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Matthew Robertson, June 18, 2018
On a blank sheet of paper free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written; the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted.
— Mao Zedong
Extend special invitations to the Autonomous Region Women’s League Propaganda Troupe to visit… important villagers and education-transformation bases to hold ‘thanking the Party, listening to the Party, obeying the Party’ agitation campaigns… Draw the sword and be at the vanguard of stability maintenance…
— Party Committee of the Bayin’guoleng Women’s League
The party has a powerful ability to synthesize experience and come up with methods to deal with challenges. All the brutality, resources and persuasiveness of the Communist system is being used — and is having an effect.
— Party advisor on the anti-Falun Gong campaign
Since around 2014 in China’s northwestern border Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), the Chinese Communist Party has been engaged in an extraordinary campaign of thought reform, recalling the early years of the People’s Republic of China and subsequent political-ideological campaigns. Hundreds of thousands, and potentially up to a million, Uighur Muslims have been forcibly detained and put through grueling brainwashing sessions aimed at crushing their faith and forcing them to pledge allegiance to the CCP (via its constructions of nationhood and personal identity).
It is notoriously difficult to accurately assess the full scale of such political campaigns, given the secrecy and official obfuscation that surrounds them. Qualitatively, however, it is helpful to compare the current campaign of thought transformation in Xinjiang with the most recent similar campaign in PRC history: the systematic campaign of brainwashing waged against practitioners of Falun Gong. For a variety of complex reasons beyond the scope of this article, the anti-Falun Gong campaign has largely been forgotten in comparisons and analyses with what is now taking place in Xinjiang — though as Harvard scholar Elizabeth Perry wrote about it in 2001: “the launching of a full-scale campaign against a single organization of this sort is indeed unprecedented. Not since the Suppression of Counter-Revolutionaries Campaign in the early 1950s have we seen such sustained national attention directed to the threat of sectarian resistance, and never before have we witnessed an attack of this kind on but a single target.”
Falun Gong, a Buddha-school spiritual and meditation practice that had attracted tens of millions of practitioners through the 1990s, was marked for elimination in 1999 by Jiang Zemin. The decision to destroy the group was reached after years of internal debate between hardliners in the security apparatus and other, more sympathetic officials. Aside from an intense propaganda campaign aimed at vilifying the practice, the Party’s primary method for waging war against Falun Gong was ‘transformation through education’ (教育转化) — a kind of high-pressure thought reform (its own term of art, 思想改造) that involved liberal use of violence and torture against millions in custody. The campaign continues against an estimated 7-20 million practitioners, though at a lower intensity than the early years, to this day.
Judging by a number of the features described below, this campaign may have very well been the training model for what is now taking place in Xinjiang, where the Party has designated the practice of Islam by Uighurs as an extremist threat to regime that must be extinguished by the forcible reform of the thinking of each individual Uighur.
The following comparison is by no means exhaustive, though it does reveal many similarities in the Party’s methods, propaganda, and justifications for both of these campaigns. Such comparison is useful and important for illustrating continuities over decades in the Party’s extraordinarily invasive and brutal mechanisms of social and psychological control, extending to the private beliefs of tens of millions of subjects.
For the Greater Good
The basic justification for detaining innocent people against their will in both campaigns is that it’s in the service of the Party, the nation, and ‘the people.’
In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, this rhetoric went through several phases. In the first place, the Party waged an explicitly ideological attack on Falun Gong. The front page of The People’s Daily was filled with diatribes on the ‘idealism and theism’ of Falun Gong, with the claim that Falun Gong’s teachings of Buddhas and gods, its principles of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance (真善忍), and the role of personal cultivation in transcending the mortal realm, were false, dangerous, and misleading.
Later, in October 1999, Falun Gong was for the first time called a ‘heterodox teaching’ (邪教 ‘xie jiao’). The term has been used since the Ming Dynasty to designate schools of thought that were not sanctioned by the state and thus considered a threat to state legitimacy. In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, the term was rendered in English as ‘evil cult’ — a misleading translation, perhaps, but one that had a profound impact on Western perceptions of, and sympathy for, Falun Gong.The Party’s rhetoric on Falun Gong is often extreme in its vilification: one of the widely promulgated picturebooks meant to incite hatred of the practice depicts Falun Gong and its founder as suicidal lunatics (dowsing themselves in gasoline, hanging themselves, running around with meat cleavers), or as the grim reaper (in one case leading a young child to her doom), or as goblins, reptiles, and even a caterpillar being severed at the base of the neck with the hoe of a mustachioed proletarian farmer.
The Party has similarly adopted a dual track approach to attacking Uighurs: the legitimacy of their beliefs are both ridiculed and denigrated, and the population is attacked as a dangerous threat to society in need of harsh reform.
Much of the brainwashing of Uighurs is done under the official rubric of so-called ‘de-extremification’ (去极端化). As an article in Chinese Cadres Tribune instructs, “restraining extremism is a new requirement in ethnic religious work for safeguarding long-term peace and social stability in Xinjiang,” citing a Party Central Committee’s Xinjiang Work Conference.
The definition of this activity is stated in a matter-of-fact manner by Baidu Baike, the Wikipedia of China: “De-extremification is a preaching activity carried out in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region to attack religious extremist crimes and contain the spread of religious extremism.” Part of it includes creating propaganda — stage plays, banners, posters, songs — in the form of “rich and interesting cultural activities that the masses of every ethnicity delight in, in order to satisfy the normal religious needs of the masses.” In other words, replacing the practice of Islam by Uighur Muslims with a set of Party-concocted and controlled activities considered ‘normal.’
In practice, the so-called ‘de-extremification’ as it is carried out involves mass incarceration, total environment control, and brutalization aimed at erasing Uighur identity and belief.
Calling Regular Religious Beliefs ‘Extremist’
The extreme methods the regime has adopted to attack these groups would be impossible to justify unless, of course, the targets themselves were ‘extremists’ who posed a threat that had to be neutralized. Their normal religious and spiritual beliefs are thus pathologized as a danger to themselves and society. This discourse appears in both campaigns.
Falun Gong is said to destroy families, collect money, and cause social chaos. Li Hongzhi, the founder of the discipline, is said to exercise literal mind control over those who practice it. The aspirations of quietude and disattachment from the cycle of desire found in actual Falun Gong meditation and practice? This “persuades people to give up all ‘desires, ideals and pursuits’…and concentrate on Falun Gong exercise to ‘transcend the secular world,’” thus spreading a “negative and idealistic philosophy of life among the people,” People’s Daily said. A propaganda image in the “Criticise and Expose ‘Falun Gong’ Picture Book” book shows practitioners “meditating contentedly, oblivious as their lives crumble around them.”
In the case of Uighurs, the threat to society is claimed not to be through inactivity, but alleged terrorism. “The number of violent terrorists in custody under 30 years old is 54.9%,” says a November 2015 paper in the Journal of Xinjiang Police College. “Because they are naive and unsophisticated and their worldviews are still in a period of formation, they are easily subject to the allure and coercion of extremist so-called ‘jihad martyrdom to enter Heaven’ (圣战殉教进天堂), they listen and watch violent terrorist videos and madly carry out all manner of violent terrorist criminal acts.”
Chinese police journal articles on the attacks against Uighurs in Xinjiang invariably make reference to 911, the global war on terror, and the supposed common struggle China faces in dealing with its own domestic terrorist population.A similar tactic of rhetorical association was used to justify the anti-Falun Gong campaign, identifying Falun Gong as a cult along the lines of the Branch Davidians or Scientology, so as to forge dark, stigmatizing associations in the minds of potential sympathizers, and allow the torture and brainwashing to proceed unimpeded and unremarked upon.
The new labels concocted by the Party are used to replace the self-definition of the target groups. “Extremist Religion is Not Religion,” one Xinjiang Daily headline barks, just as People’s Daily announces that “Falun Gong Is An Evil Religion, Not a Belief.”
Thus, the world is told that Uighurs = terrorists and extremists, and Falun Gong = cultists, and that the Party is dealing with the problem in a firm but humane manner.
