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October 25, 2017
Yaxue Cao sat down with Wang Dan (王丹) on September 27 and talked about his past 28 years since 1989: the 1990s, Harvard, teaching in Taiwan, China’s younger generation, his idea for a think tank, his books, assessment of current China, Liu Xiaobo, and the New School for Democracy. –– The Editors
YC: Wang Dan, sitting down to do an interview with you I’m feeling nostalgic, because as soon as I close my eyes the name Wang Dan brings back the image of that skinny college student with large glasses holding a megaphone in a sea of protesters on Tiananmen Square. That was 1989. Now you have turned 50. So having this interview with you outside a cafe in Washington, D.C., in the din of traffic, I feel is a bit like traversing history. You recently moved to the Washington, D.C. area. I suspect many of our readers are like me –– the Wang Dan they know is still that student on the Square. Perhaps I can first ask you to talk a bit about where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to since 1989?
Wang Dan: When you speak like that, I feel that I have become a political terracotta warrior in other people’s eyes; when they look at me, they see only history. For me, 1989 is indeed a label I can’t undo. I’m conflicted about this label. On the one hand, I feel that I can’t rest on history. I don’t want people to see me and think of 1989 only, because if that were the case, it would seem that my 50 years has been lived doing nothing else. On the other hand, I am also willing to bear this label, and the sense of responsibility that comes with it. As a witness, survivor, and one of the organizers, this is a responsibility I cannot shirk. Everyone lives bearing many contradictions; this is my conflict, and all I can do is carry it.
After 1989, my life experience has been pretty straightforward. From 1989 to 1998, for a period of almost 10 years, I basically was in prison. From 1989 to 1993, I was in Qincheng Prison (秦城監獄) and Beijing No. 2 Prison (北京第二監獄); I was released in 1993. Then I was detained for the second time in 1995 on the charge of “conspiring to subvert the government.” During the period from 1993 to 1995, I was in Beijing starting to get in touch with friends who had participated in the student movement, and I also traveled all over the country. Deng Xiaoping went on a “Southern Tour,” I also took a southern tour. I started to assemble some of the June 4 student protesters. We issued some open letters, and started a fund to support political prisoners. We found more than 100 people to contribute, each person contributed ¥10-20 each month. The government said our activities were that of a counter-revolutionary group. This criminal charge was the same as Liu Xiaobo’s –– inciting subversion: writing essays, accepting interviews, criticizing the government. Because of these activities, I was detained again in 1995, but in 1998 I was sent into exile to the United States. Although I was out of prison for more than two years from 1993 to 1995, I had absolutely no freedom. Wherever I went, there were agents following me. The big prison.
YC: When you were released from prison in 1998, you hadn’t finished serving your sentence, right?
Wang Dan: I was sentenced to 11 years in prison, but I only stayed in prison for 3 years. I was released on medical parole as a result of international pressure.
YC: At the time China needed acceptance from the international community, and it wanted to join the World Trade Organization. Now this kind of international pressure is impossible.
Wang Dan: After I came to the U.S. in 1998, in my second month here, I entered Harvard University. First, I attended summer school for a month, and then took preparatory classes for a year. I then studied for my Master’s degree and Ph.D. I graduated from Harvard in 2008. This was another 10 years, and this 10-year period was for the most part study. Of course, I also engaged in some democracy movement activities in my spare time. After graduating from Harvard, I went to England where I lived for a time, and then in 2009 I went to Taiwan to teach, which is where I have been living until this year, 2017. That’s eight years. So in the 28 years since 1989, I have either been in prison, studying, or teaching. During this whole time, regardless of what I was doing, I remained engaged in opposition activities.
YC: You were a history student at Peking University, and you studied history at Harvard. What would you most like to share about your 10 years at Harvard?
Wang Dan: Harvard has had a great impact on my life. I think with respect to China’s future, I have political aspirations, or a political ideal. I believe that China’s political future requires people who have specialized knowledge. So I feel a strong sense of accomplishment about getting my degree from Harvard. I achieved a goal I had set for myself. I think it is necessary preparation for my political future. This is the first point.
Second, at Harvard I was able to broaden my horizons. It gave me an international perspective. But obviously the most important thing, I believe, is my third point: the ten years at Harvard enabled me to just be an ordinary person. The students around me didn’t know who I was, only the Chinese students knew, but at that time there weren’t that many Chinese students. I was completely anonymous, just an ordinary international student. This was a very fortunate thing. If I were always only just a 1989 figure, active in the media, talking about politics every day, I’d feel really awful. During my time at Harvard, besides going to class, I also became friends with some people who had nothing to do with politics. It was just a very ordinary situation.
YC: Why did you go to Taiwan?
Wang Dan: Soon after I got to Harvard, I started to frequent the library. I saw a magazine called The Journalist (《新新聞》) –– a Taiwan magazine founded in 1987 focusing on social and political commentary. The Journalist covered the process of political transition in Taiwan after martial law was lifted in 1987. I was really excited reading it and began to be very interested in Taiwan. Later, I wrote my dissertation on Taiwan’s White Terror.
YC: Please tell us a bit more about your dissertation.
Wang Dan: This morning I was just talking with my editor, and we’re hoping that Harvard University Press will soon publish the English version. I compared state violence in the 1950s on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. At that time, Taiwan had White Terror, and China had Land Reform, the Campaign to Suppress Counter-revolutionaries, and the Anti-Rightist Movement, which was Red Terror. These are two forms of state violence, but each with different characteristics. What I was interested in was the different mechanisms, the specific methods by which it was carried out. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) used the method of mass campaigns. I analyzed how they were launched and executed. Taiwan’s White Terror was basically accomplished through political spying, with agents infiltrating society. When the National Security Bureau investigated so-called “communist spy cases,” they were mostly targeting individuals. The Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party) used agents to monitor society, whereas the CCP used the people to monitor each other. They turned everyone into a spy, including some of China’s famous intellectuals, who were also informants.
Back to your question of why I went to Taiwan. I went to Taiwan to teach –– there were no positions in the U.S. to teach Taiwanese history. Second, since my dissertation is a comparison of Taiwan and the mainland and Taiwan had started to democratize, I was interested in living there for a period of time so that I could experience it first-hand. Third, I really like Taiwan –– the scenery, the people, and the relationships between people.
YC: Please tell us more about your time teaching in Taiwan.
Wang Dan: I taught at pretty much all of the top universities in Taiwan, with the exception of National Taiwan University. I taught at Tsing Hua, Cheng Chi, Cheng Kung, and Dongwu –– mainly at Tsing Hua University, but also taught classes at other universities. After I arrived in Taiwan, I discovered a big problem –– they really didn’t understand mainland China. There were basically no courses at universities on contemporary Chinese history covering the period from 1949 to the present. So I decided to teach Chinese contemporary history, which is essentially what I taught during my eight years in Taiwan, in the hope that people in Taiwan would gain a better understanding of mainland China.
Another unexpected benefit was the arrival of mainland students to Taiwan. Shortly after I got to Taiwan, Taiwan opened its doors to students from the mainland. These students were 90-hou, the generation born after 1990. Before knowing them, I was just like a lot of people and looked down on them, believing they were a selfish generation, that they weren’t concerned with politics, that they were brainwashed by the government, and had absolutely no understanding of history. But after interacting with them, I discovered that this was a total misjudgment. They are in fact very idealistic, they really hope to change China. For example, in Taiwan I held debates on the issue of reunification versus Taiwan independence. I organized about 10 such debates, and each time there would be at least three or four students from mainland China who openly stated their names and university affiliation and said they supported Taiwan independence. There was even media covering these debates. This is really hard to imagine, isn’t it? I was really shocked. I asked the students if they were afraid of the media making this public, and one of them said, “If worse comes to worst, I go to jail, no big deal.”
Of course, not all of the 90-hou are like this, but I never really care about the makeup of the majority of any group. I believe that as long as a group has a few leaders, this country has hope. The students I came into contact with in Taiwan were inspiring, and gave me a morale boost. Previously I was pessimistic, and felt that even in 30 or 40 years it was unlikely that China would move towards democracy, but after engaging with the 90s generation, I became an optimist. I believe that I will see China change in the hands of this generation in my lifetime. And do you know just how fearless this generation of students is? They know who I am. There were some students who audited my class, but each semester there are quite a few students who directly selected and registered for my class. My name will appear on their transcript; they’ll take this back to China, and they just don’t care, they still choose my class. As of yet, there hasn’t been any instance of a mainland student being punished for taking one of my classes.
YC: Are you still in touch with them?
Wang Dan: I do stay in touch with some of them. There are a few who are studying for their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. And we have a Facebook group, and have become good friends. But I want to emphasize, it’s not all of the mainland students, but the mindset of at least 10% of the 90s-generation students whom I came into contact with in Taiwan is very forward looking. They’re more enthusiastic than us, and more eager for change. We thought these people supported the Communist Party, but it’s really not like that at all. I can say that 90% of them don’t support the CCP. I also think that this group of students is more resourceful than our 1989 generation of college students. I strongly believe that China will change in their hands. This is one of the reasons why I came back to the U.S., because I think there are more Chinese students like this in the U.S., students who are even more outstanding.
YC: What are some of the other reasons that prompted you to come back to the U.S.?
Wang Dan: Another reason is that I have been thinking about what I can do now. What’s my next step? I think that influencing the younger generation is one of the main things I can do. Of course, if history gives me the opportunity, I will throw myself into the democracy movement, run for office, even become president of China if possible. Why not? But I prefer to be the President of Peking University. But these things are unpredictable, and influencing the younger generation is something I can do right now. So whether I’m in Taiwan, or in America, I give talks wherever I can, to let the younger generation understand history; to let them know that we, as the opponents of the regime, are constructive and not just shouting slogans; and to let them know why China needs democratization to make the country stronger. I want the patriotic younger generation to know that if you are truly patriotic, you must oppose the CCP, and I tell them the logical connection between these two positions. During those years in Taiwan, in my spare time, on weekends, and in the evenings, I would hold “China salons.” I probably organized several hundred of these. The topic was very simple: get to know China. About half of the audience were mainland students, most listened without saying a word, nor asking questions. I felt it was OK, as long as they were listening. My responsibility is to pass the torch on to the next generation.
