Who the activists are, and why the government is striking hard against their NGOs
By Yaxue Cao, published: December 10, 2015
Chinese police on December 3 began a series of sudden raids of labor rights organizations in Guangdong, questioning at least 25 staff members and managers of about five organizations, according to labor activists and lawyers in the area.
Three individuals—Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), Zhu Xiaohai (朱小梅) and He Xiaobo (何晓波)—were confirmed to be criminally detained. On December 7, Deng Xiaoming (邓小明) was criminally detained, while two other NGO staff members are still in police custody and their status remains uncertain. The father, wife, and older brother of Zeng Feiyang have all been interrogated by police. Peng Jiayong (彭家勇) also may have been criminally detained, given that the police said that they had sent a notice to his address.
Many of the NGOs are based in Panyu, a district of Guangzhou with a high concentration of migrant workers.
Zeng Feiyang and Zhu Xiaohai, a manager and staff member respectively at the “Panyu Migrant Worker Service Document Handling Center” (番禺打工族文书处理服务部) in Panyu, Guangzhou, have been accused of “organizing a crowd to disrupt social order.” The NGO is typically known as Panyu Dagongzu Service Center.
He Xiaobo, the manager of the Nanfeiyan Social Worker Center in Foshan City (南飞雁社会服务工作中心), has been accused of “embezzlement”. It is unclear what charges have been levelled against Deng Xiaoming, a staff member at the Haige Labor Center (海哥劳工服务部) in Panyu, and Peng Jiayong, the leader of the Panyu Workers’ Mutual Assistance Group (番禺区劳动者互助小组).
A labor rights defense website reported that this “surprise attack” has targeted some of the leading NGOs defending and advocating labor rights and awareness in the Pearl River Delta.
The Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center (“Dagongzu” hereafter) was founded in 1998; its primary business was legal consultation and representation for workers. This included assisting injured workers in navigating applications for compensation, getting involved in collective bargaining and strikes in order to see that workers are paid their social insurance, assisting in the drafting of labor rights agreements, and abolishing the use of temporary labor agencies, among other activities. As one of the earliest labor rights NGOs in the Pearl River Delta area, it became a model for many of the later labor rights activists; before long, over a dozen similar labor NGOs had blossomed in the area, and Dagongzu earned the playful moniker of the “Whampoa Military School” for labor rights. (One of Republic of China’s military academies, Whampoa trained many top Nationalist and Communist Party military officers before 1949.)
The Foshan-based Nanfeiyan Social Worker Center was founded in 2007 and officially registered with the local Civil Affairs agency in 2012, according to Caijing, a business magazine. Nanfeiyan began with a focus on helping injured industrial workers to gain compensation, but its range of activities later expanded significantly, including the provision of service to migrants in Foshan. The range of community services it provides includes supporting education for the children of migrant workers who are denied enrollment in local public schools; medical insurance for women giving birth; and shelter services, among others. According to Nanfeiyan’s website, in the seven years of their operations up to 2014, the NGO has “provided legal training workshops to over 7,000 people, and cumulatively assisted nearly 10,000 injured workers in gaining legally prescribed compensation. The agency has accumulated rich NGO work experience from a large number of injury compensation cases.”
According to its Weibo account, the Panyu Mutual Assistance Group was founded by Peng Jiayong and advocates a worker representative system, direct elections for union leaders, collective bargaining, and solidarity among workers.
The Haige Labor Center in Panyu, although only founded in November 2014, is led by a veteran labor rights activist—Cheng Huihai (陈辉海). He began as a worker in a jewelry factory, first defending his own rights then helping and training other workers to defend theirs. In an interview this year he said that the Haige Labor Center primarily focuses on training workers to use collective bargaining to ensure the protection of their rights, and that many such cases have been successful.
Another labor rights NGO that has been raided and questioned is the Sunflower Women’s Center (向阳花女工中心) also in Panyu district.
The Detained NGO Workers: Who Are They?
Zeng Feiyang graduated from South China Normal University with an associate degree in law in 1996. Through family connections he secured a position in the judicial bureau of his hometown of Nanxiong in Guangdong—the sort of public service post widely sought after in China. But Zeng found it far too dull, left it in less than a year, and moved to the Jinglun Law Firm in Guangzhou, according to 2010 profile by Southern Window (《南风窗》).
At the law firm his principal job was to represent corporate clients in their disputes with workers: mediating wage negotiations, injury compensation, backwages, and more. His clients and his firm were very happy with his work, but he sunk into guilt. “The migrant workers make a living by selling their cheap labor. Now they have lost their only asset—a strong and healthy body—and can’t get fair compensation, how will they face the future?” He felt compelled to help them.