Hitting Them Where it Hurts
The religious character of both Falun Gong and Uighur Muslim beliefs has given the CCP a rich menu of choices for attacking, humiliating, and degrading their targets. Party security operatives have latched onto what their victims consider sacred images, ideas, or practices, and proceeded to defile them and, most importantly, force the target populations to defile them, as a way of weakening their will, engendering helplessness, and breaking their faith.
In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, police in train stations attempted to identify the Falun Gong practitioners traveling to the capital to protest by placing on the ground an image of the founder of the practice, Master Li, who is considered a holy figure, and forcing them to trample on it. Those who did so were allowed through, while those who refused were identified and incarcerated. Similar ‘tests’ are conducted on Falun Gong practitioners in detention, to ensure that they are truly ideologically transformed.
The attacks on the religious practices of Uighurs include: bans on beards that are too long and on veils, both of which are “deemed to promote extremism”; attempts to stop Uighurs fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan; forcing Uighur shopkeepers to sell alcohol and cigarettes; and even restrictions on Uighur funerary practices through ‘burial management centers.’
In a surgical provocation clearly intended to infuriate and humiliate, a guard in a newly build brainwashing center in Hotan, southern Xinjiang, told detainees that Uighur women historically eschewed underwear, braided their hair to attract partners, and were promiscuous.
“It made me so angry,” a detainee interviewed by Gerry Shih said. “These kinds of explanations of Uighur women humiliated me. I still remember this story every time I think about this, I feel like a knife cut a hole in my chest.”
Blaming Foreign Forces
No political-ideological campaign in China would be complete without the invocation of hostile foreign forces, meddling behind the scenes and misleading the masses. This propaganda narrative is being used in the case of Uighurs, as it was against Falun Gong.
In the case of Uighurs, the People’s Daily says that “we must be vigilant of foreign forces using religion to infiltrate and conspire to carry out the ‘four transformations’ and ‘splittism.’” Party media regularly reports that the incidents of domestic terrorism in Xinjiang — often, it seems, by desperate Uighurs seeking revenge against the regime for previous injustices — are said to have been plots hatched by foreign terrorist groups.
Of Falun Gong, Xinhua writes: “According to those Western anti-China forces which have never given up their attempt to ‘Westernize’ and ‘break up’ China and those domestic and foreign hostile forces which do not want to see a prosperous and powerful China, the Falun Gong cult organization is a political force which may be able to create disorder in China and to subvert China’s state power.”
In both cases, a certain awkward tension can be detected between the two sets of claims against each target: they’re accused simultaneously of secular goals (splittism for Uighurs, vague political ambitions for Falun Gong), and also quite conflicting religious goals (Islamic martyrdom for Uighurs, ritual suicide to enter heaven for Falun Gong — a concept that is, of course, not part of the practice).
Apparently it is the sheer magnitude and ferocity of the propaganda that is relied upon to square those circles.
Brutality Concealed Under the Color of ‘the Law’
Though both the campaigns involve arbitrary incarceration, violence, torture, theft of personal property, and deep violations of individual psychological sovereignty through thought reform, mostly conducted through extralegal public security mechanisms, they have been justified in the language of the law. In the case of the anti-Falun Gong campaign, there was a more sophisticated attempt to actually codify the Party’s actions in legislation and judicial interpretations of this legislation (though any lawyers who sought to challenge the constitutional basis of this are violently ejected from courtrooms and in some cases subjected to the same methods they were objecting to).
The true nature of what goes on in the detention facilities constructed for dealing with these problem populations is never revealed in official sources. Official accounts of thought reform in Xinjiang, like those uncovered through the dedicated efforts Canadian law student Shawn Zhang, make broad reference to activities like ‘military training,’ ‘education in gratitude toward the Party,’ ‘singing red songs,’ and even the pedestrian categories like ‘professional ethics’ and ‘safe manufacturing.’
These prosaic expressions conceal the more tawdry and brutal reality of the experience. Gerry Shih documented this in an interview with Bekali, a 42-year-old Kazakh citizen who was swept up in the campaign while in Xinjiang for business. Bekali was strapped to a “tiger chair,” a common torture device used in Communist Party imprisonment facilities; he was also hung by his wrists against a wall, forcing him to stand on the balls of his feet. He was denied food, and had his religion and people insulted, and was locked in a room with 8 others. Another prisoner, Kayrat Samarkan, reports that prisoners were put in an iron body-suit as punishment for disobeying guard commands, while others were locked in a tiger chair for 24 hours.
A typical Falun Gong torture report reads similarly: “[James] Ouyang was arrested again in April after going to Tiananmen Square to show his support for Falun Gong,” The Washington Post wrote in 2001. “This time, he said, police methodically reduced him to an ‘obedient thing’ over 10 days of torture… [He] was stripped and interrogated for five hours. ‘If I responded incorrectly, that is if I didn’t say, ‘Yes,’ they shocked me with the electric truncheon’… the guards ordered him to stand facing a wall. If he moved, they shocked him. If he fell down from fatigue, they shocked him.”
Other medieval, hair-raising torture reported to be in wide use against Falun Gong to elicit repentance statements include: bamboo under fingernails, burning the legs with a hot iron, scolding with boiling water, electric batons repeatedly inserted into vaginas and mouths, and more.
Tales of this kind of extreme torture do not appear to have emerged from Xinjiang, though it may only be a matter of time. The need to hit transformation rate targets set by higher-ups likely contributed to the level of brutality used against Falun Gong, and given that similar quotas are being dictated in Uighur transformation work, security cadres may find that more violent methods are required to achieve their ends.
What’s clear in both cases, at least, is that the transformation campaigns have been carried out in a premeditated, systematic manner, with a vast build-out of re-education centers or extensions and renovations to existing centers. Adrian Zenz has been able to hint at the scale of the operation in Xinjiang by analyzing bid proposals for re-education center construction, and it is well documented that similar facilities were custom built or expanded for the express purpose of transforming Falun Gong — the build-out of a ‘prison city’ around the Masanjia Labor Camp by Bo Xilai, for instance, is a notorious example.
‘It’s For Your Own Good’
According to the Communist Party, the subjects of their coercive ideological ministrations are, simply put, idiots. This is another crucial justification for locking them up and brainwashing them.
In the anti-Falun Gong campaign, Falun Gong practitioners are claimed to be weak-willed, uneducated failures at life who were taken in by the slick messaging of a qigong guru. (The Party could of course not justify the detention and thought reform of individuals with levels of post-secondary education far above the general population in China, or who were themselves Party cadres, intellectuals, businesspeople, and so on.)
As long as the vast majority of Falun Gong practitioners were just simpletons who had been taken in, they simply required the nurture of the Party to break out of the mind control, return to embrace of the Party, and once again be productive members of society.
Uighurs are also talked down. Those in detention are said to “have not been through systematic education; their level of knowledge is low, their manner of thought naive and prejudiced, shortsighted, delusional and conceited; they are unable to distinguish right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, good and evil; they lack their own views and emotions, blindly following others and easily accepting of illegal religious activities and the reactionary propaganda of ethnic splittist ideology.”
Therefore, of course, “the vast majority are lured or forced into involvement in violent terrorist activities.” They’re thus invited, through participation in Maoist-inspired rituals like singing red songs, small group sessions, self-confession, and repentance, to join ‘the big socialist family’ (社会主义大家庭).
There are numerous other similarities between the two campaigns, both in technique and justification. This includes: the use of oral agitators; the ‘bangjiao’ (帮教) or ‘assistant’ system, where individuals already transformed are assigned to targets who they then accompany, persuade, and sometimes discipline, in order to transform them; the obsessive taxonimization of targets for allocating transformation resources against; the incessant sloganeering; the use of retired cadres as ideological bastions; the dichotomization of ‘science’ versus belief; the mobilization of ignorant members of the citizenry against the targets; and tragically, the widespread use of transformed individuals part of the target population, who have adopted the new Party-created identity, and now join the Party in assimilating more of their former brethren.
This battery of techniques were first used against their own new members in Yan’an, then later against intellectuals, rightists, and ‘counterrevolutionaries,’ Falun Gong practitioners, and others in the New China. Now, the Party brings over 70 years of practice and refinement of these techniques to a minority Turkic people in Xinjiang.