YC: I read your Tiananmen memoir, in 1989 you became a student leader, but before that, you got your start organizing democracy salons on campus.
Wang Dan: If you look at history, revolutions all start with salons. For example, the French Revolution got its start from salons.
YC: Let’s digress a little here. Can you talk a bit about the democracy salons you organized at Peking University?
Wang Dan: At that time, I was only a freshman; I didn’t have much experience. Liu Gang (劉剛) and those older guys were the first to hold salons. I followed after them. Each time we invited an intellectual, a so-called “counter-revolutionary,” to come. I hoped to use this platform to connect the ivory tower of the university with society.
YC: What kind of scale did you have? How many people attended each democracy salon?
Wang Dan: It could be as few as 20 or so people, but as June 4 approached, and the atmosphere was very tense, sometimes more than a thousand people came.
YC: Where were the salons held?
Wang Dan: Outdoors. We held one salon each week, on an area of grass in front of the statue of Cervantes, next to the foreign students’ dorm.
YC: Cervantes statue…. I like these details. It tickles the imagination.
Wang Dan: It’s a place where young students discussed politics and expressed their political views.
YC: I read that since you returned to the U.S., you’ve already held a few salons: in Boston, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto. How did these events go?
Wang Dan: Generally speaking, I feel that this generation is dissatisfied with China’s current situation. The fact that they left China to go abroad to study demonstrates that they are not that content, particularly those that applied on their own to go abroad. They are seeking new knowledge, but they are also quite confused. First, they don’t know what they can do. Second, they are disappointed in those around them; they feel that most Chinese they know are disappointing. Third, they don’t see any alternatives: who can take the place of the CCP? Because of these three issues, they are not able to express much enthusiasm. But in the process of chatting with them, I feel that there is a flame burning in their hearts. They really want to do something, to change things. When we talk about China, every person is critical. From the things they’ve said, it’s clear that they look at problems deeply; no less deeply than us. All of them have Ph.D.s or Master degrees. They are knowledgeable.
YC: Among the Chinese students studying abroad, many are the children of quangui (權貴), the powerful and the rich. They are beneficiaries of the system and tend to defend it.
Wang Dan: Not necessarily. In the early period of the Chinese Communist Party, many of the leaders were children of wealthy families. For example, Peng Pai was the son of a wealthy man in Shantou. The wealthier the family, the more likely they are to be inclined towards revolution, because they don’t need to worry about their livelihood, and they have more time to read and think. This is a possibility. Children from poor families have to think more about their livelihood, and have more to worry about.
YC: I feel I must disagree here: the powerful and rich families in China today are fundamentally different from the genteel class of traditional Chinese society.
Wang Dan: The parents of these families might be tainted, but the children are just a blank page. I’ve been in touch with some of these 20-year-old kids studying abroad, for example, children of mayors, and also chairs of the Chinese Student Associations who are in direct contact with the Chinese embassies and consulates. I don’t think the latter are spies. I’ve had quite deep conversations with them privately. They all know what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what family they’re born into, youth are youth, and young people have passion.
YC: I wish I could, and I desperately want to, share your enthusiasm. I admit that I have next to no interactions with children from quangui families. If there are rebels in their midst, it’s not showing. You look at today’s human rights lawyers, dissidents, and human rights defenders, people who are making efforts and sacrifices for a free and just China, you will see that the absolute majority of them come from the impoverished countryside.
Wang Dan: To the extent possible, I befriend young people from all different backgrounds born in the 90s. They are very smart, and they grew up in the Internet age. It’s not so easy for them to accept us as friends. But it’s very important to become friends with them. Some colleagues in the democracy movement are divorced from the young generation.
YC: So you believe one of your most important missions is to influence the young generation?
Wang Dan: Yes, one of them. In addition to salons, in the future I may organize summer camps and trainings. I’ve been involved in the opposition movement for so many years — what sort of look does the opposition movement take on in order to integrate with this era –– that is an important question. Starting from the time I was 20 until now, 30 years have passed, and what I have been doing politically is politics. For example, we have critiqued the totalitarian system, exposed abuses, rescued political prisoners, organized political parties, established several human rights awards, etc. I will continue to do these things, but now I feel that I’ve reached a time when I need to adjust what I’m doing; I want to somewhat remove myself from current, immediate events to think about what China will be like after the communist regime is gone. A lot of people are thinking about how to overthrow the CCP; I won’t be missed. The issue is this: if there comes a day when the CCP is toppled, regardless if it’s caused by other people or itself internally, what sort of situation will China find itself in afterwards? We need to have sand-table rehearsals. I’m interested in policies and technicalities for a democratic, post-communist China. Between politics and policies, I hope to devote some time and energy on the latter.
YC: That’s interesting and certainly forward-thinking. In the west, people are getting used to the idea that communist China is so stable that it will never fall. In any case, their plans are made based on such assumptions. But I keep thinking that the CCP hasn’t even stabilized something as basic as power succession.
Wang Dan: We need to have something like a shadow cabinet. We need to come out with a political white paper: how to conduct privatization of land; how to define a new university self-governance law. Obviously, this is a big ambition; it’s not something that can be done in a short amount of time. But this is the second big goal I set for myself after returning to the U.S.: I’m planning on establishing a small think tank to research and advance a set of specific governance policies.
YC: You didn’t leave China until the end of the 1990s, so you know the 90s well. Since the early 2000s, the rights defense movement has emerged, NGOs have burgeoned, and faith communities have expanded rapidly in both urban and rural areas, the entire social strata has changed as a result of the economy opening up. Previously, everyone belonged to a work unit, a “danwei.” Now a significant part of China’s population doesn’t rely on state-owned work units. They might work for a foreign enterprise or a private enterprise, or they might run their own small business or be engaged in other relatively independent professions such as being a lawyer. The rights consciousness of these people is totally different than before. I personally think they have been and will be the force for change because they are less subservient to the system. One may even say that they hate it, or they have every reason to detest it. What sort of observations do you have regarding the past 20 years in China?
Wang Dan: Profound changes occurred in China after 1989. First, never in the thousands of years of Chinese history has there been an era like today’s China in which everything is centered on making money—the economy takes precedence above all else. The second profound change is that in the entire country—from the elite strata to the general population—few have any sense of responsibility for the country or society. They’ve totally given up. From those in power to intellectuals to college students to average citizens, most people do not think that this country is theirs, they believe that China’s affairs are someone else’s business and that it has nothing to do with them. This is a first in China. I believe that these are two important reasons why China has not yet democratized. Therefore speaking from the perspective of the opposition, the most important task is the work of enlightenment. Those people who advocate violent revolution probably will oppose what I say, but I think Chinese people still need to be enlightened.
YC: I want to interject here that the fact that the elite class, whether it’s intellectuals or the moneyed class, have given up responsibility for the country is an indication of the rigor of communist totalitarianism. Isn’t that so? Hasn’t the Party worked methodically, meticulously, and cruelly to diminish individuals, including the elite class, into powerless atoms, preventing them from becoming a force, making sure they are beholden to the state, and depriving them even of a free-speaking Weibo (Chinese Twitter-like microblog) account? Having a citizenry that takes the country’s future into its own hand is at variance with the totalitarian system. It’s against the system’s requirement. On a personal level, acting out of a sense of duty for the country’s future is suicidal, it goes against one’s instinct for survival. Look at what happened to Liu Xiaobo and Ilham Tohti. Look at those lawyers who are tortured, disbarred, or harassed for defending human rights. Look at the professors who were expelled from teaching for uttering a bit of dissent. The Communist Party has a monopoly on China’s future as long as it’s in power, just as it does on the past and the present. Now please explain to us what you mean by enlightenment.
Wang Dan: For example, the majority of ordinary citizens sincerely believe that if China becomes a democracy, there will be chaos. Even if they have not been brainwashed by the CCP, even if they loathe Communist Party members, they still feel this way. Why do they think this? We need to reason with them. For example, just because the 1989 movement failed, it does not mean that it wasn’t the right thing to do. If you don’t talk about issues like these, the majority of people won’t think about them, therefore we must reason with them. This ability to inspire people through reason has a great potential to mobilize society.
YC: It was probably around the time of 2007 or 2008 when I first started looking at China’s Internet. There was also censorship, but comparing the Internet expression at that time to today, it was like a paradise back then, and there was a lot of what you call enlightenment, many public intellectuals or writers had many fans, and they could say and did say a lot. It was also around that time the CCP sensed a crisis, believing that if they continued to have lax control over speech on the Internet, their political power would be in imminent danger. Thus the censorship regime during the past decade has become stricter and more absurd. So now you are facing a very practical problem, even someone like Peking University law professor He Weifang can no longer keep a Weibo microblog account. People’s throats are being strangled, there’s no way for them to speak.
Wang Dan: Now it is very difficult, we must admit. But we shouldn’t give up just because some difficulties exist and sink into despair. Nietzsche said the disadvantaged don’t have the right to be pessimistic. You’re already underprivileged, if you’re then also pessimistic, your only option is to give up. I believe now is the darkness before the dawn. It truly is the most difficult time, but it is also the time when we have to persist the most. Like me, traveling around giving talks, oftentimes there aren’t many people at each talk, maybe 20 or so, but I feel it’s worth it.
YC: Liu Xiaobo died in a prison hospital. Even as someone who doesn’t know his work in any depth, I feel hit hard by it and it is difficult to grapple with. It’s like, for all these years, everyone sort of expected him to come out of prison rested and ready to go in 2020 after he served out his prison term. That’s not too far from now. When he died, it dawned on a lot of us that the CCP would never have let him walk out of jail alive. You were together with Liu Xiaobo in Tiananmen Square, and you worked with him during the 1990s, how does his death affect you?
