Yaxue Cao, April 17, 2018
On April 10, China’s State Administration of Radio and Television ordered the permanent closure of the Neihan Duanzi (translated roughly as ‘quirky skits’) app and website. In its announcement, the authorities denounced the app and its public WeChat account as having an “improper orientation and vulgar style” that supposedly “evoked the great disgust of netizens.” Though the Chinese government has closed numerous popular entertainment websites over the last couple of years, the targeting of Neihan Duanzi triggered a storm of discontent, and observers said that the authorities had “stirred up a hornet’s nest.” The episode has brought to wider attention a large, little-known group in society, and observers are trying to grapple with its social and political significance.
Neihan Duanzi is primarily a mobile app on which users share inside jokes and absurdist videos. The platform first appeared on the website ‘Today’s Headlines’ (今日头条), also known in its pinyin form ‘Jinri Toutiao’ or Toutiao, in May 2012. The parent company that created both the app and the website, Bytedance, writes on its homepage that “We are building the future of content discovery and creation.” Neihan Duanzi was in fact the first product of Toutiao, predates the latter by three months, and quickly recruited the app’s first group of users. By 2017, Bytedance, established just five years prior, had leapt to number 41 on the official list of China’s Top 100 Internet Companies.
Neihan Duanzi encompasses a variety of short video sketches (funny, moving, musical, playful, and cute videos), genius retorts or responses (脑洞神评论, highlighted comments on Neihan Duanzi), hilarious images, and humorous sketches of all taste and manner.
The joke culture in China is a huge market. According to Bigdata Research’s 2nd quarter 2017 China joke app market research report, as of the end of June there were over 28 million users of these apps, a year on year growth rate of 5.7%. Bigdata Research notes that in July 2017 Neihan Duanzi was the most popular in this universe of apps, with 21.7 million users. Searching for ‘Neihan Duanzi’ in QQ groups, another popular Chinese social media platform, shows hundreds of chat groups dedicated to it.
Toutiao boasts a market value of over $20 billion. With its combination of data mining and AI algorithms that draw on user profiles and interests, its apps make targeted recommendations for news, music, movies, and games, and attract a massive inflow of users. Toutiao currently reports having 600 million active users, with 120 million daily actives.
Protests by ‘Skit Friends’
Neihan Duanzi’s enormous user base skews young. They call themselves ‘skit friends’ (段友), and organize ‘skit gatherings’ (段友会) in many cities, big and small, in China. They have formed their own online and offline communities, and have their own coded language. Many of them have Neihan Duanzi-inspired bumper stickers, sold by numerous merchants on Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of Ebay.
Videos shot by Neihan Duanzi users show the amusement they derive from greeting one another with coded messages in public: beeping, opening car trunks, and citing their codes back and forth. Some of the best known phrases include the likes of: “When skit friends go to battle, the grass ceases to grow” (段友出征，寸草不生); “Beer and crayfish, skit friends are one family” (啤酒小龙虾，段友是一家); or “Heaven king conquers earth tiger, chicken stews with mushrooms” (天王盖地虎，小鸡炖蘑菇).
Clearly, these interactions are a source of tremendous enjoyment and entertainment for the participants.
After Neihan Duanzi was closed, videos of previous gatherings of skit friends began to be shared widely online. Several of them show the remarkable scene of dozens of cars arrayed in formation late at night, together sounding out the calling card of the community: ‘Beep. Beep beep.’
According to Radio Free Asia, protests against the closure of the platform have taken place in Nantong (南通), Changsha (长沙), Yingkou (营口), Wuxi (无锡), Beijing (北京), and elsewhere. Protesters use the ‘beep, beep beep’ signal to initiate communication, which is met with response beeps and double blinking of car lights. Footage of the public events is often shot with drones and uploaded (here, here, and here.)
During a skit friend assembly of unclear date in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, about 200 people formed a circle and, like the students of the Hong Kong umbrella movement, held their cellphones aloft as torches and sang. The chosen piece of the night was popular singer Wang Jianfang’s ‘On Earth’ (王建房《在人间》):
Maybe I can’t win over Heaven and Earth.
Maybe I’ll hang my head and weep.
Maybe a June snowfall will enter my heart.
There’ll be a Berlin Wall I can’t get over.
Suffering will neighbor me all my days.
What has the grand era already snatched from you?
Who lives on earth as though it’s not a prison?
I won’t cry. I’ve no more dignity to abandon.
When the day comes that those dreams drown in the crowds
Don’t be sad, let them go, and sing this song at the funeral.
‘On Earth’ has come to be known as the theme song of Neihan Duanzi, and renditions of it have been widely spread on the platform (here, for example).
The CEO’s Apology
On April 11, the founder and CEO of Jinri Toutiao Zhang Yiming (张一鸣) issued “Apologies and Reflections.” “Jinri Toutiao will shut down once and for all its ‘Neihan Duanzi’ app and its public accounts. Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values, that did not properly implement public opinion guidance — and I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received [as a result].”
His confession confirms that the real reason for shutting down the app is political — what young people are consuming and how they are entertain themselves are not to the liking of the Party. “We prioritised only the expansion of [platform] scale, and we were not timely in strengthening quality and responsibility, overlooking our responsibility to channel users in the uptake of information with positive energy. We were insufficiently attentive, and in our thinking placed insufficient emphasis on our corporate social responsibility, to promote positive energy and to grasp correct guidance of public opinion.”