Just as in the Falun Gong case, the goal of all this activity seems simple enough: to erase the religious (and in the Uighur case, cultural and ethnic) identities of the target peoples and forcibly assimilate them into the Party’s vision of normalcy. In other words, to make every Chinese subject legible, homogeneous, and manageable.
 巴音郭楞蒙古自治州人民政府网站 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: https://web.archive.org/web/20180615215749/http://zwgk.xjbz.gov.cn/jj503/html/jj503-2100-2017-00005.htm; with thanks to Adrian Zenz for references to this and many other other official sources.
 Pomfret J, Pan PP. Torture is breaking Falun Gong; China systematically eradicating group. Washington Post. 2001; A1.
 Though the work of assiduous scholars like Adrian Zenz and others have performed a great service by building a partial picture. Cf. Zenz A. “Thoroughly Reforming them Toward a Healthy Heart Attitude” – China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang. Available: https://www.academia.edu/36638456/_Thoroughly_Reforming_them_Toward_a_Healthy_Heart_Attitude_-_Chinas_Political_Re-Education_Campaign_in_Xinjiang
 Perry EJ. Challenging the mandate of heaven: popular protest in modern China. Crit Asian Stud. Taylor & Francis; 2001;33: 163–180.
 See chapter three in Gutmann E. The slaughter: mass killings, organ harvesting, and China’s secret solution to its dissident problem. Prometheus Books Amherst; 2014.
 Cook S. The Battle for China’s Spirit: Religious Revival, Repression, and Resistance under Xi Jinping. Freedom House; 2017. p. 9.
 These ideas come out most clearly in the early months of the anti-Falun Gong propaganda given prominent placement in People’s Daily, with credit to Caylan Ford for this insight. Cf. Xinhua, ‘Analysis of Falun Gong leader’s malicious fallacies’, July 22 1999; Xinhua, ‘CPC Central Committee forbids Party members to practice Falun Gong,” July 23 1999; PLA, Armed Police support government ban on Falun Gong,” July 24 1999; Xinhua, ‘Falun Gong criticized by scientists and practitioners,’ July 25 1999; Xinhua, “People’s Daily on struggle between materialism and idealism,” July 27 1999;
 Lu Renjie et al., “Criticise and Expose ‘Falun Gong’ Picture Book” [揭批“法 轮 功”板“画” ] China Writers Publishing House (February 2003)
 中共伊宁县委、县政府. 实施“四大活动”推进“去极端化”工作. 中国党政干部论坛. April 2016; 98-100.
 去极端化. 去极端化_互动百科 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: http://www.baike.com/wiki/%E5%8E%BB%E6%9E%81%E7%AB%AF%E5%8C%96&prd=so_1_doc&prd=so_1_doc&prd=shouye_inlist
 Xinhua, “Xinhua Commentary on political nature of Falun Gong,” August 1 1999
 From Caylan Ford and Stephen Noakes, “Unsanctioned Religion in an Athiest State: Falun Dafa as Alternative Morality” (forthcoming chapter in edited volume)
 于力, 崔钧. 当前公安监管场所暴力恐怖在押人员管理教育对策研究. 新疆警察学院学报. 2015;35: 13–16.
 中新网. 新疆学者:极端宗教不是宗教 须戳穿宗教极端势力画皮 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2014/05-29/6226962.shtml
 人民网海南频道. 法轮功是邪教不是信仰 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: http://hi.people.com.cn/n2/2017/0313/c376252-29841240.html
 Evidence of How Jiang Zemin’s Criminal Regime Fools and Harms the Citizens in Latest News from China. In: Minghui.org [Internet]. 27 Jun 2001 [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: http://en.minghui.org/html/articles/2001/7/8/11995p.html
 Clearwisdom.net, Saturday, June 19, 2004 [Internet]. [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: http://en.minghui.org/emh/articles/2004/6/19/zip.html
 IANS. China’s beard, veil ban in Xinjiang comes into effect. In: The Hindu [Internet]. [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-s-beard-veil-ban-in-xinjiang-comes-into-effect/article17758744.ece
 Staff R. China Restricts Ramadan Fast For Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In: Radio Free Asia [Internet]. Radio Free Asia; 9 Jun 2016 [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/restricts-06092016162515.html
 Staff R. Chinese Authorities Order Muslim Uyghur Shop Owners to Stock Alcohol, Cigarettes. In: Radio Free Asia [Internet]. Radio Free Asia; 4 May 2015 [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/order-05042015133944.html
 Staff R. Xinjiang Authorities Use “Burial Management Centers” to Subvert Uyghur Funeral Traditions. In: Radio Free Asia [Internet]. Radio Free Asia; 19 Apr 2018 [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/burials-04192018141100.html
 Shih BG. China’s mass indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution. In: AP News [Internet]. Associated Press; 18 May 2018 [cited 25 May 2018]. Available: https://apnews.com/6e151296fb194f85ba69a8babd972e4b/China%27s-mass-indoctrination-camps-evoke-Cultural-Revolution
 人民网. 郑筱筠：如何认识和看待新疆宗教与极端主义 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: http://theory.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0603/c40531-28408542.html
 China’s Xinhua agency criticizes Falun Gong leader. BBC Monitoring Asia Pacific. 05 Jan 2001.
 Zhang S. Xinjiang’s re-education system is a hybrid of Gulag and Indian Residential School. In: Medium [Internet]. Medium; 12 Jun 2018 [cited 13 Jun 2018]. Available: https://medium.com/@shawnwzhang/latest-re-education-campaign-in-karshgar-xinjiang-167668ad5729
 Shih BG. China’s mass indoctrination camps evoke Cultural Revolution. In: AP News [Internet]. Associated Press; 18 May 2018 [cited 25 May 2018]. Available: https://apnews.com/6e151296fb194f85ba69a8babd972e4b/China%27s-mass-indoctrination-camps-evoke-Cultural-Revolution
 Pomfret J, Pan PP. Torture is breaking Falun Gong; China systematically eradicating group. Washington Post. 2001; A1.
 Gregory S. Rewarded for Torture: The Rise of Bo Xilai in China. In: The Epoch Times [Internet]. 13 Mar 2012 [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: https://www.theepochtimes.com/rewarded-for-torture-the-rise-of-bo-xilai-in-china_1487849.html
 This data comes from surveys of Falun Gong in the 1990s in Wuhan, Beijing, and elsewhere. Cf. 法轮功武汉学员修心健身效果部分调查 【明慧网】 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: http://www.minghui.org/mh/articles/1999/7/18/%E6%B3%95%E8%BD%AE%E5%8A%9F%E6%AD%A6%E6%B1%89%E5%AD%A6%E5%91%98%E4%BF%AE%E5%BF%83%E5%81%A5%E8%BA%AB%E6%95%88%E6%9E%9C%E9%83%A8%E5%88%86%E8%B0%83%E6%9F%A5-5643p.html; similar findings are present in the work of David Ownby in a general demographic analysis of practitioner composition in North America, cf. Ownby D. Falun Gong and the Future of China. Oxford University Press, USA; 2008. p. 138
 于力 et. al (2015), pp. 13-14.
 新疆穆斯林网 [Internet]. [cited 15 Jun 2018]. Available: http://www.xjmuslim.com/ztbd/2015-12/20/content_481620.htm
Matthew Robertson is a translator and contributing editor for China Change. He was recently a research fellow with the Human Rights Law Foundation in Washington, D.C. He begins a PhD in political science at the Australian National University in 2019.
Tan Jiangying, June 15, 2018
On June 8, messages circulated on social media that truck drivers across China were going on strike on the 10th. This came with a feeling of deja vu, as a similar call for strike had happened on April 25, when crane operators announced a strike for May 1. And, as happened with the crane operators earlier, the truckers’ strike never materialized. The day came, and the strike was called off.
One can guess that the strike leaders were controlled by the stability-maintenance authorities in their locality. But the effect again mirrored that of the canceled crane operators’ strike: upon hearing the call to action, truckers gathered and demonstrated on the days before the appointed time. They hailed from all over the country: Xiushui in Jiangxi province; Hefei, Fuyang; Wuhu in Anhui province; Lianyungang in Jiangsu province; Ningbo in Zhejiang province; Tongren in Guizhou province; Jiading in Shanghai; Wuhan in Hubei; Liaocheng in Shandong; Chengdu in Sichuan; Chongqing; in addition to other cities and provinces.