Wang Dan: I grieve Xiaobo’s death as many others do. But I know that he would want us the living to do more. We need to do things that he can’t do anymore. And the best remembrance of Liu Xiaobo is to get more done and to see that his ideals for China become true.
YC: Many people won’t have the opportunity that I have to sit down with you. They know who you are, but they don’t know what you have been doing. They will say, “Those people who’ve been abroad all these years, what have they done? We haven’t seen anything!” How would you respond?
Wang Dan: First, I don’t really care about the various criticisms of me that others may make. I actually welcome it. It’s a form of encouragement, and at the very least, it’s a reminder. I personally feel I’ve done some things as I’ve told you. In addition, I’ve also come out with quite a few books that have made an impact.
YC: Could you tell us about your books?
Wang Dan: The book that’s sold the best is Wang Dan’s Memoir (《王丹回憶錄：六四到流亡》). And then there’s Fifteen Lectures on The History of the People’s Republic of China (《中華人民共和国史十五講》). Both were published in Taiwan, and both have sold well. The third book, titled 80 Questions About China (《關於中國的80個問題》), is the most recent. These 80 questions were all questions I encountered at the salons, so I packaged them together.
YC: What are a few examples of these questions?
Wang Dan: For example: Was Deng Xiaoping really the “chief engineer” of China’s reform and opening up? Why should we not place hope on a Gorbachev emerging from the CCP? Why hasn’t China’s middle class become promoters of democracy? In China, how does the CCP suppress opposition forces? Will democracy lead to social instability? Why don’t Chinese people speak up? Who are the people who might be able to change China? Why do we say “reform is dead”?
YC: While in Taiwan, you also founded the New School for Democracy (華人民主書院). What does it do?
Wang Dan: The New School for Democracy was founded on October 1, 2012. At the time, I wanted to advance the idea of a “global Chinese civil society” spanning Hong Kong, Taiwan, the mainland, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and overseas Chinese communities. Our Board of Directors are people from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. What we all face is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP not only impacts the people of China, but also Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it influences the interests of Chinese all over the world, so I felt that we should all unite and combine efforts. We had an online course, and invited some scholars to give lectures. We later realized that there were not many people interested in a very specialized online course. A Salon was a major project of the school, and it is my contribution as chair of the Board of Directors. We also published a magazine, “Public Intellectual,” which we issued eight times before we had to stop due to lack of funding. Now that I have come back to the U.S., I hope to bring some of the school’s activities here, such as online classes, salons, trainings, and a summer camp.
YC: Your summer camp idea is really interesting. What would it look like?
Wang Dan: A summer camp that brings together students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China who are studying in the U.S. They spend a week together, everyone becomes friends, exchanges views, and they have a better understanding of each other. They learn how to rationally discuss issues. No matter how controversial or sensitive our topic is, they must learn how to speak civilly. You can’t just curse another person because you don’t agree with something he or she said.
YC: On social media, I’ve seen so many people who lack the most basic democratic qualities although they ardently oppose dictatorship and champion democracy. They launch ad hominem attacks without making efforts to get the basic facts straight, and use the foulest language to hurl insults at people.
Wang Dan: So I think that one of the fundamental trainings is how to listen attentively to what the other person is saying, and to take care in how one says things –– to speak civilly and mindfully. There’s also some basic etiquette when speaking, such as not to interrupt others, etc.
YC: I think that’s about it. I hope you settle in smoothly, and that you’re able to start doing the things you want to do as soon as possible.
Wang Dan: It’s been eight years since I left the U.S. I can’t do the things I want to do all by myself. I’m looking forward to connecting with people in certain groups. First, Chinese students studying in the U.S.; second, Chinese living in the U. S. who are not engaged in the democracy movement but are concerned about democracy and politics; third, Americans who study China.
YC: Thank you. I wish you success in your work and life.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Tiananmen’s Most Wanted, the New York Times, June 4, 2014.
Meng Han, October 11, 2017
Continued from Part One
Governmental Dysfunction and NGO Work
In our time of great changes, the term “NGO”—when applied to our Service Center—inevitably has some political connotation. NGO workers have nothing to do with any criminal activities, but have everything to do with governmental dysfunction. It is precisely because of this that we drew attention from society. It is also because of this that the media, scholars, and workers have taken an interest in us and observed our work. As a matter of fact, it is inevitable that NGOs will impact the government in any country. The core issue is in what manner NGOs are making an impact. In my opinion, the involvement of the Service Center in Lide’s labor dispute, at the request of the workers, was positive, progressive, and moved society forward.
For many years local governments have focused on GDP, political achievement, and stability in economic development. Have they ever realized that the contradiction between employees and employers has intensified, and that workers and migrant peasant workers will be the biggest victims if they continue to do things this way? I am very familiar with this group of people for I was a laid-off worker. The saying “behind high-rise buildings there are shadows, and under neon lights blood and tears” is a true portrayal of this class of people.
Compared with unorganized and extreme rights activities, these organized rights activities are no doubt rational progress. The success of the Lide workers’ struggle is precisely because of this. During the process, this group may be unstable and may encounter all kinds of conflicts, but they must go through this process. Those who are unaware of their rights must be awoken from their slumber. They can win as long as they think from their point of view, advocate and defend their rights and interests, overcome difficulties, keep up their resistance, believe in organizing themselves, and rely on collective strength. I believe that they have the courage and that they certainly have a strong desire to win.
During this process, I have tried to understand how young workers’ enthusiasm and older workers’ awareness of their goals entered into agreement. Did our recommendations play a complementary role? When I look back, that is exactly how it worked. We prepared several negotiation plans and various suggestions. For instance, to make sure that the social security arrears must be paid while they could make some compromises on reserve fund[i] and overtime pay. They adopted these suggestions. There were numerous such examples.
Now I am absolutely convinced that in the past few years the contradiction between labor and owners has become increasingly prominent, and many workers are worried that their legitimate rights and interests are wantonly infringed upon and exploited. Government dysfunction, mutual prevarication, bureaucratic government-led “unions,” and complicated and lengthy legal procedures all led to the frustration and desperation of workers when they wanted to make a complaint. And it is for these reasons that NGO institutions such as the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center came into being and provided what was needed. It is also at this time that the idea of “serving the workers and making the interests of workers the top priority” took root in my heart. However, even so, I cannot forget the serious consequences brought about by the disorderly rights struggle of the workers. We have ample examples in which workers lost their freedom, health, and even lives in chaotic and unorganized rights struggles. Therefore, the Service Center tried to guide the workers to set up workers’ organizations during its involvement in the Lide workers’ rights activities to ensure orderliness. Did such an act constitute a major factor of our violation of the law? From the actions of the government, we see that it has come to this conclusion.
I would like to repeat the words I have said more than once: In this era, in fact, almost everyone understands that the most important reason for the workers’ strike was that the workers held the strike for their decency and dignity. This aspect of the strike was reported in the media and online. In fact, the strike was also a heroic struggle against the bureaucracy and owners. It is entirely different from anti-government behavior. I thought that everyone should have understood this.
I do not even care to figure out why and how the state media demonized our work by accusing us of “criminal offenses.” I just want to figure out why the workers’ rights and interests are generally infringed upon and what effective ways there are to protect the rights and interests of workers. That’s what I want to do.
If our organizing and guiding workers to help them protect their legitimate rights and interests are criminal offenses, then I want to ask: is it not a criminal offense when the police use force to suppress an NGO’s normal work and the judiciary institutions abuse criminal law against NGOs?
The Path for Workers to Fight for Their Rights Has Been Blocked
While in prison, I had time to think. I got excited all over again every time I recalled how I first met the Lide workers.
At that time, I did a very important thing—my colleagues and I guided workers to form a steering group through an election. After that, they met other workers and actively carried out promotional activities. Strictly speaking, these activities were full of vitality, happiness, and pleasantness. There was no element of coercion, force, or threat, only suggestion to participate in the activities to defend their own interests. There was also another move—broadcasting a successful rights case, and asking ordinary workers to get on the stage and talk about their experiences in defending their rights and their views on advocating their rights. Now I know very well that it is very hard to do the same again, but how effective a move it was.
One thing I’d like to add is that, after the victory of the workers’ strike, we strived to collect the most effective and best practices adopted during their rights activities and organized workers’ tours to give talks to workers in other places. Workers elsewhere benefited from the new working method we adopted. We guided workers on how to use media and its influence to completely change the passive and weak position of workers in their struggle. This does not just mean a different entry point or different ways of defending rights. In fact, this reflects the civil rights awareness by the new generation of workers in current society.
It is these new methods of work that put workers’ rights activities onto the right track. It changed the previous disorderly situation where workers fought individually in demanding pay and defending their rights. They put the facts on display, and collectively faced the employer, the government, and the media. This is not only a show of determination, confidence, and strength, it is also a heightened sense of rights awareness and reflection of collective wisdom of the workers.
When I look back at the events two years ago, I have to admit that my heart is very heavy. For a long time—in fact from the time when I was a worker at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine—I have had this problem.
I remember a female worker, a representative of the workers, at the hospital who had worked there for more than a dozen years and got a lot of recognition and awards. When she was laid off by the hospital, she received no social security or health insurance. At the time when the strikes achieved some initial victory, her legs were in so much pain she could barely stand up. When she left with a meager ¥20,000 (about US$3,300 at the time) of humanitarian relief, I felt so sad I almost cried out loud. This is something that has sat heavily on my chest.
Having these painful thoughts in mind, I feel that I should tell the process, motives and my feelings during these events. To be honest, this is a bit scary. People in general accept certain things directly in real time. They experience happiness, uneasiness, anger, or pain in the real situation. But I know how things will change, and they unfold the way I foresee them. This advanced knowledge doesn’t make me happy. On the contrary.
It is rather obvious that the road for workers’ rights advocacy has been blocked and the back door has long been closed, too. The economy has developed to this day but workers do not have the right to strike or organize their own trade unions. If workers do not even have the right to associate, how can workers protect their rights in this era of powerful capital? We cannot allow this situation of keeping low labor costs to continue. In order to end this situation, workers need to organize, to set up their own trade unions, and to have their right to strike! A society where workers and NGOs are suppressed through so-called law and administrative means is not a society ruled by law.