The young CEO with an engineering background promised to “[strengthen] the work of Party construction, carrying out education among our entire staff on the ‘four consciousnesses,’ socialist core values, [correct] guidance of public opinion, and laws and regulations, truly acting on the company’s social responsibility.”
He also promise to strengthen content review by humans, raising the current number of review staff from 6,000 to 10,000 persons. That is, for each person hired for content production, almost two are hired for review and sales, according to one report.
Last week, Xinhua published an editorial criticizing the online viral video as an entertainment form, saying: “In a society where it’s easier and easier to get clicks, at the same time that internet videos give the public novel experiences, because some of the content has no bottom line, some of these clicks spread poison and harm the public, especially young people.”
The same editorial cited an unnamed ‘expert’ who said: “These internet video websites get hundreds of millions of viewers, allowing ‘demons and goblins’ to warp the value system of adolescents, turning it into a trend to imitate and copy.”
An April 13 (unverified) work instruction from the Changsha Municipal Public Security Bureau Intelligence Command Center was circulated online, saying that four gatherings of ‘skit friends’ took place on April 11 in the city, and that the provincial public security bureau demands “public security organs in every locale engage in a thorough search for an evidentiary trail and online detection work, prevent assemblies that would lead to hype and unstable factors.”
As for skit friends gathering on the streets or in public spaces, the Zhejiang Haimen Public Security Bureau said in an April 8 announcement: “Any citizens convening crowd-style assembly activities must act strictly according to legal provisions,” or else “public security organs will pursue legal responsibility against the responsible parties.” The notice invoked “Law on Assemblies, Processions and Demonstrations” (《中华人民共和国集会游行示威法》) the “Road Traffic Safety Law” (《中华人民共和国道路交通安全法》), and the “Public Security Administration Punishments Law” (《中华人民共和国治安管理处罚法》).
Chinese young people generally pay scant attention to politics and they have been criticized for ‘amusing themselves to death.’ But entertainment has, it appears, come to give the Communist Party a severe headache. Using the phraseology of Xinhua, the jokers are seen as ‘demons and goblins’; their whimsical, irreverent attitude is seen as a strong rejection of autocratic authority and control. Perhaps, inside the ruling party, this movement has given rise to a strong sense of unease — not to mention that the style of humor itself is at times imbued with the implicit wish for freedom and dignity. We could even say that these young people are a ‘new form’ of Chinese person, the first generation to have been born and come of age entirely in the era of reform and opening up. They are the digital generation. They seem to take a great deal of pride in their own idiosyncratic way of life.
The news outlet Duowei, whose political allegiances have always been ambiguous, cited unidentified ‘voices’ who explained that the fundamental reason the Communist Party shut down Neihan Duanzi is because the app’s user base had begun to look like an embryonic political movement. Users are spread across China’s provinces, in small-, large-, and medium-sized cities; they come from all walks of life; they have formed their own community, with attendant slogans, signals, and an initial form of behavioral standards (such as the ‘three don’t laughs’: no laughing at natural disasters, no laughing at man-made disasters, and no laughing at illness). Between them, skit friends have a strong sense of cohesion, identity, belonging, and group honor. One of their slogans is ‘skit friends are one big family,’ and ‘if you’re in trouble, find a skit friend.’ The Party is afraid of all of this.
Searching on Baidu for + (城市+段友会) brings up related organizations almost anywhere. On rear windshields and car bumpers in cities around the country, Neihan Duanzi slogans can be seen. Photographs and videos from their meetings indicate that skit friends often have their own vehicles, and sometimes camera-equipped drones. In some cities they even have clubhouses.
It’s being pointed out that these skit friends grew up on shoot-em-up video games. Now that they have a chance for real conflict, they think it’s exciting. Shutting down Neihan Duanzi shows these young people the pain of having their freedom stripped away — it’s that simple.
The Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡) gave an example of shooting oneself in the foot on Twitter: “Before the former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak lost power, the Egyptian government at one point cut off the internet, leading to countless people who were happy to be at home playing video games to take to the streets… everyone knows what happened next.”
Dissident writer Hu Ping (胡平) noted that “Xi Jinping doesn’t like ‘vulgarity’ among the masses, and wants to force men, young and old, to all be ideologically acceptable to the Party. This is a peculiarity of totalitarianism. Vulgarity is an important part of life, and if the regular people in society still have the space to enjoy humor, it means that the power of the state has not yet infiltrated everything and everywhere.”
Another dissident and author Li Xuewen (黎学文) believes that, “simply in the context of China’s new totalitarianism, the slogans and activities of Neihan Duanzi users set a worthy example for all who oppose the regime. Relying on internet culture to create a set of mobilization slogans is highly novel; and with a few horn beeps crowds can be gathered, as the symbols of an online community are shared and used as codes for mobilization — these qualities have not been seen in any mainland resistance movement to date.”
An Twitter user in Changsha said that on Tuesday when he was out walking in the evening, he spotted two cars near his home with ‘Neihan Duanzi’ and ‘Douyin’ (抖音, another app by Toutiao) stickers.
Another Chinese Twitter user, location unknown, posted on Friday: “Today I personally heard skit friends beeping at each other. One can feel the undercurrent. Maybe a big era has begun just like that.”
Beep. Beep beep.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao
Recent posts on China Change:
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With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework, Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018.