By announcing strikes on one day but carrying the action earlier, they made “a feint in the east and attacking in the west” [a well known Chinese idiom and military strategy], successfully staging their actions that would otherwise be suppressed.
The truck drivers staged motor protests on the 8th and 9th of June to demand lower gas prices, higher pay for their freight, abolishing excessive road and bridge tolls, and an end to arbitrary fees and fines. They also stood out to oppose the steady monopolization of the logistics industry.
Over a couple days of resistance, the truckers made the whole country aware of their plight. These men practically live in their trucks, leaving their wives and children for a life on the road. They work over 12 hours a day in miserable conditions and subpar safety. Adding to this are their many run-ins with the authorities, who impose upon them fees both legal and illegal. As their income drops, they doggedly maintain their living by accepting ever heavier and riskier loads.
And it’s not just the drivers. Workers throughout the logistics chain toil for next to nothing, even with the exorbitant rates suppliers pay for Chinese shipping (over twice the price of American rates). The costs are passed on to the consumers, but where does the money end up?
Take the Beijing-Xi’an line as an example: a round trip costs about 21,500 yuan, of which 14,500 yuan covers gas. The rest goes to the five-day costs of living, maintenance work and parts, annual registration and vehicle inspection fees, insurance, and various fines one can expect to be slapped with by the authorities. In the end, there is not much left for the truck owners and/or the drivers to make a profit or earn a decent wage.
The root cause of the truckers’ conditions stem from the government’s monopolization of the logistic industry’s lifeblood — fuel and highways — which feeds rent-seeking behavior on the part of the transport police and highway administration. And then there is the immediate factor in the outbreak of the truckers’ strike: the imbalance and inequality of capital and labor within the logistics sector.
China boasts a fleet of about 15 million trucks demanding two drivers each, making around 30 million truckers across the country. Some own the vehicles they drive; others rent trucks, and others don’t personally drive anymore and provide their trucks to the second group. Most drivers are renters. The supply side of the logistics sector is diverse, as is the demand side — the enterprises and goods owners. This plurality of supply and demand once made for an essentially free arena of competition, but recent and sudden shifts in the industry have led to the rise of monopolies.
The shift came with the merger of two logistics giants — Yunmanman [满运软件科技有限公司] of Jiangsu Province and Guiyang’s Truck Alliance, Inc. [货车帮科技有限公司] — to form the Manbang Group. Yunmanman, established in 2013, was the first logistics company in China to incorporate cloud computing, big data, and AI technologies in its platform. It employs four million drivers and owns one million trucks in 315 cities across the country. The comparably-sized Truck Alliance, Inc. boasts a formidable nationwide data infrastructure. It provides comprehensive service for the logistics network across 4.5 million trucks, and works with 88,000 supply partners.
Following the merger, CEO and board chairman Wang Gang (王刚) of Didi Chuxing, CEO Luo Peng (罗鹏) of Truck Alliance, Inc, and Zhang Hui (张晖) of Yunmanman became joint directors of the new Manbang Group. The original companies have remained distinct entities with their own brands, but they now work in tandem to dominate the industry.
Data from Manbang indicates that 5.2 of 7 million mainline fleet trucks in China are now registered with the conglomerate; and around 125 of the nation’s 150 logistics companies are Manbang affiliates. Every day 18.28 billion tons of freight is moved around the country, of which Manbang handles 13.59 billion.
On April 24, 2018, the Manbang Group carried out its first round of financing, worth about $1.9 billion. After the merger, its stock value is expected to break $6 billion.
From May 26 to May 29, Manbang made its first post-merger appearance at the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2018 that was held in Guiyang’s International Convention & Convention Center. According to Reuter’s Chinese-language service, “aside from providing a service that matches trucks to goods, Manbang also became the biggest platform for transport vehicles and all-in-one vehicle support covering services like vehicle oil, electronic throttle control (ETC) systems, vehicle replacement, financing, insurance, or site development. This year Manbang Group has seen successful with its online transaction platform, with the value of transactions reaching hundreds of millions of yuan per month.”
The merger of Yunmanman with Trucking Alliance Inc. brought about a fundamental change in industrial relations within the logistics sector. First, Manbang introduced an annual fee of somewhere between 1680 and 3000 yuan directed at the truck drivers and related information service personnel, which forced the hands of many who had already become dependent on the app for their business.
The second and more explosive event occurred on June 4, when the Truck Alliance app implemented a client update that made it impossible to receive information in real time. Job pricing was fully automated, depriving users of the ability to set their own prices. As a part of the new merger, Truck Alliance was blatantly and openly exerting control over its customers with impunity. Suppose a supplier pays Manbang 1000 yuan, then of that sum the driver gets only 800 yuan and Manbang pockets the rest. This situation caused an uproar among vehicle owners, suppliers, drivers, and other industry personnel.
The crux of the matter is that Manbang is a third party service brokerage platform that not only collects an annual service fee for its information, but has reached into the transaction between trucker and supplier and take a cut from it. It’s gone from information provider to hegemon of the logistics industry. It uses its monopoly on supply and demand data to force truck operators and drivers into paying a “transaction commission” outside the normal app service fee. Manbang doesn’t expend any capital or labor to collect this massive and blatantly exploitative profit. Looking at the plans drafted by Manbang’s nine operations departments, it’s clear that it wants to completely have its way with the industry, forcing all other capital investors (vehicle owners) and laborers (truckers) into submission.
This is adding insult to injury for the truck owners and drivers already suffering under the monopolistic business landscape and predatory government authorities. The June 4 client app update was the last straw.
The actions of the truckers across China is remarkable and praiseworthy:
- This is not a sudden outbreak, but the fruits of long-term, built-up resentment. Truckers have exposed the corruption of the logistics industry before, such as when they called for strikes on November 11, 2015, and April 16, 2017. They organized nationwide and local groups on QQ and WeChat, and formed unofficial logistics associations and alliances to begin defending their rights. It can be seen as a nascent truckers’ union.
- This is an industry-wide action following on the heels of crane operators’ protests at the end of April. The strength, effectiveness, and bargaining potential of such collective actions are by no means something that could be achieved by one enterprise alone. Collective actions like group bargaining are the staple in the labor movements of many other countries. It is satisfying to see Chinese workers embark on the labor movement’s righteous path.
- The alliance of truck drivers form as a permanent organized and law-abiding force in the logistic industry. These cooperatives and other labor organizations are necessary to counter huge conglomerates like Manbang and protect small capital investors and truckers. Without camaraderie between the workers, the industry is doomed to be monopolized.
- The government is obligated to guarantee the rights of the workers to assemble and organize. It also has a responsibility to protect disadvantaged groups in the industry and the rights of workers to unionize. Only in this way will competition be fair, and as the industry makes progress as a whole, it will be possible to ensure legal rights and benefits like proper wages, working hours and conditions, and social security.
Tan Jiangying is a labor scholar in China.
Wu Renhua, June 4, 2018
The June 4 massacre once shocked the world — but because the Communist Party made it a forbidden area of enquiry, there are still numerous controversies around the massacre, despite it having taken place 29 years ago. Following are some of the major sources of confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the events of June 4, 1989.
- Was There a Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing?
To provide a seemingly reasonable justification for the bloody military suppression in the capital, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities emphasized that a violent insurrection was afoot, and that the martial law troops had no choice but to put it down. To this day, the CCP’s claims still deceive a great many people. But in fact, proving false this lie of a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing’ is not difficult — one must simply take careful note of the sequence of events. It was only after the martial law troops had opened fire that the authorities called it a ‘counterrevolutionary rebellion.’ Prior to this, they merely labeled it ‘turmoil in Beijing.’
In fact, not only was there no counterrevolutionary rebellion in Beijing, there was no turmoil either. The official mouthpiece of the CCP’s Central Committee, People’s Daily, reported following the military crackdown: “Beijing residents are much more civilized; social order is excellent.” The newspaper also quoted a Beijing Public Security officer who said: “The number of criminal acts that occurred during the student movement was less than the same period last year.”