I felt a heavy burden off my shoulders after expressing these feelings and views, even though Lide workers’ strikes became my crime. As in the past, before the legal process was completed, the case had been coordinated in advance by government offices to set the tone.
At the moment, what we still see is a judicial system succumbing to external power, lawyer’s defenses subjected to various restrictions, and a manipulated judicial process. All these led to an unfair trial in my case. Such an unjust judicial system shook my already wavering faith in the law. However, the prosecution by the procuratorate and the judgment of the court against me were just to meet the needs of external power. They have become the guardian of local interests. It is the working class who get hurt the most!
This is only one aspect of the real tragedy of the working class, an aspect that makes every worker uneasy. As an older worker, however, I have something else that I worry about too—the continued deterioration of labor-owner relations in the market economy will lead to the instability of labor relations as a whole. To this today, the interests and rights of a large number of workers in our country’s development and urban construction are still infringed upon. Doubtlessly, the government should take the responsibility.
As an older worker, I can only express my deep admiration for those labor NGO staff, labor rights lawyers, as well as people from all walks of life who are concerned about labor rights. In the protection and maintenance of workers’ rights and interests, their acts may not be noticeable, but they have done a lot of work. It is they who have given the workers determination and courage to advocate for their rights and interests.
In my opinion, what we did is correct. There is no doubt about it.
Their Method of Solving Problems is Imprisonment
The workers’ strike has been associated with my life spent in detention.
I clearly remember how they talked to me in the interrogation room: some police officers freely assumed my guilt and asked me to incriminate other colleagues of the Service Center in exchange for a lighter sentence. It is from this dirty deal that I saw their abuses. Their oppression of ordinary and honest people like us has gone beyond handling a criminal case.
This makes everything look like persecution.
I remember I remained silent for a long time while staring at them. My thoughts were heavy and painful. They took turns to interrogate me day and night, repeatedly modifying the interrogation transcripts and forcing me to sign. It really shocked me. For so many months and so many times, they wanted to get from me materials that could be used to incriminate others.
This lasted for a long time. I always persuaded myself: even though they did not wear police uniforms, they were police, whom I ran into in my work all the time. I remember that their investigation began right after the Lide workers’ strike. At that time the workers had been organized. We were all clear that neither of us could get the problem solved by doing this. It was just a farce. But still….
In order to create an atmosphere suited for their handling of my case, they kept pressuring me to plead guilty. They have acted like that even to this day.
I have been trying to free myself from this suffocating, unbearable, and menacing atmosphere. We were punished by the “law.” In fact we were presumed guilty from the very beginning. The rest of it was to move through the so-called legal procedures, which they did without scruples.
Their repeated sentences can never change my mind.
The confrontation between workers and the police because of the rights activities is my pain. No, the pain is not ours, but that of our time! For this reason, Lide workers’ strike is but a microcosm in this era, because they reflect the plight of all workers.
Everyone knows that it is workers who are the masters of this country. But they have no status, no power, no resources. All they can do is to unite against the exploitation of the owners. If the government cannot even accept these activities, that means those of us who desire decent work and a dignified life will pay too high a price.
I do not even want to write these words. No one at any time can impose their will on me and make me violate my principles as a man.
I want to go out of the prison cell and breathe fresh air. In any case, I cannot abandon what I believe.
For an ordinary person like me, going to jail twice is like a thunderbolt from a blue sky. Meanwhile, you are fully aware that workers’ rights and interests are infringed upon, and more and more workers are demanding pay owed to them. Many workers even lost their lives because of this.
The functional departments that lost their initiative were eager to find ways to solve problems. But the miracle did not happen. So sending us to prison is the “best way.”
Love and Pain
Long-term imprisonment has deteriorated my health. Continued treatment made me so weak. But what made me really suffer is being separated from my partner. We have never been separated, or taken a vacation alone, or lived our lives divided in two halves.
Words cannot express how much she gave me spiritually and materially. Without her, I would not be able to stand the storm—either in 2013 or 2015. Without her, I would have perished. Now, when her career is flourishing, she has to spend a lot of energy to care for and support me.
She is a rare, sincere, and optimistic person. She has to—in her own way—suffer the tragedy brought to her because of my work. She spent a lot of effort to care for those old unemployed peasant workers, helping them to be employed again. If everyone knew this, many would take her as an example and actively engage in the care of those older unemployed workers. Everyone can feel it and they all like her.
This is my private matter, and she is the woman in my private space. When I heard our private life mentioned in a media report, I could not describe how awful I felt. To outsiders, it seems only a moral issue. But for me, it is purely private. Because of this, I feel very angry.
This report is like a thorn that has taken root in my body. Any remarks about her will touch my heart and give me pain. For me, she is not only my family, girlfriend, confidant, she is also a responsibility in my personal memory.
Every second at night in prison is getting heavier. How can I make myself fall asleep? Regardless, ordinary people should have our own private space.
At the end of October 2016, I suffered tremendous pressure. My colleagues were tried and sentenced. I was dealt with separately and my trial kept being delayed. The police intentionally showed the video of my colleagues at their trial. It was a tough day for me. Suddenly I felt that I could no longer stand it. But at the same time, my insistence of adhering to my principles and the responsibility of finding the truth were on my shoulders. I felt that I could barely hold on and I was about to break down….
Now, if I could return to that moment, what would I feel? I would not feel shame, nor would I feel angry, but something else. I once again could feel the uneasiness, nervousness, and heaviness that pressed me so much I could not even lift my head.
Then came the most ridiculous day. On November 3, my trial opened and ended smoothly as previously rehearsed. Everything disgusted me and made me feel helpless. I felt humiliated. Suddenly I understood: It is not important any more how I play my role in this drama. I would be seen as a bad actor anyway.
I understand the most important point: in this event, no matter how hard I try and how strongly I carry myself through as an individual, the outcome would be the same.
Despite the disguised threats and the promises the authorities have made, I will not hesitate to help those workers if they need it, knowing very well that I may once again face the same outcome.
Whenever I sit in the dining room with other “criminals,” I always appear to have been lost in my thoughts. My heart was filled with complex feelings. Sometimes I felt a kind of loss. I had had the same feeling after the verdict. But I don’t want to believe that this feeling of loss is becoming more and more intense now.
My Future Road
Over the past few years, day in and day out, workers’ rights work has become my entire life, occupying my mind. Whenever I think of those workers who struggle for just their basic rights, those experiences will soon make my adrenaline run high. I have been for some time feeling lost because of these experiences and the pain their memories brought me.
I feel lonely, even bored. But I do not want to infect others with this emotion.
Is this the event that makes me restless? If so, how can I go on like this?
I started thinking. The first thing I thought about was that I should really get back all I had lost in these years: the ability to self-analyze and think for myself. In addition, I must be responsible for my ideas and confidence. I will also be responsible for my work and my actions. Although the road to my ideals may be tortuous and long, we have started our journey after all.
Yes, this is very important. This is also the direction of my life.
These are my “Notes from Prison”—my experiences and my feelings, my various observations, impressions and views.
I had these thoughts alone while in prison and have not told anyone how I felt. I should truthfully write down all that I have experienced and felt, and why I did this or that. Now, only one question remains: what will I be like in the future?
I feel as if I’m climbing Mount Everest. Today I am in a state where I have exhausted all my strength and energy in defending workers’ rights and interests, from beginning to end.
If I feel it necessary to further argue for myself, I would suggest: “Go and ask workers and migrant peasant workers!”
And I will continue to complete the unfinished work.
Third revision, written in prison, August 23, 2017.
My thoughts, wrapped with the storm of yesterday, beat my heart like mind-blowing waves crashing into the shore.
The past still remains. Everything present is the continuation of history, which is a train hurtling forward with tears and blood. This huge inertia cannot change just because someone has good intentions. New impetus needs to be injected for history to change and be created. Of course we also need to have new ideas that keep up with the times.
There is no doubt that after more than three decades of reform, our country has made huge progress that impresses the world. In the process, workers and farmers have sacrificed a great deal. Now, the period during which people of all classes benefit from the reforms has been irreversibly ended. The gap between the rich and poor has widened continuously. Overall, rights and interests of the new generation of workers have often been flouted. The increasing wealth will not solve the increasingly sharp contradictions between labor and ownership. We urgently hope that law can really play its role in today’s market-oriented society. This process will be accompanied by pain. It requires both the government and people of all walks of life, as well as workers, to understand and tolerate each other. It requires common and creative wisdom—the past events prove that the workers are full of such wisdom.
Written in prison, August 28, 2017
[i] Reserve Fund refers to the Housing Reserve Fund, a compulsory 5 percent or more withholding by the government from an employee’s paycheck to be used for housing compensation. But in practice, the requirements for withdrawing one’s reserve fund are onerous.
Liu Shaoming, a 1989 Veteran and a Labor Activist, Remains Imprisoned Without Sentence, China Change, May 31, 2017.
Meng Han, October 10, 2017
On December 3, 2015, Guangdong police raided a series of labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta area, detaining several NGO leaders and activists. Among them was Meng Han (孟晗), a then 50-year-old experienced labor activist and an intern at Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center in Guangzhou. Meng Han had served nine months in jail for leading a rights struggle in between 2013 and 2014, and this time, he was tried and sentenced to twenty-one months in prison. Last month he was released and shortly afterward he posted “Notes From Prison” (《狱中札记》) on social media. He was subsequently questioned by police and given warnings. “We are innocent,” he told the court in 2013 and his words still ring true, “the real criminals are those who use the power the people give them to wantonly trample over workers’ legitimate rights. They disregard the law at will, and they should be the defendants, not us, the helpless workers… As a veteran worker in contemporary China, I’d rather spend the rest of my life in prison than be deprived even of my right to work with dignity.” China Change is honored to bring a full translation of Meng Han’s “Notes From Prison” to afford our readers a rare glimpse into an indomitable activist’s life and reflections on labor plight in China. — The Editors
The rhythm of prison life has slowed me down. This has given me the opportunity to recover and ponder issues.