The Might of an Ant: the Story of Lawyer Li Baiguang (1 of 2), Yaxue Cao, March 20, 2018
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China Change, April 15, 2018
A WeChat group dedicated to raising money for Chinese prisoners of conscience and their families has recently been shut down by Chinese police, and its administrators targeted. One of the administrators of the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’ (全国旅游群), Guo Qingjun (郭庆军), was arrested by domestic security police in Changchun, Jilin Province, at his workplace on April 11. Guo’s wife, Zhang Yuying (张宇英), sent out a message that the couple’s house had been raided and Guo’s computer confiscated. At least seven other individuals associated with the group from around China have also been targeted, including Bao Luo (保罗), Lu Bi (卢比), Liu Chunlin (刘春林), Dai Xiangnan (戴湘南), Sun Wenke (孙文科), Li Xiaohong (李小红), and an individual known as Meizi Qingxuan (梅子轻旋).
Guo’s family is aware that though he was arrested in Changchun, it is in fact police from his hometown in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province, that are handling his case. On April 12 Guo’s wife received the official notification of criminal detention, which stated that he was suspected of “provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”
An individual familiar with the circumstances of the case said that apart from the eight people arrested, over 100 members of the chat group have been summoned and questioned by domestic security police. Guo, under pressure from the authorities, had already announced the disbanding of the National Tourism Chat Group several days prior to his arrest.
According to Radio Free Asia, citing an individual familiar with the case, the chatgroup was focused on prisoners of conscience, petitioners, and rights defenders in difficult circumstances. Guo’s National Tourism Chat Group kept books on donations, and sent money to individuals that donors wanted to help. This is known as ‘food delivery.’ The Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch website explained that, for instance, the National Tourism Chat Group sent money to cover basic living expenses for the families of political prisoners Chen Jianxiong (陈剑雄), Yuan Bing (袁兵), Huang Wenxun (黄文勋) and others, to enable them to get through trying periods.
The locations at which the other seven targeted individuals are being detained is as yet unknown.
In China, providing relief to prisoners of conscience and their families is an act fraught with peril. As a way of not tipping off the authorities to the purpose of the group, and thus have it immediately shut down, the group managers took the name of ‘National Tourism,’ so they’d be able to help the families over the long term.
An activist who did not reveal his identity for safety reasons told Radio Free Asia that Guo Qingjun was one of the founders of the recently targeted ‘Rose chatgroups,’ as well as an important member of China Human Rights Observer (中国人权观察).
Guo lives in Changchun with his family; his day job is at a foreign-invested enterprise, and for years he has been involved in rights defense and citizen activism. He has largely tried to keep a low profile, though has been repeatedly warned to stop his activism by Chinese secret police.
Below is the limited information currently available on the individuals targeted:
Dai Xiangnan (phone number 13410097523) was a graduate of Peking University. In recent years he has been involved in NGO work in Shenzhen. In late 2015 when Guangdong-based labor NGOs were rolled up in a crackdown, he signed an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, and the State Council, demanding that the authorities rationally and legally respond to the efforts of workers to collectively defend their rights, as well as labor rights NGOs.
Lu Bi (phone number 13316556166) is an activist in Shenzhen. He was taken away from his residence on April 11.
Liu Chunlin (phone number 13725526191) is an architect.
One of the detained is a civil servant in Shenzhen. The identity of the others has not yet been verified.
A member of the chatgroup, Zhou Xiaolin (周筱霖), the owner of the Guyang Teahouse (古养茶馆) in Shenzhen, was summoned by police for questioning on April 13.
The Ganzhou public security bureau refused to answer a reporter’s questions about the case.
The ‘food delivery’ charity work that these individuals were engaged in is one of the many forms of activism that human rights defenders in China have developed to help the families of individuals who have been arrested and punished for political reasons. Yet, as the authorities suppression of rights defenders intensifies, even this modest act has come under the purview of the official crackdown. In 2013 the authorities forcibly disbanded a ‘Food Delivery Party’ (送饭党) led by Guo Yushan (郭玉闪) in Beijing. Guo was later himself arrested, tortured, and had his Transition Institute (传知行研究所) dismembered and banned.
The crackdown against the ‘National Tourism Chat Group’, as well as the attack on the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ is ongoing, and it’s likely that more members of these loose online networks will be summoned, interrogated, and in some cases formally arrested and charged with crimes.
Crushing a Rose Under Foot: Chinese Authorities Target Internet Chat Groups, China Change, April 4, 2018.
Buffett-Style Dinner Bids Woo Chinese for Just Society, Bloomberg News, August 20, 2013.
A Six-day Strike in Shanghai Caused by a $110 Pay Cut – Collective Action by Sanitation Workers in China’s ‘New Era’ of Stability Maintenance
Wang Jiangsong, April 13, 2018
In late March in the Changning district of Shanghai, 3,000 sanitation workers went on strike. Before long, the air was filled with a foul odour as garbage quickly began piling up in the streets. Trash collection is a public service, and the consequence of a strike is not limited to the walls of a factory compound like most industrial actions. In this case, hundreds of thousands of residents, including students, public servants, intellectuals, white collar workers, and entrepreneurs all had their lives disrupted. When they understood the reason for the strike, however, they were sympathetic and supportive of the workers, and took it upon themselves to post pictures and comments on social media (here, here, here). Police were quickly dispatched to the scene; photo and video show clashes between police and workers. After six days, the strike ended. This sudden rights defense incident, taking place in the far more repressive atmosphere that has come to characterize the advent of China’s ‘New Era,’ surprised many observers.