He soon became the head of the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center, or Dagongzu. The first few years were a struggle: they received hardly any service fees, found it difficult to keep running, and were regularly harassed by the government. At one point their business license was revoked. In early 2000s Dagongzu transformed itself into an NGO and started accepting funding from Hong Kong and abroad, no longer charging any fees from migrant workers. Dagongzu became China’s first labor NGO.
In 2003 Dagongzu set up a “Migrant Worker’s Cultural Service Center” in the Shiqi township (石碁镇), using a sponsorship of $15,000 by Reebok. The center provided cultural and sporting facilities, and held training classes and activities that built fellowship among workers. There were computer classes, dancing classes, and English classes on a rotating basis. The goal of the center was to enrich the lives of migrant workers through learning and camaraderie, to give them a sense of belonging. Workers appreciated these activities. But in 2007 police closed it down because they feared that with hundreds of migrant workers congregating in one place, it would be easy for them to get organized and set off “mass incidents.”
Zeng Feiyang recognized that, while labor NGOs had resolved many problems for the government, by making life easier for workers and reducing their pressure and anxieties, the government’s stance towards these NGOs was still deeply suspicious and apprehensive. He remarked that the primary obstacle to the growth of labor NGOs in China came from “government and industry.” In reality, Zeng was perfectly clear on what he was doing: his organization was not based on creating a social movement, but serving and supporting migrant workers as and when they needed it. “Getting involved in mass protests—that’s absolutely off the table,” he says in the Southern Window profile.
A month prior, Dagongzu had helped Shatou street sanitation workers to win a collective rights defense case, awarding them their seniority compensation.
In December 2014, when Dagongzu was helping workers at the Lide Shoe Factory (利得鞋厂) in Guangdong in a collective bargaining negotiation, police detained Zeng Feiyang for 24 hours. While in custody, the police essentially threatened to kill him, intimating that these days, if someone dies under mysterious circumstances, police can’t always solve the case. Two days later Zeng was assailed by four unidentified men. Over 1,000 activists signed a petition protesting violence against labor activists.
Zhu Xiaomei is a worker at Dagongzu. At midday on December 3, police came with a warrant to search her home and make an arrest. Her husband, 10-year-old son, and still breastfeeding one-year-old daughter were all there. Her husband couldn’t take the baby because he had to work, and nor would the police allow Zhu Xiaohai to take her. In the end, the ten-year-old picked up the baby and watched on as police handcuffed his mother and led her away.
On December 4 the family received a notice of criminal detention informing them that Zhu Xiaohai was being held in the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center under suspicion of having “gathered a crowd to disturb social order.” When they attempted to bring the infant daughter to the lockup so she could be breastfed, they were turned away by police.
At the age of 16, Zhu Xiaohai came down from Henan to Guangdong to work, spending 16 years at a Hitachi factory in Panyu. When she’d just arrived in Guangdong she had little life experience and didn’t understand Cantonese (the local language). She was made to do endless overtime shifts, and she was afraid, lonely, and tired, yet didn’t dare tell her family back in Henan, according to an interview she gave to Chinese media this Mother’s Day. The first time she called home—when telephone calls still cost 3 yuan per minute—she said not a word, choking in tears before hastily hanging up. Because she worked diligently and took on hard tasks without complaint, she became a group supervisor within a few months. Four years later she was promoted to an entry-level manager. In 2014 Zhu, in her role as elected worker’s representative, sought to ensure that workers were provided with basic social security and received their pensions, as dictated by the law. For this she was illegally fired. She initiated a lawsuit against her employer for illegal dismissal, which she won, and then joined Dagongzu to become an NGO worker.
He Xiaobo went to work in Foshan in 2006 and soon lost three fingers on his left hand in an industrial accident. In hospital he encountered a Dagongzu volunteer and learned for the first time about worker’s compensation. For the next year or so he threw himself into learning the law and defending his own rights, while also volunteering for Dagongzu. He was 32-years-old then. He also experienced what every other migrant worker had faced: he had to leave behind his daughter in his hometown because she was not allowed to enroll in public schools in Foshan, and his wife was denied maternity insurance when she was pregnant with their younger daughter.
Later he founded the Rights Defense Workshop for the Injured, which was the predecessor of Nanfeiyan, and became a well-known labor activist. Up until last year his NGO was still working with the government on a number of projects and received official funding. Both He Xiaobo and his NGO received numerous recognitions and honors in Foshan: He was declared one of the Top Ten Social Workers, for instance, and Nanfeiyan was given the Red Rose Award for charity work, both awarded by the Foshan municipal government.