I do indeed have issues to think about….
Such an important period of time in my life is about to end. Even my family members don’t know what happened. This is something unprecedented.
Today, I alone bear the pain brought by this incident [the Lide shoe factory strike]. I endure it almost all by myself. I was a participant and a witness of this incident.
To tell the truth, I cannot bear the heaviness of this burden. I’m eager to talk about it with someone. I can only use this means to write down my thoughts, and they are also reflections on my experience of the past few years.
Workers at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine Collectively Defending Their Rights
I was laid off in 1997 during the reform of state enterprises. I received my severance pay and left the enterprise where I had worked for 17 years. It was a difficult time. I had to do whatever job I could find to support my family.
After some twists and turns, I started doing security work for the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine. I loved my job. Shortly after I started working with great enthusiasm, the hospital laid off all caregiving workers. I never thought that, as security workers, we had the same contract problems and other problems such as different pay for the same work, overtime pay, and the same annual vacation issues. What was more outrageous was that even though we worked in Guangzhou, our social security was bought for people working in Qingyuan, another city in Guangdong Province. We complained to the higher authorities multiple times, but they just ignored us and put it off for a long time. We felt so helpless that we—caregiving workers, stretcher workers, and security guards—launched a strike that lasted for 90 days. I was elected through one-person-one-vote as the chief representative for this collective workers’ rights negotiation. At the same time, storms started to come toward me from all directions.
Perhaps very few people now remember the then shocking incident of workers at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine collectively defending their rights in the summer of 2013. But those who participated in that strike may still feel the emotional pull of it and find it unforgettable.
It was an exceptionally hot summer. We visited the provincial General Labor Union[i] seven times for help and petitioned the provincial government multiple times. But they kept delaying and shifting responsibilities. Our problem was not solved. The situation between workers and employer-bureaucrats became confrontational. Even though we had not received pay for several months, we didn’t give up. More than 100 workers continued the strike even though more than 80 of them had been taken to police stations for interrogations. Every time the employer-bureaucrats agreed to solve the problem, but they never fulfilled their promise.
Our persistence and resistance of nearly three months finally made the employer-bureaucrats give in. We achieved some initial success. At our celebration party, fellow workers looked at each other in silence, some with tears in their eyes. They were all heroes in this fight for their rights. However, the issues for security guards had not been resolved. Workers’ dissatisfaction eventually exploded. We security workers continued our fight. We climbed on top of the glass rain awning in front of the outpatient building, demanding that the employer come out to negotiate and resolve the labor dispute. For this, twelve of us paid a high price[ii]. The prolonged intensity took a heavy toll on me emotionally. I was exhausted.
The nine months in prison did not defeat me, nor was it able to. On May 18, 2014, I left the detention center and saw many people waiting to receive me. They were the people I like the most and feel the closest to. There were also the workers’ representatives whom I respect the most.
Perhaps it was my passion and my will to resist that made me hesitate no more.
Becoming an NGO Worker and Lide Shoe Factory Workers Defending Their Rights
In July 2014 I made the most important choice in my life after I left the prison by joining the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center (番禹打工族服务部) and becoming a full-time NGO worker to serve workers. Later, because of my work, I got involved in the Lide Shoe Factory labor dispute.
It was decided on August 17, in a work meeting of the Service Center, that we would help with the Lide Factory workers’ request and that all employees of the Service Center would participate in helping the workers. I was still an intern, lucky to participate in this fight for workers’ benefits.
In January 2015 I became a full-time employee of the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center. To me this was not just a job. In a few months of hard work we’d already became friends who shared the same ideals. Every weekend we would have picnic parties, and organized activities with different themes. We tried to avoid politics, focusing only on the workers. Once in awhile we would also talk about family and love. We communicated with each other honestly, willing to express our own opinions and share our feelings.
For the first time in a long time I experienced this bright, passionate optimism. I thought to myself that I no longer needed to work so hard, like “a dog acting as an ox plowing a field” and running all over the place only to run up against stone walls everywhere I went. The heavy burden that I used to carry was removed from my shoulders. I was working with an excellent team and we had a common goal: “Keeping workers’ interests as the highest priority.”
Organized by workers’ representatives, Lide Factory workers held two strikes, through which they achieved some victories. Those workers, who had suffered exploitation for so long, had never felt such enthusiasm. Many people were quite impressed.
Almost every week I met with these representatives. Even when they had to work overtime we would communicate via QQ and WeChat. I would honestly express my ideas and support the decisions workers’ representatives made. The workers were very enthusiastic about defending their rights, and their rights awareness had increased as well. But the situation was not as optimistic and exciting as what I describe now, especially after the second workers representatives’ plenary meeting.
By January 20, 2015, the Lide employer did not fulfill the labor agreement previously reached with the workers. Workers felt despair and were enraged by the dishonesty of their employer. By this time, rights awareness had penetrated deeply into the lives of the workers. I could not tolerate such a thing happening either. As we had always advocated, once the workers were determined to defend their rights, the best way to solve the problem was through fair dialogue and negotiations. No matter what, the workers were not to be lied to or let down.
The delaying and shirking of responsibility on the government side, and the improper involvement of the police also became catalysts for confrontation between the workers and the employer. The abnormal behavior of Lide’s five workers’ representatives as a result of police threats and coercion made the collective negotiation more difficult. Their contacting the police in private and accepting benefits from the police violated the rules for workers’ representatives. Representatives were also unable to report to the workers in a timely fashion the development of negotiations. No doubt they were under all kinds of pressure, lost their initial enthusiasm and sense of responsibility, and deviated from representing the interests of the whole group.
Their behavior caused an uproar among the other representatives. The situation became very complicated. The police continued their tactics of threatening, baiting, dividing, and cracking down. They seemed to enjoy the sweet success of their tricks of dividing and conquering, as if workers as a whole were under their control and suppression would succeed very easily.
April 19, 2015, was a day of true test for Lide workers. All Lide workers, as described by the “Workers’ Bulletin,” were full of enthusiasm, courage and wisdom. The Service Center and workers’ representatives actively sought ways to solve the problems. After repeated discussion, it was decided that the “Third Workers Plenary Meeting” be held on April 19 to resolve issues in defending their rights.
After the police tricks of dividing and conquering were seen clearly by the workers, Lide’s workers became more united.
At the meeting, I gave an intense speech on the labor rights issues that the Lide workers faced and expressed my views on the loss of trust in the employer and failure of responsibility on the part of the five representatives. I stated that any behavior that may harm the interest of the workers was not allowed. At the time, I felt that effective, forceful, and decisive measures should be taken.
But something unexpected happened during the dismissing and changing of workers’ representatives: A large number of fully armed police rushed into the meeting place to expel the workers. They took me away. But what was even more surprising was that all the workers went to protest at the police station, demanding that I be released. They were very brave and persistent. I was deeply moved by their sense of justice, which was very rare and precious.
Even though the Third Workers Plenary Meeting was interrupted, everyone was still full of hope. I was even more so. After the meeting, great changes took place among the workers: the violent interruption by the police and the loss of trust in the employer led to the third strike. The workers were fearless. To prevent the employer from moving production materials and factory equipment elsewhere, several hundred workers launched a factory protection action that lasted six days and five nights. They knew very well that, when facing the useless bureaucrats and the powerful employer, they must unite to fight together if they didn’t want their rights to be infringed upon and their dignity not trampled on. The fearless Lide workers won! I have always wondered whether the violent acts of the police led to this strike or the arrogance of the employer and their delay and shirking of responsibility caused this strike.
Looking back, I now see very clearly the cause for this strike. The police also conveniently found what they say were the reasons for strike[iii]. As I mentioned earlier, they once again used their power violently and openly to punish all the NGO workers from the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center, including me, who helped and supported Lide workers.
On December 3, 2015, I was put under residential surveillance due to my role in the Lide strike.
On the afternoon of December 5, 2015, I was criminally detained and taken to the detention center.
On January 8, 2016, I was formally arrested.
Prison and Interrogations
It was my second time at the detention center. I was no stranger to the extremely stressful life here. Indeed, the past 21 months have been difficult.
I don’t remember how many times I have been interrogated. I could no longer maintain my composure when seeing their faces. I didn’t want to hear their repeated advice to “plead guilty.” It seemed as if they had already passed judgment on me. They believed that it was both necessary and with good reason. My headache intensified because of it. I felt increasingly weak and had all kinds of symptoms of discomfort.
During the interrogations, the police said that all of the testimonies by the workers had one thing in common: that I was the leader and commander of all their rights activities, and that I had participated in each and every one of their events. That is true. I did indeed participate in all rights activities. Multiple warnings from the police regarding the strikes could not curb my enthusiasm, and my strong desire for winning this struggle. It was my first time participating in the capacity of an NGO worker in an episode that involved so many workers. I was able to meet and talk with many workers every day and I closely witnessed their unity, courage, and progress. Someone told me not to get involved too much and not to be too serious. But I couldn’t help myself. The strong and active enthusiasm is a good thing for my life. It would only help me endlessly.
What is unreasonable is that when workers interests were harmed, the government officials— who had no intention to resolve any problems—believed that the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center and its employees are to blame.
Prior to the Lide strike, there had been countless strikes. The government approached disputes and temporarily diminished conflicts through cheating and trickery. But the real labor problems did not get resolved at all. Lide workers’ strikes were another way of defending their rights. At the same time I also know that the government didn’t really want to create criminal cases against these desperate workers and give them heavy sentences. That’s why it came up with group negotiations among the government, employer, and workers during the strike.
I should say that the local government reacted promptly to the strike. They started the negotiation process soon enough to meet workers’ demands. It has a lot to do with the success of Lide’s strike and several thousand Lide workers being able to defend their rights. From a legal point of view, the way “social security funds” were dealt with was ridiculous. But I can understand why they did it: the relevant government departments are in a situation where they have no power to resolve underlying problems.