The Origins of the Strike
Shanghai’s sanitation workers are paid the city’s minimum wage of 2,300 yuan (about $366) per month; if they want to earn more, workers have to do overtime. In the past the work schedule was seven days a week, though at the end of last year this was changed to six days. This means that if they want to earn, say, 4,000 yuan a month, they’d need to do a few hours overtime every day, and then pick up another shift on the weekend. After paying into the social security fund, based on an income of 4,000 yuan, they would be left with take home pay of around 3,000 yuan.
Starting April 1, the Shanghai municipal government raised the minimum pay from 2,300 yuan per month of last year to 2,420 yuan, an increase of 120 yuan. On this basis, the overtime of sanitation workers would be 500-600 yuan, making the increase in pay in total around 700.
In March, however, the three companies that control waste management in Changning District decided to scrap the meal subsidies, as well as the early morning and graveyard shift allowances, which came to about 700 yuan per worker. This was, obviously, a significant portion of monthly income for the workers, so they went to the companies and demanded an explanation.
The companies responded that scrapping the morning and late night allowances and meal subsidies didn’t bring the workers’ official income down, and thus the companies didn’t harm the workers. The workers refused to accept this senseless explanation: the waste management companies are paid by government appropriations; if the state has raised the minimum wage of workers, it means the state wants to increase the workers’ income. The companies’ maneuvering meant that they themselves swallowed up the increase in income meant for workers, with the result that there was no change in the workers take home earnings. It was this abuse and insult that led the workers to strike in protest.
For years, whenever a strike took place anywhere in China, the local government immediately went into a high state of vigilance, treated the strike as a ‘mass incident,’ and initiated ‘stability maintenance’ measures. Police are brought in to take control and shut down the demonstration, and there are clashes between police and residents. In this case, the workers’ appeal was met with no reasonable explanation, and the conflict between labor and capital turned into a conflict between labor and the government. This chain of events is seen regularly on the streets of China.
A Macro View of Strikes
Some have asked: China these days is in an era of hyper stability maintenance, and whenever the government identifies buds of unrest they quickly crush them — yet this was a strike involving sanitation workers, in Shanghai of all places, and it went on for six days, so how did this happen?
In fact, there is nothing miraculous about this. Strikes of this scale have been taking place for years, and we could probably enumerate at least a few hundred since 2010.
Examined from a macro perspective, with the depth and penetration of industrialization and the market economy in China today, the conflict between labor and capital has become a structural contradiction, and the most important economic contradiction in the country. China is still not a market economy: it lacks regulations, rule of law, fairness, as well as protections for human rights or the rights and benefits of workers. For these reasons, conflicts between labor and capital are not only widely seen, but they’re also intense and fierce. Sanitation workers have gone on strike before, in the Panyu district of Guangzhou, as well as in the Yuelu district of Changsha, Hunan, among other places. Strikes by workers in other industries — including traffic management and other public industries, as well as manufacturing, construction, and services — have become the most common collective expression of conflict between labor and capital. This sort of conflict has seen spiraling growth in recent years.
Workers are not permitted to have their own, independent union in China. Where there are unions, they’re inevitably a department of the government and exist in name only, not actually playing the role of representing the interests of workers, bargaining on their behalf for better conditions and pay and protecting their rights with the law. This is why when conflict actually breaks out, workers surge forth, immediately going on strike to establish their bargaining position. This method of negotiation, widely adopted by worker groups in recent years, has come to be called “strike first, talk later” (先罢后谈) — a way of forcing the owners of capital to the negotiating table. The standard pattern in countries with market economies, of course, is “talk first, strike later,” because only if negotiations break down do workers feel the need to resort to their ultimate threat and gambit.
The most immediate explanation for why this explosive strike of sanitation workers took place in Shanghai is because there was no collective bargaining or mediating mechanism between capital and labor, in which they could effectively discuss and resolve the outstanding issues.
By the sixth day of the strike, when Changning district workers went back to their jobs, it was, in the first place, because police began arresting people, and the workers didn’t have a close-knit organization and leadership, so were not prepared to resist those kind of body blows; and secondly because the company backed off slightly, changing their policy to only deduct 260 yuan from the shift allowances, rather than the original plan to deduct 560 yuan.
Over the years the pattern around China has been that after workers unite and strike, and receive the support of public opinion, local government and firms make some temporary concessions. But then they begin to carry out harsh retribution against the most active rights defenders among the workers; they claim that they were taking orders from hostile foreign forces, and in some cases even frame up charges and get them sent to prison. This, however, doesn’t frighten workers, who are fighting for their own survival and that of their families. This is different from, for instance, the struggle for freedom of speech. Stripping workers of their income and benefits is a direct threat to their lives — but no one dies because they can’t speak the truth.
Late 2015 there was a crackdown against labor rights NGOs in Guangzhou, and of a sudden everyone seemed to be in a panic and besieged. Some made the calculation that the crackdown on these labor rights groups would bring an end to collective protest by workers. This reckoning was mistaken.
Both before and after the collective action by Shanghai sanitation workers, there were a number of large-scale actions by thousands of workers in Guangdong, and they achieved even better results than in Shanghai. The strike by sanitation workers in Changning was ad hoc, an emergency response — there was little solidarity or organization between workers. Though many people took part, it was essentially a mob event. The strike at the Panyu Shimen Hand Bag Co. (广州市番禺世门手袋有限公司) in early March was different. Around 1,000 people in the factory area went on strike, essentially taking it over. The workers were highly organized and prepared to strike a knock-out blow to management, and in the end were able to satisfy their demands for the social security payments and housing subsidies held in arrears to be paid off. Once the employer paid social security funds for the workers, the latter, especially the older among them would have a retirement payout, and it’s a much better position than if they’d been kicked out on their backsides back to the countryside, as would have happened otherwise.