The student movement had from the beginning been committed to peacefulness, reason, and nonviolence — and even after the martial law troops had opened fire and there were heavy civilian casualties, the members of the public who retaliated in fury at the slaughter only targeted martial law troops or their actions. After the incident, the CCP authorities produced ‘The True Facts About the Counterrevolutionary Rebellion in Beijing’ and other propaganda videos — but the images of burning vehicles in them all took place after the martial law troops had begun firing on civilians. The images show that the apartments, stores, and even Party, government and military buildings on both sides of the road remained undamaged.
- Citizen Violence in Response to the Military’s Slaughter
After the massacre on June 4, the CCP used its control of the media to publish stories and broadcast news reports on a national scale, severely inflating the troop casualties. They created the impression that ‘hoodlums’ were at large, killing martial law troops and officers. The result was that many Chinese people believed that the troops opened fire in order to suppress a rebellion.
In response to this, I made a specific study of the deaths of martial law troops and officers, concluding that a total of 15 died, seven of whose deaths were due to violent retaliation by protesters. My important finding was that, according to official Party materials, the deaths of these 15 all took place after 1:00 a.m. on June 4, 1989. The time that martial law troops opened fire was around 9:00 p.m. on June 3. The earliest confirmed case of a death of a member of the public is that of Song Xiaoming (宋曉明), who was shot at around 9:00 p.m. on the sidewalk at Wukesong crossing (五棵松路口). From this the following conclusion can be inferred: The martial law troops opened fire and killed people first, and only then did members of the public respond with violence; that is, the killing by troops was the cause, and the violent response was the effect. Which took place first, and what caused what, is obvious at a glance.
- Whether or Not The Martial Law Troops Opened Fire and Killed People on Tiananmen Square
The CCP not only denies that the troops opened fire and killed protesters on Tiananmen Square; they even deny that they opened fire on Tiananmen Square at all. The spokesman for the martial law troops, Zhang Gong (張工), said in a June 6 press conference held jointly with spokesman for the State Council Yuan Mu (袁木) that: “Firstly, I would like to responsibly explain an issue to my comrades in the news profession, and I want to, through you, make this clear to every citizen of the capital and the nation; this is that between the hours of 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. on June 4, in the process of carrying out the task of clearing Tiananmen Square, there was absolutely no student or member of the public shot and killed, and nobody was crushed to death or run over.”
I personally experienced the clearing of Tiananmen Square. During the entire process, the sound of gunfire was constant. From the distance of just a few meters I personally witnessed two soldiers in the scout company of the 27th Army Group fire on and destroy the two large loudspeakers set up on the Monument to the People’s Heroes on the square.
The CCP denies that there were casualties on Tiananmen, and by doing so direct the focus of the June 4 massacre to Tiananmen Square — the goal of which is to, by denying casualties on the square, achieve the effect of denying any massacre at all on June 4.
At the time, foreign reporting, especially in Western media, were all calling it the ‘Tiananmen Massacre,’ not the ‘June 4 Massacre.’ The slaughter of June 4 indeed took place primarily outside of Tiananmen Square, and so the CCP’s spin on this issue indeed had an effect, leading some people to have doubts about the June 4 massacre itself.
Whether the martial law troops opened fire and killed people on Tiananmen Square itself, or outside of Tiananmen Square, makes no substantial difference and isn’t worth arguing over. But, because the CCP hyped the question of whether or not there were civilian casualties on Tiananmen into such a focal point and controversy, I made a detailed study of the matter simply to respond to the confusion on the part of the public. To date, I have verified that the following people died on Tiananmen Square: Cheng Renxing (程仁興), a student in the Institute of Soviet and Eastern Europe Studies (蘇聯東歐研究所) of Chinese Renmin University doing a double Bachelor’s degree; Dai Jinping (戴金平), a graduate student at Beijing Agricultural University; Li Haocheng (李浩成), an undergraduate student in Chinese studies at Tianjin Normal University. Among the survivors who were shot on Tiananmen Square, there is the well-known Taiwanese journalist Hsu Tsung-mao (徐宗懋) with China Times (《中國時報》), who suffered a bullet wound in the head, but was rescued and came out alive.
At the time, Party media made particular efforts to interview Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), Hou Dejian (侯德健) and others who were in custody at the time; during the interviews, they had them say that they’d not seen anyone shot and killed on Tiananmen Square. Because these were famous people and they’d indeed been there when the square was cleared, those statements led many to believe that indeed no one was killed on the square. The problem is that Tiananmen Square has a surface area of 44,000 square meters, and the clearance took place from 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.; lines of sight were obstructed, and even if one were present, how would it be possible to see everywhere the entire time? I was also there through the square clearing, and had an excellent vantage point, sitting at the top level of the base of the Monument to the People’s Heroes — but the most I can say is that I didn’t see anyone shot. I certainly can’t say that, through the entire process of the square being cleared, no one was shot in Tiananmen Square at all.
- Were There Orders to Open Fire? Who Ordered It?
A key factor in determining responsibility for the Tiananmen Massacre is whether the troops received orders to open fire on students, and if so, who issued these orders. This is one of the reasons why the CCP goes to such lengths to keep this information classified. None of the major figures involved in the decision — Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng — were willing to own up to their roles, and their children are doing all they can to exonerate them.
My research concluded that the martial law troops did not shoot their weapons on their own; they were ordered to open fire. Per instruction of the State Council, then Beijing Mayor Chen Xitong (陳希同) made a report on June 30, 1989, during the eighth meeting of the the 7th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, titled “A Situation Report on the Suppression of Unrest and Counter-revolutionary Riots.” In the report, Chen said that “Having sustained heavy casualties and being pressed to the limits of their endurance after giving multiple warnings, the martial law troops were left with no choice but to follow orders and fire warning shots, then counterattack to neutralize a number of violent rioters.” The phrase “follow orders” indicates that there was a command to open fire.
Other sources support this. The martial troops invariably opened fire only after being ordered to do so, despite prior encounters with civilian resistance. Before deployment, some commanders held multiple briefings telling their men not to open fire.
The book One Day of Martial Law (《戒嚴一日》), compiled by the cultural office of the PLA’s General Political Department, includes least 10 articles by martial law soldiers in which there is mention of orders to open fire. Lt. Col. Fu Shuisheng (傅水生), a joint logistics officer in the Beijing Military Region, wrote in the article Eight Unforgettable Days and Nights (《難忘的8天8夜》) :
“Around midnight [on June 4, 1989], senior military officers went to the Great Hall of the People, followed shortly by some government officials, to draw up strategic plans to clear the Square. Working to avoid confrontation and bloodshed, the generals and Party leaders stayed up the entire night. Around 1 a.m. [in the early morning of June 4], two officers from a brigade, bleeding and wounded, reported to headquarters that their troops had arrived at the designated pointed. When a senior commander asked how they were doing, they replied that the troops had taken heavy casualties while advancing on foot, and that their supplies had been seized or destroyed. ‘Why didn’t you fire at them?’ [the senior commander asked]. They responded, ‘We were instructed not to fire our weapons.’”
The “headquarters” mentioned here refers to the command center established in the Great Hall of the People to plan for clearing the Square. In another article, Back to Beijing (《再度京華》),” Maj. Gen. Wu Jiamin (吳家民), commander of the 40th Army, wrote: “On June 3, at 11:10 pm, someone in civilian clothing demanded to see me, claiming to have important instructions. I met him, and he produced documents identifying him as vice director of a high level department and was there to relay some instructions from his superior. We were ordered to arrive at the designated zone without fail, and given permission to take decisive actions should it be necessary. Right after he finished talking, we received further instructions from the military district’s frontline command informing us that the martial law troops on Wanshou Road (萬壽路) had fired warning shots to disperse the crowd and secure their path of advance quickly.”
The order was issued around 9 p.m. on June 3. As it was issued in person rather than through military radio channels, it is likely that they did so to avoid leaving any material evidence. The directive came from the very top of the Party, first authorized by Central Military Commission chairman Deng Xiaoping, and passed down to lower levels. Yang Shangkun, then in charge of the CMC’s routine work, was prudent to avoid personally issuing the command; therefore, it must have been a group decision by key members of the Politburo Standing Committee — Li Peng, Qiao Shi, and Yao Yilin, with Deng’s approval.
- How Many Died?