By the way, after the second Lide strike, local police reacted promptly. While I was being subpoenaed, the police invited workers’ representatives to eat, drink, and tried to make friends with them. They used all kinds of tricks to get closer to the representatives. This shows that Lide workers’ efforts had really shocked the government officials.
Everyone knew that after the victory of the strike, the Fanyu Migrant Workers Service Center and its employees became targets of the government. In doing this, the government was able not to confront the workers directly, and at the same time it was able to shamelessly shirk its responsibility. Were there other motivations? I don’t know.
At the time, it didn’t occur to us what would happen to us NGO workers as the government was guided by its stability maintenance priority. It’s naïve to expect the government to change how they view us. I only came to realize this while in prison.
All these problems will continue, be it the strike at the First Hospital of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, the strike at the Lide Shoe Factory, or delinquent payment of wages. A violent crackdown will not improve the situation. It will only intensify it. If the problems are not resolved through correct and feasible means, labor relations will continue to be messy and problematic.
My attitude is unwavering. I strongly believe that we did the right thing in pushing forward the collective labor-employer negotiations. If such an act is punishable by law, I would rather take such risks and help workers resolve their problems.
In my opinion, what we did in April 2015 during the Lide workers’ strike—getting involved in the civil disobedience rights activities, educating workers about labor laws, and assisting in establishing orderly workers organizations—was positive and effective. I should reflect on what happened in an honest way. I should not evade the mistakes that we made, and I should not care about the pain the memories may bring.
[i] Unlike unions in a free society—where workers form independent unions to defend their rights and interests—labor unions in China are government entities whose primary job is not to fight for the workers’ well being but to ensure that workers remain under control.
[ii] On August 19, 2013, Meng Han and eleven other security workers were criminally detained for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order,” and he was released on May 18, 2014.
[iii] The police believed that the strike was a result of instigation by NGO workers such as Meng Han.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.
Throwing labor activists in jail won’t solve China’s structural problems, Quartz, November 2016.
Continue reading Part Two
Andrea Worden, October 9, 2017
In January 2017, after his success at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi Jinping traveled to Geneva to deliver a rare, invitation-only speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations. Most of the top UN officials were present, and Secretary- General António Guterres gave opening remarks that failed to include even a mention of human rights. Human Rights Watch described Xi’s reception in Geneva by UN officials as an “obsequious red carpet treatment,” and said the measures to protect Xi and ensure the event unfolded without disruptions were “highly unusual.” These measures included emptying the complex of many of the approximately 3,000 staff who work there, closing parking lots and meeting rooms, and prohibiting accredited nongovernmental organizations from attending. Only one of the gates to the sprawling Palais de Nations complex remained open, and there were reports of long lines for security checks. Moreover, junior staff at the UN were reportedly drafted to escort the 200 members of the Chinese delegation accompanying Xi. Police thwarted the efforts of a few Tibetan activists who tried to unfurl a Tibetan flag.
Xi’s high-profile speech in Geneva, titled “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” echoed some of the themes of his well-received Davos speech –– positioning China, and Xi himself, as the vacuum-filling leader of a globalized, interdependent and interconnected world. In his wide-ranging speech, Xi rejected trade protectionism and isolationism, and called for countries to cooperate on trade, climate change, nuclear disarmament, terrorism, global health issues, and other cross-border issues, while respecting the sovereign equality of all nations.
The notion of “building a community of shared future for all humankind” (goujian renlei mingyun gongtongti) has appeared repeatedly in Xi’s speeches in international fora during the past five years, since, according to Xinhua, the concept was first advanced at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012. It appears to be an official catchphrase for China’s growing leadership role in global governance. In terms of human rights, the contours of a “community of shared future” are fairly clear. Beneath the lofty and vague rhetoric, China’s position on human rights is consistent with its longstanding approach and policies, but Xi’s speech in Geneva and other official Chinese statements seek to frame the Chinese view as a new approach to global human rights governance, with China at the helm.
The bedrock principle for China is sovereign equality and non-interference. In his speech, Xi stated:
Sovereign equality is the most important norm governing state-to-state relations over the past centuries and the cardinal principle observed by the United Nations and all other international organizations. The essence of sovereign equality is that the sovereignty and dignity of all countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, must be respected, their internal affairs allow no interference and they have the right to independently choose their social system and development path.
Other points in Xi’s speech relating to human rights, which Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu, the head of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, has echoed in his statements and activities at the Human Rights Council throughout 2017, include the following:
- Use dialogue, consultation and cooperation to deal with differences
- Reject double standards in the application of international law
- Promote “openness and inclusiveness” and “reject dominance by just one or several countries”
- Major powers should “build a new model of relations featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation”
- China puts “people’s rights and interests above everything else” and its accomplishment in lifting “over 700 million people out of poverty” is a “significant contribution to the global cause of human rights”
- China “is ready to work with all the other UN members states as well as international organizations and agencies to advance the great cause of building a community of shared future for mankind.”
The Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva has vigorously promoted China’s views on human rights in the Human Rights Council this year through resolutions, statements and side events under the rubric of “a community of shared future” –– an indication that China is taking more concrete and assertive steps to position itself as a leader in the Human Rights Council.
Despite the fact that the UN human rights framework is grounded on the principle of the universality, indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights, China nonetheless is pushing its version of “human rights with Chinese characteristics,” which prioritizes the right to development and economic rights over individual civil and political rights, and insists on a relativistic approach to human rights based on each country’s unique history, culture, values, and political system.
China’s slogan, “building a community of shared future,” made its way into two resolutions that were adopted during the Human Rights Council’s 34th session (HCR34) in March 2017: a resolution on the “Question of the realization in all countries of economic social and cultural rights” (A/HRC/34/L.4/Rev.1) and a resolution on “The right to food” (A/HRC/34/L.21). Human Rights Council resolutions are not legally binding, rather they are the political expression of the views of the HRC members (or a majority) and generally “are a means of gauging the international community’s level of political commitment and degree of willingness to discuss a specific question regarding human rights or related fields.” States may table HRC resolutions as a step in the process of establishing a new thematic issue in the HRC.
In an official statement on the website of the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva, the Chinese government overstates the significance of the inclusion of its “community of shared future” slogan in the resolutions adopted during HRC34. In both the resolutions, the phrase appears in one of many preambular (i.e., introductory, not operative) clauses, tucked among other aspirational language. The official Chinese statement proclaims, however: “This is the first time that the concept of ‘community of shared future for human beings’ is incorporated into the Human Rights Council resolutions, officially making it an important part of the international human rights discourse.” The PRC statement goes on to claim that the adoption of this concept “demonstrates China’s growing influence and ability to set the agenda in international human rights governance.”
On March 1 during HRC34, Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu delivered a joint statement on behalf of a group of 140 countries titled “Promote and Protect Human Rights and Build a Community of Shared Future for Human Beings.” The statement summarized several key points from Xi’s January speech, including: sovereign equality must be respected; human rights should be promoted and protected through dialogue and cooperation and not politicized; and countries should aim for win-win cooperation and outcomes.
On March 8, the Chinese Mission to the UN Office at Geneva and the Chinese “government-organized NGO” (GONGO) China Society for Human Rights Studies cosponsored a side event titled “Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind: A New Approach to Global Human Rights Governance,” during which, according to a Xinhua report, Chinese human rights experts from universities and research centers “elaborated the idea of a community of shared future for mankind in the context of human rights governance, saying interpretation of human rights ideas cannot be taken out of their cultural contexts.” Needless to say no Chinese human rights lawyers or activists participated in the side event.
During the June session of the Human Rights Council (HRC35), China again organized a side event on “building a community of shared future,” and again delivered a joint statement on behalf of more than 140 countries, titled “Joining Hands to Reduce Poverty, Promote and Protect Human Rights.” At the side event titled “International Seminar on Human Rights and Building a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” Ma Zhaoxu stated that peace and development were the prerequisites for human rights, and “development provides the basic conditions for realizing various human rights.” Such statements from China ––that development is a prerequisite for human rights ––undermines the consensus language in numerous UN resolutions and declarations China has agreed to, for example, text in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA) (1993) that provides:
Paragraph 5. All human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated. The international community must treat human rights globally in a fair and equal manner, on the same footing, and with the same emphasis. While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Paragraph 8 (in relevant part). Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives. In the context of the above, the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels should be universal and conducted without conditions attached.
Paragraph 10 (in relevant part). The World Conference on Human Rights reaffirms the right to development, as established in the Declaration on the Right to Development, as a universal and inalienable right and an integral part of fundamental human rights.
As stated in the Declaration on the Right to Development, the human person is the central subject of development.
While development facilitates the enjoyment of all human rights, the lack of development may not be invoked to justify the abridgement of internationally recognized human rights.
China’s activities in Geneva and the Human Rights Council during the first half of the year set the stage for its major initiative in the HRC in 2017. In June, at HRC35, China sponsored a resolution titled “The contribution of development to the enjoyment of all human rights.” At first glance, the resolution seems unproblematic, but upon closer scrutiny, and in light of the explanation given by the United States for why it voted against the resolution, it appears that by tweaking certain language, China effectively privileged the right to development over other rights and attempted to dilute certain human rights norms. The U.S. described China’s resolution as “attempting to reframe the relationship between development and human rights in a way that deviates from consensus texts adopted by UN Member States.” The United States called for a vote on the resolution (most resolutions are adopted without a vote), and China’s resolution was adopted by a vote of 30 to 13, with 3 abstentions. With the resolution’s adoption, the Council requested the Advisory Committee of the HRC to operationalize paragraph 6 and “conduct a study on the ways in which development contributes to the enjoyment of all human rights by all, in particular on best experiences and practices, and to submit the report to the Human Rights Council before its forty-first session.” China will undoubtedly figure prominently in this study, which may serve to advance its “development first” agenda at the Council.