Another noteworthy case involves Shenzhen SEG Co Ltd. The company wanted to move, and it would have to compensate workers. The law stipulates that if the company wants to sever the relationship with workers for its own reasons, not having to do with the employees themselves, then it must provide financial compensation to workers so affected. Usually, firms won’t inform workers that they’re going to move factories; instead, they quietly transfer their purchase orders and gradually move their machinery and equipment to the new factory district hundreds of miles away. The orders of the old factory decrease, workers only get minimal pay, and when workers’ lives are so stretched that they can barely make ends meet, they’re forced to look for jobs elsewhere. As this process takes place, after 18 months or so, what was a factory of thousands of workers has turned into just a few hundred. By the time management announces that they’re relocating production, there are only a few hundred parties they owe compensation to.
In the case of Shenzhen SEG, however, workers saw what was going on very early in the piece, and seized the initiative to strike first. They nominated, via direct election, 4 low- and mid-level management representatives and 7 worker representatives to form a ‘factory asset protection squad’ (守护资产的护厂队), and also formed another squad to act as bodyguards for the asset protection squad. Worker representatives submitted 10 demands to management, sought negotiations, and livestreamed the bargaining process. The compensation standard they submitted was “3N+5,” meaning that each year of seniority equalled three months of salary, with five months salary in addition. According to the Labor Contract Law (《劳动合同法》), legally rescinding a labor agreement requires compensation of one month of salary for each year of seniority, while illegally cancelling a labor agreement requires compensation of one month of salary for each year of seniority, and then an additional month’s salary as ‘notification payment.’ But these are the lowest stipulated compensation standards; the law doesn’t establish an upper limit. The demands made by Shenzhen SEG workers far exceeded the minimums requirement by law.
Changning district sanitation workers and Shenzhen SEG workers both went on strike on March 26; both strikes also concluded on March 31. In the end, however, the sanitation workers still ended up with a deduction of 260 yuan in their wages, while Shenzhen SEG workers managed to get a 1.5N + 1 payment for the factory’s relocation, as well as 10,000 yuan as an award for agreeing to that contract. This significant difference in outcome is a direct result of the different degrees of organization between the two groups of workers.
Resolving Labor Conflicts by Granting Workers Three Rights
Whether in state-owned enterprises or private companies, problems arise between labor and management — the only difference is that in the case of the former, it’s a conflict between state capital and labor, and in the latter it’s between private capital and labor. The history of Western countries over hundreds of years has shown that preserving three rights of workers is an effective means of resolving such disputes — but regrettably, China has yet to establish this sort of mechanism.
To the contrary, in China, the moment the government sees that workers are taking action, it calls it a ‘political incident’, or claims that it’s due to the incitement of hostile foreign forces. In the Changning, Shimen, and Shenzhen SEG incidents, there was no so-called foreign interference whatsoever. Why? with the Foreign NGO Management Law and the crackdown on labor NGOs in recent years, ‘foreign forces’ can’t get involved anymore. Yet, just because there is no help from labor rights groups, it doesn’t mean that workers themselves are unable to organize. Workers can learn, and from 2010 to 2015 with the wave of the labor rights movement, with the spread of internet access and spread of information, workers quickly grasped three basic points:
- Firstly, that they need to elect worker representatives. In southern China, this is known as a ‘worker representative system.’ This has legal grounds: according to the civil law, a group of individuals can elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf with management, government, the courts, and arbitration bodies — and this is known in the law as an entrusted agent relationship; further, it is grounded in the Labor Law, where in workplaces without unions, workers can elect representatives to engage in collective bargaining. Of course, there is ambiguity in the Labor Law in cases where there is a union but it does nothing; in such cases, can workers elect their own representatives? The law hasn’t made a clear determination on the matter.
- Secondly, they need to dispatch those representatives to negotiate on their behalf with the owners of capital, as a form of collective bargaining.
- Thirdly, that after the workers have elected representatives and invited management to negotiate, yet management has refused to respond, they need to exercise their right to strike, to force the owners of capital to the bargaining table.
These are the three rights of labor in the international context. Many workers in the south of China are now clear on these concepts, and are able to put them into practice. Given this, if the government continues to use an abnormal, crude form of ‘stability maintenance’ thinking, claiming that these workers are being used by hostile foreign forces, or even leveling the claim that independent labor organizations are competing with the Communist Party and its official unions for the ‘laboring classes,’ setting up a ‘second union,’ then they will be pushing workers into the opposition. For the government, this is politically unwise.
Why won’t the authorities allow these representatives, elected by workers themselves, to take part in the government-controlled unions? Hasn’t Xi Jinping criticized these unions and other similar organizations for bureaucratization, organizational involution, aristocratization, and general frivolity and misbehavior? How can these four negative tendencies be arrested? The only path forward is a constructive one: they should integrate the existing worker’s representatives and make them union cadres.
The state should have two primary functions: Firstly, to establish itself as a neutral party between labor and capital, and be an objective and fair umpire. The government should side neither with capital nor labor. Both forces are the fundamental constituents of productivity, and both are necessary. The state should mediate between them, not tilt the scales. As one worker once said, “we don’t need the government to come stand on our side — we simply need the government to remain neutral.” Secondly, the state should establish laws that govern the interactions between labor and capital, including administrative and judicial services that maintain the peace between the two sides. This would include a mechanism for reasoned negotiation and bargaining, in order to facilitate the two parties to resolve their problems.