How many people died in the Tiananmen Massacre is still unknown. Naturally, CCP and unofficial sources are at complete odds regarding the figure.
There are two versions of the official, Party-approved story. One is that of Yuan Mu, the State Council spokesman. On June 6, 1989, at a press conference at Zhongnanhai, he said that “according to incomplete statistics which have been verified repeatedly, the situation is as follows: PLA forces suffered 5,000 wounded; while locally (including crime-committing rioters and innocent bystanders unaware of the circumstances), there were 2,000 wounded; total military and local fatalities number about 300, including soldiers, bandits who got their just deserts, and collateral damage,” and “one figure of which we can be confident is that as of now, there were 23 dead across the universities of Beijing.”
The other official source is the aforementioned report made by Beijing mayor Chen Xitong before the NPC Standing Committee on June 30. Per the report, “including soldiers of the martial law troops, armed police, and public security law enforcement officials, about 6,000 were wounded and several tens killed in action,” and “according to information available at present, there are about 3,000 nonmilitary wounded and over 200 dead, including 36 university students.”
Clearly, there is something wrong with the official explanation, given the discrepancy between the figures cited by Yuan Mu and Chen Xitong.
Unofficial estimates vary wildly. The earliest figures came from a report by Red Cross Society of China, saying that 2,600 people were killed. I heard of this number on June 4 as I vacated Tiananmen Square with other students; it later circulated widely. But it’s unlikely that the Red Cross in China would have published real figures.
Zhang Wanshu (張萬舒), who was the director of the domestic department of Xinhua News Agency in China during the events, gives a very exact figure. In “The Big Bang of History” (《曆史的大爆炸》), published in 2009 in Hong Kong, he said, “Comrade Liu Jiaju (劉家駒), veteran editor of “People’s Liberation Army Art and Literature,” told me that he had it on good record from Tan Yunhe (譚雲鶴), CCP secretary and deputy director of the Red Cross Society of China, that the total number of deaths in the June 4th incident was 727, including 14 military fatalities and 713 local dead (among them students and ordinary civilians). He examined every corpse.” According to Zhang, this “is probably the most credible figure.”
This is incorrect, however, because not all corpses went through the hospitals. Some were taken by the martial law troops and public security authorities to be disposed of secretly. For instance, the Tiananmen Mothers (天安門母親群體) looked into 202 victims of the June 4th incident and found that the bodies of eight of them had never been found. I have some additional evidence on hand that is beyond the scope of this article.
Information from American and British diplomatic sources concerning the scale of the June 4th incident has been declassified in recent years. The British document claims that the death toll reached 10,000. The sources are ambassadorial staff on assignment in Beijing who got their information secondhand. Given the conclusions I arrived at in my own research and documentary work, I am not prepared to accept these numbers at this time.
In his book Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, eminent Canadian sinologist Timothy Brook collected statistics from 11 hospitals throughout the early morning of June 4, counting a total of 478 dead. Extrapolating this figure to cover the hundreds of hospitals in the Chinese capital, he came to a probable total of about 2,800 dead. I found myself in particular agreement with the following passage from his book:
“Do we need to decide between three hundred and three thousand? From a distance, either death toll is atrocious: the number hardly matters. From close up, however, even one death is too many, and the omission of one in the final count is a terrible lie. The quantity of killing matters most to those who died and who mourn them. Not to be counted is to be lost forever.” (p. 152, Quelling the People, Stanford University Press, 1998)
As a scholar of the June 4th Massacre, I have often been pressed to produce a statistic on how many died that day. I am not willing to give a final answer, since there is no way of determining the number. In the last few years I have been looking into this matter by investigating Beijing’s hospitals — over one hundred locations — one by one. Though a definitive conclusion continues to elude me, at least I have been able to make a general assessment.
Translated from Chinese by China Change:
六四屠殺的焦點問題, 台灣思想坦克網站， 2018年6月3日。
About the author: In 1989, Mr. Wu Renhua was a young faculty member at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, leading the student demonstration along with other young scholars. He participated in the Tiananmen Movement “from the first day to the last,” and was among the last few thousand protesters who left Tiananmen Square in the early morning of June 4. On the way back to his college, he witnessed PLA tanks charging into a file of students at Liubukou (六部口), a large intersection, killing 11 and injuring many. In February, 1990, Wu swam four hours from Zhuhai to Macau, and onto Hong Kong, and arrived in the United States later that year. Over the next 15 years he was the editor of Press Freedom Herald (《新闻自由导报》), a Chinese-language paper founded on June 9, 1989, by a group of overseas Chinese, to bring news of pro-democracy activities to China. Given Mr. Wu’s training as a historiographer, he began his research of 1989 as soon as the incident ended—but his writing didn’t start until in 2005, when the paper he edited folded. From 2005 to 2014, he published three books (none have been translated into English): The Bloody Clearing of Tiananmen Square (《天安门血腥清场内幕》, 2007), The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth (《六四事件中的戒严部队》, 2009), and The Full Record of the Tiananmen Movement (《六四事件全程实录》, 2014). Together, the three books form a complete record of the 1989 democracy movement and the June Fourth Massacre.
Foreword to ‘The Martial Law Troops of June Fourth’, May 29, 2017.
Liu Shuqing, May 16, 2018
Beginning last year as the 709 crackdown gradually petered out, the government’s hands were freed up, and they decided to do something about the ‘unconventional lawyers’ (非常规律师) they kept seeing. They have since been targeting these lawyers using a combination of methods that aim at terminating their professional lives. These include straightforward revocation or annulment of legal licences; forcing lawyers to transfer law offices but then gumming up the process so they end up with no place of employment; delaying lawyer annual assessments and more. The community has felt the blow and the sting.
The reason I place these targeted lawyers under the term ‘unconventional’ is because the scope of targets in this round of assault is fairly broad: there are the human rights lawyers like Sui Muqing (隋穆青), Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武), Wen Donghai (文东海), Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Li Chunfu (李春富), Huang Simin (黄思敏) and so on — the standard group on the receiving end of punishment from the government — and then there are those like Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), who has experimented with his own performative lawyering, and been called an unorthodox lawyer in the ‘diehard’ school (死磕派); and finally the orthodox diehard lawyers like Zhou Ze (周泽) and Wang Xing (王兴).
Of course, this taxonomy may itself be problematic. Many diehard lawyers have taken on human rights cases, and human rights lawyers are diehards when fighting in court for procedural justice. Moreover, rights defense lawyers and diehard lawyers have been constantly adaptive. Nevertheless, there is a difference in inclination between the two groups, and most importantly, in the political spectrum of lawyers as imagined by officialdom, the difference between these lawyers does exist.
These three groups have been simultaneously punished, but the degrees of punishment dealt differ. These moves against specific lawyers or certain tendencies are clear in their logic and precise in their degrees of severity, and they are entirely consistent with the general ‘stability maintenance’ ethos of the Chinese Communist Party. It is of a piece with the ongoing, gradual return to totalitarian orthodoxy.
In China’s current political climate, the demand of the authorities for ‘stability’ is rising — this means of course that the voices of political dissent, the voices of defense for freedom of speech, assembly, and belief, and the voices that criticize the torture of political offenders, are simply no longer permitted to exist. In particular when it comes to human rights lawyers, who have had the latent potential to form a social organization, the iron hammer must be brought down with even greater force to get rid of them. Thus, active human rights lawyers have come face to face with disaster.
The ‘diehard’ lawyers who constantly drag courts and judges through storms of public opinion also need to be appropriately attacked. The latter often have an extensive and deep network of contacts inside and outside the system; they share the same aspirations and enjoy mutual support from liberal journalists and scholars; and when they take on cases, whether it’s a corrupt official or an organized crime case, they’re able to portray their client as if they were as pure as the undriven snow. Yet for them, being of high repute is not enough — they want to be famous, make a lot more money, and conduct their defense cases without heed to China’s ‘national circumstances’ or established convention. They want to form a defiant style of defense different to models common among the vast majority of lawyers in China: cooperating with the government or even conspiring with the police, prosecution and the court. Their ‘diehard’ work has allowed them to frustrate the execution and image of even the Party’s shuanggui (双规) system [involving the extralegal detention and interrogation of Party cadres suspected of corruption] and anti-crime campaigns. Objectively, they’re also ‘deconstructing’ the Party’s system, so in the future they’ll also be disallowed. This is why lawyers like Zhou Ze (周泽) and Wang Xing (王兴) have been temporarily suspended from practicing, as a way of sending a warning to others like them.