In an article published by China Society for Human Rights Studies after the resolution was adopted, a professor at Peking University wrote: “At present, China has put forward the idea of creating a community of shared future for all mankind, which means that China will participate in global human rights governance more actively and will play a more important role in it.” In June 2017, the People’s Daily, reporting on a conference convened in Tianjin on the theory of building a shared future and global human rights governance, wrote that the concept “had become an important topic in the global human rights discourse.”
The People’s Daily extolled the adoption of the resolution in Geneva, describing the resolution expansively in an editorial as a recognition of the concept “development promotes human rights”:
“The introduction of the concept of ‘development promoting human rights’ into the international human rights system for the first time marked a major shift in the global human rights discourse and is a huge victory for developing countries… The adoption of the resolution also symbolizes the elevation of developing countries’ right to speak on human rights… and will promote greater justice and rationality in the international human rights system.
The editorial also stated that “for a long time Western governments have monopolized the international human rights agenda and discourse, and that some people in the West often use human rights as a pretense to export their values, even to the extent of using them as an excuse to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.”
An article in Study Times (学习时报) praised the resolution, also stating that it was the first time the concept “development promotes human rights” entered into the international human rights system, which followed China’s major concept “building a community of shared future for humanity” being written into a UN Security Council resolution–– both instances of China contributing its proposals to global human rights governance.
The People’s Daily editorial and other Chinese media reports proclaimed that the Western “monopoly” on human rights governance is over, and that China will now firmly take the lead on behalf of the developing world.
What this means, in short, is that China will continue to promote, and attempt to expand, the importance of the right to development and economic rights, while at the same time endeavoring to curtail and weaken the enforcement of civil and political rights. The UN and its member states, including China, have in various UN instruments, however, recognized that both sets of rights – civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic, social and cultural rights on the other, are universal, interdependent and mutually reinforcing, and must be treated on the same footing and with the same emphasis.
The significance of China’s resolution, which is more rhetoric than substance, can best be understood by examining the explanation the U.S. gave for why it voted against the resolution. The U.S. stated in its explanation that it rejects “any suggestion that development goals could permit countries to deviate from their human rights obligations and commitments.” It further provides specific examples of how China selectively took text from various UN instruments, including the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action (VDPA), to misrepresent the relationship between human rights and development. The statement also suggests a contentious negotiation process with China over the language of the resolution. The U.S. stated:
[W]e regret that the resolution draws from these instruments in a selective and imbalanced way that often omits key language that fully explains the relationship between human rights and development, or changes consensus language to materially alter its meaning. We and others have negotiated in good faith to restore this carefully negotiated balance in this resolution. The sponsors made only minimal changes to address these concerns and the changes fall far short of achieving balance. As one example of many, preambular paragraph 5 draws from VDPA paragraph 8, but omits the crucial term “democracy,” and unhelpfully changes “respect for human rights,” to “realization of human rights.”…. These and other distortions of consensus language reinforce the incorrect message that development is a prerequisite for states fulfilling their human rights obligations – a message that is clearly inconsistent with states’ commitments reflected in the VDPA.
Germany, which also voted against China’s resolution, delivered a statement on behalf of the EU, stating that human rights and development are interdependent and mutually reinforcing, but China’s resolution positioned development above human rights. The German representative said that the EU believed that the path of development must accord with all human rights, and that development has two main pillars: one is human rights, democracy, rule of law and good governance, and the other is sustainable development. Moreover, paragraph 10 of the VDPA emphasizes that sustainable development cannot be realized in a situation in which human rights are not respected and protected. The German diplomat also noted that China had selectively used text from various international human rights instruments and distorted the relationship between human rights and development, creating a hierarchy in which development was placed above human rights. Accordingly, the German diplomat stated, the EU could not support the proposed resolution.
After China’s resolution was adopted, the Geneva-based NGO International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) urged the international community and Chinese civil society to pay close attention to the lobbying of the Chinese government on the international human rights platform, and to be on guard against the Chinese government’s efforts to replace UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics.”
As readers of China Change are well aware, Xi Jinping’s “community of shared future for all human beings” excludes many of China’s own citizens. Those human beings left out of Xi’s “shared future” include Chinese human rights defenders and lawyers, democracy and civil society activists, Tibetans, Uyghurs, petitioners, Falun Gong believers, Christians, Buddhists, petitioners –– the list goes on. Xi’s highly choreographed, invite-only, no-civil society-allowed speech at the UN’s Palais des Nations in January was a stark example both of the lack of inclusiveness in his “shared future,” and the tolerance for China’s human rights record at the UN.
Governments and civil society actors will have an important opportunity to address China’s efforts to replace settled UN human rights norms with “human rights with Chinese characteristics”’ standards, along with a multitude of other human rights issues, when China undergoes its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the fall of 2018. China will likely use its next UPR as a platform to bolster its leadership role in the HRC. Many of China’s supporters or those beholden to it will undoubtedly praise China’s June 2017 resolution on development and extol the wisdom of “building a community of shared future for humankind.” The deadline for civil society reports is March 2018, and China’s national report is due by the end of July 2018. Governments are also supposed to consult with domestic civil society groups and other stakeholders in the drafting of their national report. Cao Shunli died because of her efforts to participate in the formulation of China’s national report for its second UPR in October 2013. To honor her memory and struggle, the US and other like-minded national governments and international NGOs should actively support Chinese civil society efforts to participate in the UPR process.
 The 13 countries that voted against the resolution, in addition to the U.S. were Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, U.K., Germany, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, Albania, Belgium, and Croatia. The 3 abstentions were Korea, Georgia, and Panama.
Andrea Worden is a human rights activist, lawyer, and writer. She has worked on human rights and rule of law issues involving China throughout much of her career, and previously held positions as the Acting Executive Director of Asia Catalyst, Advocacy Director with the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Senior Counsel at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). Her essays and articles on human rights issues in China have appeared in such publications as the The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces, Yale-China Review, Georgetown Journal of International Law, South China Morning Post, and China Rights Forum, among others.
The Cost of International Advocacy: China’s Interference in United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms, Human Rights Watch, September, 2017.
China accuses U.N. rights envoy of ‘meddling’ in its judiciary, Reuters, June 8, 2017.
U.N. rights envoy says Chinese authorities interfered with his work, Reuters, August 23, 2016
Hermann Aubié, September 5, 2017
During the eight and a half years that Liu Xiaobo spent in Jinzhou prison, only intermittent attention to both his fate and Liu Xia’s detention kept him from becoming gradually invisible, despite being the world’s only imprisoned Peace Nobel laureate. Now that Liu Xiaobo has passed away of liver cancer on July 13, 2017, there is an even greater danger that what he expressed and stood for will be either poorly remembered or completely forgotten.
In the absence of a comprehensive bibliography of his writings, I compiled this list of Liu Xiaobo’s texts that were found on various Chinese websites, magazines, journals and books that had mostly been published in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as part of my dissertation that provides the first comprehensive academic study in English of Liu Xiaobo’s human rights struggle from a socio-historical perspective. In addition to several interviews with foreign media, Liu published eleven books and about one thousand articles covering an impressive range of topics. After translating all the titles of his texts into English, I added brief annotations and footnotes about the general topic of each text when the titles did not provide any obvious indication on their own.
Because only a few translations of Liu Xiaobo’s writings are available in English (in total less than 1% of all his writings), the discussion of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for human rights in Western media and academia has often been limited to a small set of quotes that are not representative of what he stood for as a whole. As a result, there is still a gap of understanding between Chinese and foreign writings on Liu Xiaobo. Hopefully, this bibliography will inspire future researchers to look deeper into his work to improve the public knowledge and understanding of what Liu Xiaobo gave his life for.
A note on the hyperlinks: All the text that is hyperlinked in blue was originally linking up to the text of his articles or translations, but many of them might have changed since then. If the URL is no longer functional, a simple Google search will turn up valid substitutes.
About the author:
Hermann Aubié is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University in Birmingham, England; he completed his PhD at the Centre for East Asian Studies of the University of Turku (Finland) in 2016 with a dissertation titled “Liu Xiaobo’s Struggle for Human rights: A Contextual Analysis from a Historical Perspective” which is forthcoming as a book.
After doing his BA and MA at the University of Western Brittany in France and the University of Glasgow, he spent five years working in China as a teacher, researcher and consultant for the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue.
His research focuses on contemporary politics, human rights, and civil society transformations in China and East Asia, with particular attention on how citizens use the law and media to promote socio-political change, and to redress injustice for individuals/groups who are persecuted and discriminated against.
From Brittany, in Memory of Liu Xiaobo’s Spirit and Voice of Conscience, Hermann Aubié, August 9, 2017
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.
The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
Open Letter: Call for Investigation Into HNA Group’s Activities in the U.S. and Probable Links With Corruption at Top of Chinese Communist Party
China Human Rights Accountability Center, August 15, 2017
Updated on October 19, 2017
We are writing this open letter to express our deepest concerns about the highly suspicious activities of the HNA Group (HNA) in the United States, including the lack of transparency of its ownership, the unclear nature of its plan for charity work, and allegations of large-scale corruption. Based on the mandate of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, other relevant laws, and in the service of public interest, we strongly urge Congress and relevant administrative agencies to investigate and uncover the true nature of the HNA Group, its asset sources, and intended uses in the United States.
Headquartered in the capital city of Hainan Province, an island off mainland China between the South China Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin, HNA Group started in 1992 as a state-owned enterprise doing business primarily in airlines and tourism. It was re-incorporated around 2000 and began expanding its assets rapidly and mysteriously.
In the last decade alone, the HNA Group transformed itself into the largest acquirer of foreign assets in the U.S. and one of the largest worldwide. The HNA Group is heavily funded by Chinese state-owned bank loans, which have enabled it to leverage into completely unrelated business sectors. With acquisitions, its rank in the Fortune Global 500 list climbed from No. 464 in 2015 to 170 in 2017, and is projected to reach the top 100 in 2018. It is reported that HNA Group’s current total assets exceed $150 billion.