Now, the situation in China is that the government comes out and forcibly shuts things down when labor and capital act unreasonably and clash to the point of harming the interests of the entire society.
Dr. Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is scholar of labor issues in China.
Li Wenzu, April 12, 2018
Li Wenzu (李文足) is the wife of 709 lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋). On April 4, the 1000th day of her husband’s disappearance on July 10, 2015, she and a group of 709 lawyers’ wives began a march from Beijing to Tianjin, about 130 kilometers, where Wang Quanzhang is supposedly being detained. Along the way, other activists joined them on and off. On the sixth day of their march, their march were broken up by scores of plainclothes police officers, and Li Wenzu was taken back home to Beijing by force. Human Rights in China translated Li Wenzu’s account of her first day back. We offer you a translation of her account of the second day. However, as we prepare this piece, this morning Beijing time, outside Li Wenzu’s apartment building in Shijingshan District, the dozens of plainclothes officers and their helpers are nowhere to be seen. Li Wenzu has taken her son out for a train ride…. — The Editors
This is the 1006th day of [my husband] Wang Quanzhang’s disappearance, and the second day of my home detention. Even Auntie (the nanny) and my toddler son are blocked from leaving home. The plainclothes police at the door told us that if we go out the door, they will kill us. It was only after I called 110 [China’s 911] that Auntie and my son were let out of the house. As they walked out, a group of old women from the neighborhood committee yelled at them, “traitors!” and Auntie and my son both burst into tears.
This is the 1006th day of Wang Quanzhang’s disappearance, and the second day of my home detention.
In the morning, Wang Qiaoling (王峭岭), Fan Lili (樊丽丽), Big Brother Zhang Shangen (张善根), Big Sister Guo Shumei (郭树梅), Big Sister Wang Xiuzhen (王秀珍), and sister Zhu Ling (朱玲) came to visit me. But they were stopped by 40 or 50 people who were in the courtyard; the group included the neighborhood committee director and personnel, as well as plainclothes police officers. Not only were they swearing at [my friends], but they also grabbed their phones, and even broke Wang Qiaoling’s glasses from the side.
I opened the door and wanted to go downstairs to greet them, but the door wouldn’t push open; several people were pushing it shut from the other side. My friends couldn’t come up, and I couldn’t get out. All I could do was climb up the window to talk with my friends who had come to see me. From the 5th floor window, I also spoke angrily about “709” and Wang Quanzhang, which led to onlookers gathering downstairs to watch the commotion.
Another thing happened that I didn’t expect: a little after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Auntie wanted to take the boy out for a stroll, and a man standing in the doorway turned to us and shouted: “If you dare to come out, we’ll kill you, do you not believe it?” I said, “I believe it, I very much believe it, because you’re all hooligans and scoundrels, I know that you’re capable of anything.”
With my 110 call in which I made a strong demand, my son and Auntie were able to go out. However, a group of women from the neighborhood committee who were at the entrance to the building hurled all kinds of abuse at Auntie and the child, saying that Auntie was a turncoat and traitor. “Go back!” They shouted at them. Auntie took the child back home; both of them were crying. These people not only blocked us, but also claimed constantly that they would kill us. Now that my son and I are in their hands, killing us is easy. If my son and I are disappeared, if we are killed, please, my many friends, help write this tragedy in history. Thank you my friends for visiting me today! Thank you, netizens, for your constant attention and concern!
Wang Quanzhang: The 709 Lawyer Not Heard From Since July 2015, Yaxue Cao, January 15, 2018.
With Its Latest Human Rights Council Resolution, China Continues Its Assault on the UN Human Rights Framework
Andrea Worden, April 9, 2018
During the past year, China, supported by authoritarian allies like Russia, Turkey and Egypt, has taken an increasingly aggressive anti-human rights posture at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) and elsewhere in the UN system where human rights are a core focal point. Its aim appears to be nothing less than “disappearing” the existing human rights framework –– one of the UN’s three pillars established by the UN Charter — from the mission and work of the UN, and replacing it with a Chinese version that focuses almost exclusively on “the right to development,” “dialogue” and “mutually beneficial cooperation.” China hasn’t won yet, but it’s seizing the moment of the Trump presidency, Brexit, the rise of authoritarianism globally, and Xi Jinping’s elevation as “president for life,” to push its agenda at the Human Rights Council with an unprecedented pace and boldness.
China’s first-ever HRC resolution, titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” was adopted by the Council in June 2017. I discuss this resolution in China Pushes ‘Human Rights with Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN. On March 23, 2018, the HRC adopted China’s second resolution, titled “Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” (hereinafter “MBC resolution”). The MBC resolution is almost mind numbing in its repetitive use of bromides and lack of any apparent substantive content. But, as with China’s June 2017 resolution, more is going on than meets the casual observer’s eye.
Despite the challenges facing the U.S. State Department and its human rights apparatus under the current administration, to its credit the U.S. called for a vote at the Human Rights Council (where most resolutions are adopted by consensus, without a vote) on both of China’s resolutions. The MBC resolution was adopted by a vote of 28 in favor, with 17 abstentions and 1 “no”–– the United States. The strongly worded Explanation of Vote issued by the U.S. sheds light on China’s motivation behind the MBC resolution, which echoes China’s aim in advancing its June 2017 resolution: the gradual disembowelment of the existing UN human rights framework.