Peng Jiayong, from Yichang, Hubei Province, joined labor rights defense work in 2012. Previously he was himself a worker but was fired after participating in union elections and collecting bargaining at a foreign-invested enterprise in Zhongshan. He then began working at Zhongshan Laipowan (来泊湾, a labor NGO), Dagongzu, and the Haige Labor Center. In April he was assaulted by eight unidentified men and severely injured. In May he led the establishment of the Worker’s Mutual Assistance Group.
Deng Xiaoming, a native of Leiyang, Hunan, came to Guangdong to work when he was still a minor. After a work injury he got help from Dagongzu, and later became involved in labor rights NGO work, pitching in at Dagongzu and Haige.
Why the Authorities Launched This Crackdown
According to a report about the plight of Chinese labor NGOs by Financial Times Chinese earlier this year, Dagongzu began receiving fund from foreign sources in 2002, including from, at various points, the German-based Church Development Service (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst), the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, and the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, among others. But in September 2014 public security authorities warned Zeng Feiyang that his organization could no longer receive any funding from China Labor Bulletin, at that time their only source of financing.
In September and November, 2014, Zeng Feiyang attempted twice to enter Hong Kong and was refused on both occasions, upon which he was told that he had been placed on the list of those refused exit from China. When he attempted to fly to the Czech Republic for a human rights meeting in December 2014 he was again stopped by Customs.
In September 2015 several of Nanfeiyan’s service stations were shut down, their contracts with government severed. Their projects and funding for helping communities of migrant worker children were also affected, and their accounting books were re-audited by the authorities, looking for irregularities. In November, He Xiaobo was also restricted from traveling outside China.
The Sunflower Women’s Center in Panyu, meanwhile, used to be supported by the All-China Women’s Federation, but in June received a notice of administrative penalty from the Civil Affairs office, declaring that the center’s registration as an NGO would be revoked.
An open letter by Nanfeiyan in October provides some background on the sudden deterioration of the environment for labor NGOs in China:
“In July 2011, Wang Yang (汪洋), the then Party Secretary of Guangdong, put forth the ‘social construction’ doctrine during the 9th plenary meeting of the 10th Party Committee of Guangdong. … In March 2012, secretary Wang Yang came to Gaoming District in Foshan to conduct field studies for innovation in social management. He asked a manager of a company, who’s also a Party member: ‘If workers, wanting to have better benefits, come to odds with the factory, whose side will you lean to?’ The Guangdong government embraced the new social management concept in response to the increasingly acute confrontations between workers and their employers seen in the Pearl River Delta. As a result, in 2012, many NGOs in Guangdong, including Nanfeiyan, blossomed as never before: many groups were able to obtain NGO registration, and receive government funding to provide services. Between 2013-2014, Nanfeiyan also began to receive government funding for operating social work programs. However, the conditions changed abruptly at the end of 2014. The vibrant and innovative atmosphere for social management quickly withered. At first, the government suddenly cut funding for NGOs, including Nanfeiyan. Then, in the new social management regulations to be promulgated, the government made it very difficult for us to obtain foreign funding. On top of that, from around the end of 2014 to early 2015, we felt the government began to tighten control on, and suppress, a select group of NGOs. Our space for survival has sunk to its lowest, and we’re on the brink of extinction.”
A veteran labor activist based in Guangzhou, who wishes to remain anonymous, told NGO commentator Zhao Sile (赵思乐) that all the people detained or questioned this time have worked at Dagongzu at one point or another. He said that the authorities have been investigating Zeng Feiyang for a while. “It’s obvious that the raids were well planned from a higher level of government,” he said. “From the way several friends were questioned, you can gather that the authorities want to ‘prove’ that several independent labor organizations are part of a network, with Zeng Feiyang as the ring leader.”
This activist said that the latest assault on labor NGOs in Guangzhou and Foshan is a manifestation of the government trying to tighten control as the economy continues to slide. “On the surface it’s cracking down on labor NGOs, but in essence it’s suppressing the workers’ movement.” He predicted that the suppression will continue as more factories shut down and labor disputes multiply.
Guangzhou-based labor rights activist Liu Shaoming (刘少明) was arrested in mid-2015, charged with inciting subversion of state power, and has not yet been tried. In February 2015, the authorities in Guangzhou closed down a labor research center jointly operated by UC Berkeley and Sun Yat-sen University. Throughout the year, the Chinese government has closed or outlawed independent rights NGOs across the country, including NGOs for women’s rights, for HIV/AIDS patients, and for the disabled. The crackdown also aimed at independent think tanks. Meanwhile, China is moving towards passing the much-discussed “Foreign NGO Management Law.” It is widely believed that the regime seeks to pass such a stringent law in order to cut off foreign funding for NGOs, especially rights defense NGOs, in order to check the expansion of China’s civil society.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.