A 2016 New Year’s Message from China’s Labor Community
Dear fellow workers, compatriots, and friends from around the world: Happy New Year!
Toward the end of 2015, the labor community in China experienced an unprecedented attack. A group of activists who have dedicated years to defending the rights and interests of workers were detained, monitored and interrogated by the police. It could have been a moment for fear and paranoia to set in. But those in the labor community and other walks of life responded quickly by drafting a petition to the Communist Party Central Committee, National People’s Congress, and State Council. The petition described in no uncertain terms the severe and widespread violations of workers’ rights and interests over the last few decades, and the inevitable emergence of independent labor NGOs and worker centers and their valuable contribution to the protection of labor rights and social justice, and demanded the release of the detained activists. In less than two weeks, over 490 people added their names to this petition, and over 60 Chinese lawyers joined a legal aid team. This response was followed by petitions, appeals, and demonstrations by over 200 organizations and thousands of individuals from the international labor and academic community in over 40 countries condemning the crackdown and expressing support for the arrested labor activists.
Their calls, however, fell on the deaf ears of the Chinese authorities. The detained activists have to this day still not been allowed to meet with their lawyers. In addition, the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus—the Xinhua News Agency, People’s Daily and China Central Television (CCTV)—launched a smear campaign against these activists, in particular Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), essentially sentencing them without a trial in the court of public opinion. Feiyang’s wife and child have been intimidated, and Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅) has been separated from her baby daughter, whom she was breastfeeding when she was detained. The families of the other detained activists—He Xiaobo (何晓波), Meng Han (孟晗), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), Deng Xiaoming (邓小明)—are all sick with fear, and the whereabouts of another former worker-turned-collective bargaining specialist, Chen Huihai (陈辉海), is still unclear. Their treatment reflects a cowardly approach to the rule of law, and the criminal proceedings are rife with legal and procedural unfairness.
Fellow workers, compatriots, and friends: If the rights and interests of workers who make up the large majority of China’s population cannot be protected, if workers are increasingly deprived of their economic, political, cultural, and social rights, if the confrontations between officials and citizens, workers and employers, rich and poor, continues to worsen, then what are the prospects for everyone to live in a free, equal, fair, democratic, law-based society where “socialism is the core value”? It is doubtful that even our most basic survival and security can be assured in such a society!
It follows then that defending and fighting for workers’ rights and interests is not only essential for workers, but also to the stability, security, fairness, and well-being of society as a whole. Labor rights activism is not a crime! Labor rights organizations have not committed any crime! Labor rights activists have not committed any crime! Not only are they are not guilty of any crime, they have also made great contributions to our society, state, and nation. They are the underlying force behind a labor movement that has emerged in waves since 2010. They are why people from all walks of society are increasingly paying attention to, and supporting, the labor movement.
China’s 30 years of rapid economic growth is already in its last gasps. Now, demographics are changing, reducing the labor force, and the environment is severely damaged. At the same time, social contradictions and historical debt hidden by growth are surfacing one after the other. Government, businesses, and workers face the dual burden of an economic recession and social instability, and workers bear the greatest share: in times of economic growth they gain the least, and in downturns they inevitably lose the most. Not only are they the first to lose their jobs and fall into poverty, but as soon as they protest they are repressed by the government’s stability maintenance apparatus.
How can it be that the working class is fated to ceaselessly bear all the costs through economic growth as well as recession? Why should the powerful reap the profits when the economy grows and flee in times of recession? In early 2015, the labor community made a proposition to the government known as “the New Deal for Workers,” suggesting reforms to the system of wealth distribution, and universal social insurance coverage. It could be a way to boost domestic consumption, but this requires the government and businesses to give a bigger piece of the pie to labor and society. Similar policies helped the United States make it through the Depression of the 1930s, but do Chinese officials have that kind of heart and will?
Fellow workers, compatriots, and friends, it’s true that we wait on the government to appraise the situation and put forward the correct policy, but we also know that freedom, equality, justice, safety and happiness are things that we cannot wait for—they can only be obtained by fighting for them. We may have to make sacrifices if we choose to fight, but we will gain nothing without fighting for it.
In this new year, labor activism may face an even grimmer situation. But we are convinced that the labor movement will keep advancing. The rights to organize, bargain collectively, and to strike, and the economic, political, cultural, and social rights of workers, will all be achieved step by step.
“Strong grows the grass on plains made rich with blood, in winter-frozen earth spring starts to quicken.” Let this couplet be the labor community’s New Year Greetings that also set our outlook for 2016.
January 1, 2016
 Lu Xun, “Strong grows the grass,” translated by W. F. Jenner. (鲁迅《无题·血沃中原肥劲草》).
Chinese Authorities Orchestrate Surprise Raid of Labor NGOs in Guangdong, Arresting Leaders, Yaxue Cao, December 10, 2015.
Labour Activist Zhu Xiaomei speaking to workers, 2-minute Youtube video with English subtitles.
中文原文《寒凝大地发春华：中国劳工界2016年新年献辞》, translated by a volunteer.