In its explanation, the U.S stated:
“It is clear that China is attempting through this resolution to weaken the UN human rights system and the norms underpinning it. The ‘feel good’ language about ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’ is intended to benefit autocratic states at the expense of people whose human rights and fundamental freedoms we are all obligated, as States, to respect. For these reasons, the United States is calling a vote and will vote against this resolution. We encourage other countries not to support this resolution.”
Noting that China’s resolution insists that governments be respected, the U.S. countered: “A call for governments that abuse their own citizens’ rights to be respected has no place in a forum dedicated to respecting and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the individual.” It describes the resolution as an effort by China “to insulate itself from criticism of its human rights record by demanding ‘respect.’” The U.S. further stated: “The only way for any government to achieve respect is for that government to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Several of the abstaining countries criticized the resolution; Switzerland stated that the resolution contained “vague and ambiguous language that weakens fundamental human rights principles.”
There is only one paragraph in the two-page resolution that focuses on the human person as the subject of, and beneficiary in the realization of human rights. Otherwise, “mutually beneficial” appears to mean for the benefit of states only — that through “dialogue” and “cooperation” they will be spared any criticism on their human rights record. The introductory (preambular) paragraph, which reaffirms that “the human person is the central subject of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and consequently should be the principal beneficiary and should participate actively in the realization of these rights and freedoms,” was apparently added only after negotiations; this text is absent from an earlier draft of China’s resolution.
The MBC resolution effectively takes the individual out of the picture. China frames the realization of human rights as purely a matter for states, focusing solely, as Human Rights Watch put it, on “intergovernmental cooperation and dialogue rather than actual human rights violations or accountability for those [violations].” There is not even one mention of the word “individual” in the resolution, nor do the terms “human rights defender” or “civil society” appear. But “cooperation,” appears 19 times, and the words “mutually” or “mutual,” are mentioned 13 times, “dialogue” makes 6 appearances, and “constructive” is used 5 times.
The sole nod to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the resolution – that NGOs should also “contribute actively” to “promote mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights” — rings hollow in light of the Chinese government’s relentless crackdown on NGOs and human rights defenders at home and at the UN.
Like China’s June 2017 resolution on “the contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights,” the MBC resolution also contains one of the key mottos of Xi Jinping’s “New Era.” The MBC resolution states: “Recognizing the importance of fostering international relations based on mutual respect, fairness, justice and mutually beneficial cooperation, with the aim of building a community of shared future for human beings, in which human rights are enjoyed by all.” [Emphasis added.] It was this hollow phrase, with uncertain meaning, that an earlier Chinese government statement extolled as demonstrating “China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”
On March 11, 2018, shortly before the MBC resolution was adopted in Geneva, China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing adopted proposed amendments to the PRC Constitution, one of which enshrined the slogan “building a community of shared future for human beings” in the preamble. In the statement explaining its “no” vote, the U.S. addressed the inappropriateness of the slogan’s appearance in a UN resolution:
“Furthermore, Chinese spokespersons in Beijing . . . have been clear about their intent to glorify their head of State by inserting his thoughts into the international human rights lexicon. None of us should support incorporating language targeting a domestic political audience into multilateral settings. This is especially true as the term has no clear meaning internationally and is vulnerable to subsequent interpretation and reinvention by the one country that uses the phrase.
At a daily news briefing on March 26, 2018, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying disingenuously overstated the significance of the resolution’s adoption, but made clear the Chinese government’s intent. She said, “The international community has reached an important consensus that only through dialogue and cooperation can the human rights cause of all countries be better promoted and protected.” [Emphasis added.] The MBC resolution does not say “only”; nevertheless, the resolution might be viewed as bringing China one step closer to its goal of “only dialogue and cooperation” in the field of human rights.
Hua Chunying further stated: “I think the comments by this U.S. official in Geneva . . . were extremely unreasonable, and also reflects the consistent ignorance and haughtiness of the U.S. side.”
China will have its third Universal Periodic Review in November. An earlier draft of the MBC resolution reveals China’s vision of how it thinks that review should unfold: without criticism and without any consideration of the Chinese government’s actual human rights record. An earlier draft of its resolution provided that the HRC “recognizes the crucial role of the Universal Periodic Review in contributing to the advancement of mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights…”
This paragraph in the resolution as adopted, following negotiations, reads: “Emphasizes the importance of the universal periodic review as a mechanism based on cooperation and constructive dialogue with the objective of, inter alia, improving the situation of human rights on the ground and promoting the fulfillment of the human rights obligations and commitments undertaken by States…” [Emphasis added.]
It’s incumbent on the U.S. and those states that abstained on the MBC resolution vote to make China’s Universal Periodic Review count — for the sake of the countless victims of human rights abuses in China, and for the human rights defenders in China who are working at great personal risk to protect and promote human rights on the ground. Wang Quanzhang, Liu Xia, Tashi Wangchuk, Ilham Tohti, Huang Qi, among many others, should be named, and Liu Xiaobo, Li Baiguang, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, and Cao Shunli remembered. We must do what we can to prevent China from turning its upcoming Universal Periodic Review into a victory celebration for “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
Follow her on Twitter @tingdc
Also by Andrea Worden:
China Pushes ‘Human Rights With Chinese Characteristics’ at the UN, Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017.
As the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders Turns 20, China Wages a Multi-Pronged Attack on Rights Defenders, Andrea Worden, March 14, 2018.
The Cost of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, September, 2017.
