of a difficult situation? Interestingly, while the media reports of the trial focused on Feiyang’s closing statement in the trial concerning foreign funding and involvement, the court verdict made no mention of foreign funding and involvement. Instead, it offered a more narrow argument and set of evidence detailing how the plaintiffs were making efforts to encourage workers in the Lide factory to go on strike. In other words, it looked at the case from the perspective of rather than national security in an effort to lower the sensitivity of the case and justify a lesser sentence for the plaintiffs. [Source]

While the crackdown seems intended to help direct workers’ grievances through the relatively placid and controllable channels of the court system, Aaron Halegua from the New York University School of Law told The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong last week that the courts may not be up to the task:

WSJ: Your research found that Chinese workers are often unsuccessful in using litigation to resolve , and many workers still resort to strikes and protests. What implications could this have for industrial relations as China’s economy continues to slow?

Mr. Halegua: China’s courts are ill equipped to deal with the rise in bankruptcies, plant closures, mass layoffs, or the restructuring of state-owned enterprises. Political solutions to these disputes are often necessary.

The government prioritizes maintaining order and stability, using whatever mix of cash, coercion and other measures is necessary to quell worker unrest. Authorities are quick to intervene in strikes or protests and attempt to mediate a settlement. Where a private employer lacks the money, the government often uses its own funds to pay the workers and resolve the dispute.

Thus far, China has been able to manage labor unrest through this ad hoc strategy. However, this approach is costly for the government and becomes harder to sustain as the number of strikes rises and the government’s own tax revenue falls. [Source]

Halegua also noted the shadow cast by the “Black Friday” or “709” crackdown on rights lawyers, suggesting that it has helped deter other from representing workers in potentially sensitive cases. He recently authored a report for New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute entitled “Who Will Represent China’s Workers? Lawyers, Legal Aid, and the Enforcement of Labor Rights,” and contributed on the same subject to the latest issue of Chinoiresie’s “Made in China: A Quarterly on Chinese Labour, Civil Society, and Rights.” That issue also addresses the history of China’s working class, Chinese labor and investment in Africa, the Panyu prosecutions, and other recent developments.

While the popular perception of labor activism in China may focus on the manufacturing sector, CLB reports that collective action in that sphere actually fell in the third quarter of 2016 compared with the same period last year. It more than doubled in services and retail, however, with Walmart workers, luxury retail staff, and golf caddies among the unrestful. That sector has now overtaken manufacturing in terms of the number of collective actions, and is now second only to construction, which also saw record numbers last quarter.

At Sixth Tone last week, meanwhile, Lu Hongyong looked at safety in China’s window cleaning industry which, even with 400,000 workers nationwide, is “too small to warrant government attention” in terms of regulation and enforcement, in part because “fatalities are too sporadic to grab attention the same way collapsed coal mines do.” On the other hand, Sixth Tone’s Qian Jinghua reported on a spate of detentions following protests and petitions for compensation for former miners suffering from lung disease. In another demonstration of the sensitivity of labor protests, a man was detained in Wuhan on Friday for sharing video of a purported demonstration by steelworkers. According to Legal Daily, the footage actually showed a 2013 celebration in Guangdong.