HNA’s ultimate target is to be one of the 10 largest companies in the world, according to its CEO Adam Tan. HNA’s sprawling portfolio now includes Ingram Micro, Avalon, Deutsche Bank, and Hilton Worldwide, to name a few. Its transactions and activities involve former White House Communication Director Anthony Scaramucci and other high profile luminaries including George Soros, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy. However, HNA remains behind a heavy veil, despite its incomprehensible success. It failed to make any clarifications when various journalists repeatedly raised questions about its ownership structure or how it made its fortune.
We are writing this letter out of concern over what appears to be one of the most generous donations to a U.S. foundation in the history of philanthropy, and its potential connections to unprecedented massive corruption.
On January 31,2017, New York Times first reported that HNA’s largest single shareholder was Guan Jun (贯君), a mysterious man who is alleged to be tied to China’s anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan. In June, the Financial Times also reported that Guan Jun purchased 29 percent of the company last year from Hong Kong-based businessman Bharat Bhise. Neither HNA nor Bhise revealed how the stake changed hands up to this transaction.
Only after the Chinese and foreign media began to focus on HNA’s ownership did the company finally release an open letter on July 24 to its employees, associates, and consumers; but even then, it did not list Guan Jun as the largest shareholder. When probed about the disappearance of Guan Jun’s share by a reporter from China Business Network, HNA said Guan is a “private investor” who owned some of the company’s shares, which has now been donated to the Cihang Foundation in New York.
This was confirmed by another Financial Times interview with HNA’s chief executive Adam Tan, who told the British newspaper that a Chinese citizen had donated $18 billion of the ownership of HNA—29 percent of the shares of the HNA Group of China—to a private foundation based in New York: the Hainan Cihang Charity Foundation, the company’s charitable arm in the United States. According to HNA, 53 percent of the company is owned by Cihang foundations, including a 22.8 percent stake held by a sister charity in China. The foundation registered with the New York Department of State on December 7, 2016, and it is currently applying for federal tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. The foundation says it will support a number of efforts, including anti-poverty work. Suspiciously, its three initial directors are all top executives of HNA, as reported by Wall Street Journal.
To put the size of the donation in context, a single donation of $18 billion will make the New York Cihang second only to the Bill Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world. Cihang foundations — the New York Cihang and Hainan Cihang — now hold tens of billions in total assets.
What was not explained, however, was how the donor Guan Jun, a man in his 30s, acquired such a large share of one of China’s biggest companies in the first place. According to Hong Kong corporate filings, Guan Jun’s registered residential address is a simple apartment in what New York Times reporters found was a dingy, trash-laden building in Beijing, while his business address was registered in the “Oriental Aphrodite Beauty Spa”, a street-side salon in a residential neighborhood in western Beijing. Both proved to be very dubious; Guan does not appear to be the owner or resident of those locations. When asked some of these questions by the Financial Times in a telephone call, his answer was “It is inconvenient to answer any of your questions.” In a YouTube video posted after this letter was first published, Guan Jun supposedly denied his connections with government officials, but never mentioned how and when he could possibly have amassed such a princely sum of wealth. Curiously, the source of the professionally produced video was not identified, and neither was the video acknowledged by HNA.
In the interview with the Financial Times, Tan made the surprising admission that Guan, and another shareholder, Bharat Bhise, had never really owned the shares, “but had just held the stake for us.” This claim is inconsistent with the HNA spokesperson’s statement. It remains to be examined how these shares were obtained from HNA, a former state-owned enterprise that had undergone government-managed privatization. HNA’s true relationship with Guan Jun also remains unsettled — HNA claims he does not work for the company, but according to media reports, he serves as co-chairman with the son of HNA’s Chairman Chen Feng in a peer-to-peer financing platform owned by HNA. Recent New York Times Reported that shares that Guan Jun held originated from companies affiliated with Chen Feng and his family.
Doubts about the company’s unclear ownership structure and allegations of corruption have recently caused Bank of America to decide not to do any business with the Chinese conglomerate. Meanwhile, the European Central Bank is reportedly investigating HNA’s nearly 10% stake in Deutsche Bank. Goldman Sachs, longtime partner of HNA, recently suspended its IPO work for a HNA unit on due diligence concerns.
On top of this, the New York Attorney General pointed out that the group had not registered in the state as a charity, as required by law, and asked it to do so within 20 days or explain why it has not done so. HNA argued that it was not required to register by Executive Law because it did not intend to raise funds from third party, after the first explanation that the foundation couldn’t register because it hadn’t yet received its federal 501(c)(3) status, a tax exemption of nonprofit organizations, which is pending.
More recently, in September, the Swiss Takeover Board (Übernahmekommission) requested HNA to explain its ownership structure. It is concerned that HNA is a “white glove” that holds wealth for the powerful.
Although Chinese citizens are effectively prohibited from asking questions about HNA and its business and political affiliations, there is little doubt that this conglomerate needed close ties with senior leaders of the Chinese Communist Party to achieve such spectacular growth. There is no other possible explanation for how HNA could obtain a seemingly unlimited line of credit from all major state-owned financial institutions in China. Most Chinese people are prohibited from knowing the nature of the HNA transactions. Those who are aware of the hidden fact are outraged by such an abnormal transfer of assets — possibly a grand embezzlement of public wealth — but they are too afraid to protest or speak up because they fear the potential backlash from the individuals who genuinely control the HNA assets, who are likely connected to the very top of the communist regime.
For Congress and the administration, HNA’s unprecedented, massive corruption and dubious transfer of large assets to a U.S.-based “charity” should sound an alarm: Cihang foundations control over 53% of HNA, making Cihang a shell holding company of HNA, one of the top companies in the world, not a charity.
We suspect that HNA’s largest shareholder Guan Jun may have acquired his 29.5% share ownership by siphoning off public assets through government-manipulated privatizations, because public records provide no evidence that he purchased these shares fairly.
Consistent with Guan Jun’s murky identity, only very high level political privileges can explain why HNA was able to grow at a parabolic rate, fueled by bank lending and easy access to hard currency, despite China’s tight capital controls. HNA’s chairman of the board, Chen Feng was a former PLA officer, worked under Wang Qishan for a project of the now defunct China Agriculture Trust Investment Co., and has “been a delegate to three national congresses of the Chinese Communist Party since 2002, spanning the presidencies of Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping”, as reported by Nikkei. HNA’s business took off when Wang Qishan became Hainan’s Party chief in 2002. In Chen Feng’s most recent public appearance, he accompanied Xi Jinping on Xi’s state visit to the U.K in 2015, where he was received by then-Prime Minister David Cameron on the same stage with Xi. HNA filed a lawsuit in New York in Augustus 2017, denying allegations that Wang Qishan or his nephew Yao Qing is the controlling shareholder of HNA Group, directly or indirectly. Public records found online show that Yao Qing has several transactions with HNA subsidiaries and affiliates.
HNA bypassed scrutiny while acting as a state sovereign investment company. On the other hand, given the opacity of the ownership and its special connections, we are concerned that it could very well be controlled by individuals and families connected with the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), operating through a shadowy Guan Jun. Cihang will provide a shelter for CCP leaders’ families to retain their wealth, which they could only have obtained through corruption. Cihang may thus become a beachhead for the CCP to influence the U.S. government and public.
If this is the case, such an entity would be liable for examination per the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, passed in December 2016 (NDAA 2017, section 1261-1265) as the law aims at sanctioning officials or their senior associates who have committed “expropriation of private or public assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, bribery, or the facilitation or transfer of the proceeds of corruption to foreign jurisdictions.”
Therefore, we ask the U.S. Congress and the administration to support the following:
- Conduct an independent investigation into all transactions and assets held by HNA and its U.S. -based business affiliates in connection with alleged corruption by CCP leaders;
- Conduct an independent investigation of the source of funding for HNA and Cihang’s U.S. operations in connection with alleged corruption by CCP leaders;
- Hold an open hearing through the U.S. Congress regarding the above investigations;
- Suspend approval of HNA’s application for the tax-exempt status until the completion of the above investigations;
- Suspend approval of all HNA’s business mergers and acquisitions in the United States until the completion of the above investigations;
- Audit HNA’s U.S.-based companies, NY Cihang Foundation, and Guan Jun’s donation and suspend their operations in the U.S. until the completion of the above investigations.
China Human Rights Accountability Center
Contact: Fengsuo Zhou, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The China Human Rights Accountability Center was formed in January 2017 by a network of Chinese activists, primarily based in the U.S., to promote and assist the implementation of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.
Financial Times: HNA chief shrugs off regulatory and ownership concerns
Financial Times: Who owns HNA, China’s most aggressive dealmaker?
Financial Times: Goldman Sachs suspends HNA work on due diligence concerns
Financial Times: ECB probes HNA and Qatar Stakes in Deutsche Bank
Financial Times:Former HNA shareholder denies Beijing ties
New York Times: Behind an $18 Billion Donation to a New York Charity, a Shadowy Chinese Conglomerate
New York Times: HNA dealing with Scaramucci, first report of Guan Jun
New York Times:Mounting Questions About Who Controls HNA, a Top Chinese Conglomerate
Regulatory filing of AID in Hong Kong, a HNA shell lists Guan Jun as shareholder
Wall Street Journal: HNA has deepened the uncertainties around the New York foundation that is its biggest shareholder by changing its reason for not registering yet with the state.
Bloomberg:Bank of America Halts Deals With HNA Amid Debt Concerns
Wall Street Journal: HNA’s Biggest Shareholder Doesn’t Really Exist Yet
Bloomberg: Don’t fly in the dark, HNA
Bloomberg: HNA’s NYC Charity Owner Told by A.G. to Register With State
Bloomberg:HNA is not going to raise funds in New York State
HKEJ:The ties that bind: HNA’s Chen Feng and his rise to power
Fortune: You’ve Never Heard of HNA Group. Here’s Why You Will
Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act
Nikkei:Questions mount over HNA’s financial engineering
Why HNA is on a buying binge?
Hainan Cihang registration at New York Department of State.
Cihang’s tax filing, 2016
Video appearance of Guan Jun, HNA’s main shareholder.
HNA lawsuit against Guo Wengui