China Change, April 4, 2018
Between February and March this year, rights activists from provinces around China were summoned, questioned, and threatened by secret police who demanded that they withdraw from the ‘Rose chatgroups,’ also known as the ‘Rose team.’ These chatgroups have attracted relatively large numbers of internet users on different portals such as QQ, Skype, WeChat, Telegram, and WhatsApp. The intervention by Chinese police took place following the criminal detention of Xu Qin (徐秦), a leading activist and a spokesperson among these online groups, on February 9. She was accused of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’ Prior to this, the initiator of the Rose chatgroups and Wuhan dissident Qin Yongmin (秦永敏) was detained on January 9, 2015.
Between March 2013 and December 2014, Qin published a series of 12 open letters demanding that the government open a dialogue with the citizenry, that it safeguard human rights, and that it initiate a peaceful transition towards democracy in China. By the end of 2014, nearly 2,000 people had signed this appeal, the vast majority of them petitioners who had for years been suppressed and denied access to justice. Naming his movement after the rose, Qin set up chat groups on QQ, Skype, and WeChat, eventually resulting in a series of Rose groups online. Each group elected its own chat administrator through competitive elections and voting; altogether the initiative became a virtual gathering ground for like-minded petitioner-activists.
On June 4, 2014, Qin and his group set up the ‘Rose China’ website. It had 13 sections, including ‘Rights Observer,’ ‘Focus News,’ ‘Major Issues of Public Welfare,’ ‘Learning Center’ and more. The site also began holding online lecture series and meetings. Qin Yongmin tried to set up an organization called ‘China Human Rights Observer,’ though the authorities refused to register it as an official civil group.
Rose China’s website, hosted on servers outside the country, went offline for a short period recently, but is back up and running now.
In June 2016, the Wuhan Municipal Procuratorate indicted Qin Yongmin with “organization, scheming, and carrying out [a plot to] subvert the state regime.” It wasn’t until August 2017 that Qin saw his lawyer for the first time. His trial has been postponed again and again, and is now set for May this year. The indictment cited his organizing the Rose Group, among other things, as evidence of crime.
Qin, 64, is one of China’s most veteran political prisoners. The earliest years of his activism go back to the 1970s. In 1981 he was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for participating in the ‘China Democracy Party,’ and was freed in 1989. He spent 1993 to 1995 in a forced labor camp after initiating the ‘Peace Charter’ (《和平宪章》). In 1998 Qin established the website China Rights Observer in Wuhan, as well as the Hubei branch of the China Democracy Party, for which he was charged with subversion of state power and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He completed the sentence in November 2010.
Xu Qin, 55, got into activism by the need to defend her own rights — but she soon began defending the rights of others, and became an active participant in the Rose chatgroups. After Qin Yongmin was arrested in 2015, Xu took up the mantle of leadership of the Rose groups, and began to speak publicly about China’s human rights situation, in particular to foreign journalists, making her one of the few active voices in the now largely dormant China human rights scene. On February 9, 2018, before the Chinese New Year, Xu Qin disappeared while visiting her hometown of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province. It was soon confirmed that she had been arrested. In March she was placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ and the initial charge of ‘provoking quarrels and stirring up trouble’ was upgraded to ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ She has not been allowed access to a lawyer.
Since February, a number of activists have been summoned and questioned by state security officers, including Ding Yu’e (丁玉娥) in Shandong, Guo Chunping (郭春平) in Henan, Wang Jiao (汪蛟) in Anhui, Huang Genbao (黄根宝) in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, and Fan Yiping (范一平) in Guangzhou. State security agents demanded that they leave the Rose chatgroups and threatened “If you don’t listen, you’ll bear the consequences yourself.” Guo Chunping was beaten by police while in custody.
Even human rights lawyers have been questioned about their possible connections with the Rose chatgroups. On March 30, Friday, the recently disbarred lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) was visited by two police who wanted to ask questions “about WeChat Rose chatgroups.” Lawyer Sui wondered why the Rose groups have become the target of such widespread action and concluded that the interrogations and arrests had to have been ordered and coordinated by a central organ in Beijing. He declined police’s request for questioning.
Separately, the whereabouts of at least two activists (Yang Tingjian [杨霆剑] in Jiangxi and Xu Kun [徐昆] in Yunnan) are currently unknown. But their disappearance is believed to be connected to crackdown on Rose chatgroups.
The Rose activists that were interrogated by police were told that these chatgroups have been designated an ‘illegal organization.’ Police said that 51 people have been arrested so far in connection with the groups, though there is currently no way of independently corroborating the figure.
Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch (民生观察网), a Chinese human rights website, on March 29 published a statement that said: “From the limited information revealed by the media, it is clear that the Chinese communist authorities have launched a national, large-scale suppression of the Rose chatgroups, in order to, 1) crush the chatgroups by conducting mass summonses, threats, and arrests of participants, and 2) gather ammunition for bringing false charges against Rose chatgroup leaders Qin Yongmin, Xu Qin, and
China Change understands from activists in China that many people have already quit the Rose chat groups, and that some chat rooms were long ago suspended, shut down, or had no administrators. Some activists say, however, that a few groups are still active. The chief editor of the Rose China website quit the Whatsapp Rose chat group for activists in Hubei.
The targeting and attempted obliteration of the Rose chatgroups indicates that the government in Beijing is methodically dismantling activist groups, including even loose or casual connections between activists. In the past five years, it has first taken out the leading activists across the country and imprisoned them, including with the now infamous 709 incident against human rights lawyers. Having done that, it is now engaged in a second and third round, to purge any continuing human rights activities.
Members of Petitioners Group ‘Rose China’ Detained, Yaqiu Wang, January 18, 2016.