As for the peculiar creature Yang Jinzhu, he’s a category in himself. He once had his day in the sun and had significant influence, but has become increasingly dramatic and vulgar, embarrassed courts and judges, and given lawyers a bad name by cursing and swearing. If the authorities wish to reconstitute the authority of the judicial system and enforce calm and order, those like Yang will also need to be thoroughly purged.
This is the logic behind the government’s actions.
As the authorities see it, this round of precision targeting is not only an intrinsic demand of stability maintenance, but a required house cleaning for future judicial reform that focuses on delivering ‘justice.’ Of course, this logic is self-serving — and the reality is that a sweeping out of lawyers that so departs from justice itself presages a result that will little resemble a just one.
As for whether or not the goal of stability maintenance can be achieved, it will depend on how things play out. The goal of stability maintenance is to preserve the political security of the Party, and all stability maintenance efforts are directed toward this end. Will the attack on lawyers serve to fracture the bonds between rights lawyers and their rights defense movement and thus lead to the decline of the latter, or will the rights defenders become more radical because they’re at the end of their rope? This is impossible to predict.
Now, back to the notion of Justice (正义) cherished by the legal profession. It is not just about the result of a case but also procedural justice. The process of achieving justice is itself a promotion of ideas and mindset, and it’s necessarily an awakening of civil rights awareness and enlightenment. Taken as a whole, the current campaign of purging and punishment deals damage to the cause of justice in numerous ways.
Firstly, this will never result in universal justice in individual cases. Punishing lawyers in this manner will result in court hearings being ‘harmonized’ once again, with no contention between the parties. What they pursue is order, but what they get will simply be ‘harmony.’ This is opposite to the judicial reform ideas pursued just a few years ago, named ‘the two sides contend, the court decides’ (两造对抗、法官居中裁断). In the current judicial system where the relative power of the two sides is not evenly matched, the work of diehard defense lawyers is able to mitigate the defects of the system by making the public security organs and the procuratorate more careful and pay more attention to protecting the legal rights of suspects. Giving more freedom to these lawyers also allows the judge to listen to both sides and thus see the full picture, rather than grow numb under a pile of bland documents. This will increase the chance that justice is obtained; the alternative will be justice randomly distributed, and the outcome, good or bad, will simply depend on chance.
Secondly, this purge campaign directly goes against Justice, because it seeks to stunt the natural growth of citizens’ consciousness of their own rights and the rule of law. Whether human rights lawyers or diehard lawyers, whether calling for protection of basic freedoms, or protecting and demonstrating the right to bring suit, it’s all a microcosm of social progress. When lawyers themselves modulate their participation in this enlightenment, things will progress gradually and with order, and over the long term it will have the effect of raising the general consciousness of the rule of law among the public, ultimately orienting it toward constitutional democracy.
Finally, if the authorities think that by first shocking and aweing lawyers, then rolling out some limited regulations protecting the lawyers’ professional rights and interests, they will be able to ‘bring things back to how they should be’ and re-establish the prestige of the judicial system, then they might as well climb a tree to catch a fish. The prestige of the judicial system does not arise from some sense of court ritual, or from a hypocritical authority that brooks no dissent. The prestige of the judicial system comes from the fair judgements rendered by independent judges, and this encompasses Justice of both procedure and outcome. Only by doing this will people feel that things are fair, and be satisfied and content, and respectful of the system.
Lawyers have played important roles in many countries’ transitions to democracy, and this has fueled the suspicion and vigilance of the Chinese authorities around the growth of human rights lawyers and diehard lawyers. Civil society has also put enormous hope in rights defense lawyers. During the suppression of political opponents in the ‘Kaohsiung incident’ in Taiwan, defense lawyers ultimately became a key part of the opposition movement. In Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003-2008, also started as a defense lawyer before becoming an opposition political leader. In India, the leader of India’s movement for national self-determination, Mahatma Gandhi, was also a lawyer. And over 200 years ago when the United States was formed, nearly half of the participants in the Constitutional Convention were lawyers. The suppression of lawyers by the CCP is a preemptive attack against an imaginary threat.
The truth is, in a totalitarian society, there is simply no space for an independent sphere of power to grow. Although the spread of WeChat and QQ chat groups has led to a degree of fellowship among small groups in society, these are still communities centered around shared ideas or hobbies, and the difference between them and genuine civic organizations is night and day. Perhaps they will band together and offer comfort to one another in times of crisis, but they cannot truly grow into a political force. Thus, they are essentially still atomized. The community of human rights lawyers is no different.
In a state as massive as China, silence induced by political suppression comes with its own risks. Within the framework of Chinese law, the small number of rights defense and diehard lawyers have the effect of placing minor, appropriate restraints on the exercise of power. What the CCP could have done is respond flexibly to this group, and give them a small degree of latitude. But the Party is disproportionately obsessed with and terrified about its political security, with the result that its methods of rule become inescapably more and more rigid and brittle.
 A category of lawyers who “argue vehemently and uncompromisingly, but do not take on politically sensitive cases…” (as Eva Pils writes in ‘China’s Human Rights Lawyers: Advocacy and Resistance’ (2015) p. 282 note 111)
Liu Shuqing (刘书庆) is a lawyer and a professor of chemistry at Qilu University of Technology (齐鲁工业大学) in Shandong, His own law license was revoked in the aftermath of the 709 arrests. Liu had been a lawyer for seven years, and had taken on cases the authorities consider sensitive. In April 2018 the university announced that Liu had “repeatedly made inappropriate expressions,” and his teaching career of 16 years was put to an end.
War on Human Rights Lawyers Continues: Up to 16 More Lawyers in China Face Disbarment or Inability to Practice, China Change, May 14, 2018.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January 24, 2018.
Human Rights Lawyer Wen Donghai Targeted in Continuous Crackdown, China Change, November 6, 2017
Little-Known Chinese Lawyer Disbarred for Defending Freedom of Speech, Yaxue Cao, October 3, 2017.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
14 Cases Exemplify the Role Played by Lawyers in the Rights Defense Movement, 2003–2015, Yaxue Cao and Yaqiu Wang, August 19, 2015.
Wang Jiangsong, May 7, 2018
On April 25, an open letter from a WeChat group named “Changsha tower crane operator federation” (长沙塔吊联盟) was circulated. It said:
To all hardworking front-line tower crane operators, conductors, and elevator operators, greetings! As construction, crane, and mechanical equipment operators and engineers, in the most dangerous line of work on the construction site, our salary and compensation is severely out of step with the risks we take and the utter indispensability of our work. In the construction industry, the hours we work far exceed those stipulated in the Labor Law, and we have no social security. Yet despite being in the most unsafe work and working the longest hours, our pay is miniscule. In order to trigger a wave of simultaneous strikes among crane operators around the country, in order to protect our basic labor rights and dignity, and gain an equal salary, the Changsha tower crane operator federation has decided to unite, stand-up, and declare that we have the right to basic dignity in our labor and the right to engage in collective bargaining. Thus, we call for a united strike on the eve of International Labor Day of May 1, in Changsha’s May First Square (五一广场), so that we may make our voice known. We welcome and will be grateful for support from all walks of life.
Location: Changsha May First Square
Content: Organize a more robust crane operator federation, make better videos of the demonstration scene than that of crane operators on strike in other provinces, and reiterate our demand for construction labor rights.
Given the kind of activity and the particular nature of the profession involved, we hope that all fellow workers will proactively participate and make our voice known to the whole of society.
Changsha Crane Operator Federation
April 25, 2018
The letter caused an uproar in the WeChat group, and when shared around came along with expressions of concern for the safety of the crane operators. As expected, the following afternoon, one of the workers who posted the message said: “Terrifying. Because I forwarded a post about a worker strike on May 1 yesterday, the Changsha Ministry of State Security collected all possible information about me within a day, including my address, telephone number, work unit and more. Two hours ago they came to my workplace and demanded that I come to the police station and explain myself.” The worker promised to the MSS agents that he would not participate in any of the activities and was then allowed to leave, though he’s now worried that his employer is going to fire him because of it.
Moreover, the event was not limited only to crane tower operators in Changsha, but one that had been called for by various WeChat groups of tower crane operators across the country, making it a national event. On April 26, the spokesman for crane operators in Hainan published a video on Weibo calling on all operators in the province to join the national strike on the morning of May 1, with the demand that their regular salary and overtime wages be increased. “If we don’t strike, who’s going to increase our income?” he asked, adding: “A strike won’t be nationwide without workers in Hainan. Hainan crane operators too are full of passion, so let it burn!” On the same day, crane tower workers in Zigong, Sichuan Province, held a demonstration, their banners demanding wage hikes, or else they’d also join the May 1 strike.
The following day, workers in the following eight cities in eight provinces also held banners and circulated photographs of their protests online: Nanchang in Jiangxi, Tianshui in Gansu, Zhumadian in Henan, Xiantao in Hubei, Qingzhen in Guizhou, Huaian in Jiangsu, Hengyang in Hunan, Xiamen in Fujian.
Over the next three days, workers in at least 13 cities (Wuhan, Shijiazhuang, Yinchuan, Sanmenxia, Luoyang, Lankao, Yuncheng, Zhuzhou, Yueyang, Pingjiang, Dazhou, Zhongshan, Maoming) and elsewhere also held assemblies and shared photos and videos of their protests online. As of April 30, according to a preliminary count, the provinces in which crane operators staged demonstrators, held banners, called slogans with their demands, and shared photos or footage online, include: Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hainan, Fujian, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Shaanxi — 19 provinces, with protests in between 27 and 30 cities. Participants ranged from dozens to hundreds in each event. This is the first instance of such a large-scale, nationwide, collective action by industrial workers in China for over decades, and may in fact be the first instance of its kind ever.
When May 1 came around, however, China’s crane operators did not formally go on strike. There are three potential explanations for this.
The first is that some places already agreed to the demands to increase wages and overtime pay, while other cities saw those examples and emulated them; the second is that some local governments said they would strictly prohibit any such strike, and the workers were sufficiently cowed as to call off the plan; the third is that the crane operators didn’t want to get mixed up with the ‘May First National Civil Resonance’ (五一全民共振) called for by some overseas activists, which has explicit political objectives. The latter, under the strict control of the authorities, didn’t go anywhere.
Despite that, the genesis of this large scale ‘mass incident’ of crane operators deserves our attention and analysis.
- This is an inevitable development in the evolution of China’s market economy and labor-capital relations
During the first wave of labor mobilization in China from 2010 to 2015, almost all collective worker actions took place at specific companies: for example, with strikes at Carrefour and Walmart. In these cases, though the strikes spanned multiple stores, the number of participants involved was not large, and still the action was limited to that particular chain of stores.
China’s labor movement is bound to follow the trajectory of the broader economy and labor-capital relations, and thus expand from actions in particular companies to actions spanning multiple companies, regions, and even industries. This instance of a simultaneous mobilization of crane tower operators in dozens of cities across the country has every qualification to be considered the beginning of a historical inflection point in labor in China.
Strictly speaking, collective rights defense taking place at one enterprise can only be called a ‘collective labor action,’ and not really a ‘labor movement.’ Only when many workers establish horizontal ties among one another, achieving a cross-enterprise and cross-region network, can it be called a labor movement proper. One of the most effective and powerful forms of organization, allowing a group of geographically distributed workers to unite their forces and coordinate actions in a single organizational structure, is the industry-wide labor federation. This is also why this form is a core component of labor movements in market economies, and the primary vehicle for collective bargaining between labor and capital. The reason for this is that workers in the same occupation, business, or industry, are in the same position vis-a-vis capital, and have identical interests that they demand from the same counterparty, thus their solidarity and unity has the lowest cost. As soon as they unite, they immediately have the power of scale; once they’re successful, they have ongoing efficiencies of scale to maximally resolve the structural problem [of disparate power between capital and individual workers], and the collective bargaining agreements they reach with industry have the power of law in governing labor-capital relations. All this is entirely consistent with the aspirations and demands of freedom, equality, and justice in exchange and contracts in a market economy, and at the same time is the fundamental meaning of a market economic system governed by the law. The responsibility of the state (defined as legislature, administration, and judiciary) is located in the preservation, not the destruction, of the freedom, equality, and justice of this negotiating mechanism between labor and capital.
- The state should rationally treat self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective actions and acknowledge and protect the three rights of labor
The outside world only learned about this collective action by crane operators after the fact, and knew nothing of their internal discussions, contact with one another, organization, and planning before the fact. There is also no information or evidence indicating that outside players (for instance labor NGOs) got involved or played any role in assisting, counselling, guiding, or providing any other form of help. Even less has there been any shadow of ‘hostile foreign forces.’ Thus, we have every reason to understand this sequence of events as a self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action on the part of crane operators themselves.
If this conclusion is valid, then the mistaken judgement of the relevant organs in the government must be corrected: they believe that collective action by workers are necessarily directed, organized, manipulated, and planned behind-the-scenes by hostile foreign forces or domestic NGOs, and that they’re competing with the Party, government, and official unions for the working class. This is likely one of the primary reasons behind the mass arrests and prison sentences of labor organizers in December 2015, particularly the arrests on December 3. Following the December 3 incident however, instances of collective rights defense by workers did not contract in scale, but after a short lull in fact came back in full force, and as in the case of the crane operator demonstration attained a high water mark. All this abundantly demonstrates that the level of [labor] consciousness and organizational capacity of workers in China has reached a new level, at least in some sectors and regions, and they’re capable of their own collective action without the involvement of outsiders.
In the past, the standard operating procedure for the relevant organs when faced with labor protests — they themselves having failed to do their job and duty of defending the legal rights of workers, then lost the trust of workers — was to find a scapegoat: blame it on the incitement of hostile foreign forces or domestic NGO activists. This was how they passed it off to their own superiors. The shame is that this sort of buck-passing is actually able to deceive the higher-ups, though workers aren’t fooled, and the actual problems facing workers are unchanged. Thus the resentment and rage builds up daily, and the conflicts between labor and capital, and even between labor and the government, become more and more intense. Put it bluntly, the scapegoating that goes on is simply digging the government into a pit.
The experience and norms of market economies tells us that the state should rationally and forthrightly address issues raised by self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action, and acknowledge and protect the rights of workers to form organizations (freedom of assembly), to engage in collective bargaining (the right to collective dispute resolution), and to strike (the right to industrial action).
- The demonstration by crane operators establishes a model for broader labor and social movements
Crane operators, as the prime movers behind this collective labor action, appear to have come to a clear realization of themselves as a specially-positioned technical worker in the production chain — they have a ‘structural power’ and to a degree are irreplaceable. The crane operators also effectively reached out to and integrated in their efforts crane conductors and elevator operators, upon which they recognized that the interests of the entire construction site and all the workers and jobs on it are related, to a large extent, and in common with their own. From this they could foresee that as long as there is no undefendable attack by an outside force, the natural course of affairs would have it that a construction industry union is formed. This is the only fundamental means of getting at the root of the chaos and problems in the construction industry.
From a broader perspective, it is beneficial not only to workers, but the entire construction industry, society, and the nation. The next direction for the labor movement in China is for workers in each industry and sector to autonomously form their own federations.
There is absolutely no evidence indicating that the collective action on the part of the crane operators had any connection with the ‘national civil resonance’ advocated by overseas democracy activists. In fact, the opposite is the case: just as that event failed to gain much traction, the protests by crane operators appeared all the more remarkable and successful.
It can be said that in contemporary China’s social transition, the democracy movement (referring to the narrow opposition political movements that aim to change China’s political system) should perhaps take a leaf from the book of the labor rights movement. The current stage of the labor movement of course focuses on increasing its economic benefits, and this is the primary reason that they’re able to mobilize and unite a sufficient number of workers and thus gain some small victories, or at least be able to retreat largely unscathed. The political quality and value of the labor movement requires only that individuals with perspicacious judgement look beneath the surface, make their own inferences, and carry it forward.
Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is a labor scholar in China.
Also by Wang Jiangsong:
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.