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Tan Jiangying, June 15, 2018
On June 8, messages circulated on social media that truck drivers across China were going on strike on the 10th. This came with a feeling of deja vu, as a similar call for strike had happened on April 25, when crane operators announced a strike for May 1. And, as happened with the crane operators earlier, the truckers’ strike never materialized. The day came, and the strike was called off.
One can guess that the strike leaders were controlled by the stability-maintenance authorities in their locality. But the effect again mirrored that of the canceled crane operators’ strike: upon hearing the call to action, truckers gathered and demonstrated on the days before the appointed time. They hailed from all over the country: Xiushui in Jiangxi province; Hefei, Fuyang; Wuhu in Anhui province; Lianyungang in Jiangsu province; Ningbo in Zhejiang province; Tongren in Guizhou province; Jiading in Shanghai; Wuhan in Hubei; Liaocheng in Shandong; Chengdu in Sichuan; Chongqing; in addition to other cities and provinces.
By announcing strikes on one day but carrying the action earlier, they made “a feint in the east and attacking in the west” [a well known Chinese idiom and military strategy], successfully staging their actions that would otherwise be suppressed.
The truck drivers staged motor protests on the 8th and 9th of June to demand lower gas prices, higher pay for their freight, abolishing excessive road and bridge tolls, and an end to arbitrary fees and fines. They also stood out to oppose the steady monopolization of the logistics industry.
Over a couple days of resistance, the truckers made the whole country aware of their plight. These men practically live in their trucks, leaving their wives and children for a life on the road. They work over 12 hours a day in miserable conditions and subpar safety. Adding to this are their many run-ins with the authorities, who impose upon them fees both legal and illegal. As their income drops, they doggedly maintain their living by accepting ever heavier and riskier loads.
And it’s not just the drivers. Workers throughout the logistics chain toil for next to nothing, even with the exorbitant rates suppliers pay for Chinese shipping (over twice the price of American rates). The costs are passed on to the consumers, but where does the money end up?
Take the Beijing-Xi’an line as an example: a round trip costs about 21,500 yuan, of which 14,500 yuan covers gas. The rest goes to the five-day costs of living, maintenance work and parts, annual registration and vehicle inspection fees, insurance, and various fines one can expect to be slapped with by the authorities. In the end, there is not much left for the truck owners and/or the drivers to make a profit or earn a decent wage.
The root cause of the truckers’ conditions stem from the government’s monopolization of the logistic industry’s lifeblood — fuel and highways — which feeds rent-seeking behavior on the part of the transport police and highway administration. And then there is the immediate factor in the outbreak of the truckers’ strike: the imbalance and inequality of capital and labor within the logistics sector.
China boasts a fleet of about 15 million trucks demanding two drivers each, making around 30 million truckers across the country. Some own the vehicles they drive; others rent trucks, and others don’t personally drive anymore and provide their trucks to the second group. Most drivers are renters. The supply side of the logistics sector is diverse, as is the demand side — the enterprises and goods owners. This plurality of supply and demand once made for an essentially free arena of competition, but recent and sudden shifts in the industry have led to the rise of monopolies.
The shift came with the merger of two logistics giants — Yunmanman [满运软件科技有限公司] of Jiangsu Province and Guiyang’s Truck Alliance, Inc. [货车帮科技有限公司] — to form the Manbang Group. Yunmanman, established in 2013, was the first logistics company in China to incorporate cloud computing, big data, and AI technologies in its platform. It employs four million drivers and owns one million trucks in 315 cities across the country. The comparably-sized Truck Alliance, Inc. boasts a formidable nationwide data infrastructure. It provides comprehensive service for the logistics network across 4.5 million trucks, and works with 88,000 supply partners.
Following the merger, CEO and board chairman Wang Gang (王刚) of Didi Chuxing, CEO Luo Peng (罗鹏) of Truck Alliance, Inc, and Zhang Hui (张晖) of Yunmanman became joint directors of the new Manbang Group. The original companies have remained distinct entities with their own brands, but they now work in tandem to dominate the industry.
Data from Manbang indicates that 5.2 of 7 million mainline fleet trucks in China are now registered with the conglomerate; and around 125 of the nation’s 150 logistics companies are Manbang affiliates. Every day 18.28 billion tons of freight is moved around the country, of which Manbang handles 13.59 billion.
On April 24, 2018, the Manbang Group carried out its first round of financing, worth about $1.9 billion. After the merger, its stock value is expected to break $6 billion.
From May 26 to May 29, Manbang made its first post-merger appearance at the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2018 that was held in Guiyang’s International Convention & Convention Center. According to Reuter’s Chinese-language service, “aside from providing a service that matches trucks to goods, Manbang also became the biggest platform for transport vehicles and all-in-one vehicle support covering services like vehicle oil, electronic throttle control (ETC) systems, vehicle replacement, financing, insurance, or site development. This year Manbang Group has seen successful with its online transaction platform, with the value of transactions reaching hundreds of millions of yuan per month.”
The merger of Yunmanman with Trucking Alliance Inc. brought about a fundamental change in industrial relations within the logistics sector. First, Manbang introduced an annual fee of somewhere between 1680 and 3000 yuan directed at the truck drivers and related information service personnel, which forced the hands of many who had already become dependent on the app for their business.
The second and more explosive event occurred on June 4, when the Truck Alliance app implemented a client update that made it impossible to receive information in real time. Job pricing was fully automated, depriving users of the ability to set their own prices. As a part of the new merger, Truck Alliance was blatantly and openly exerting control over its customers with impunity. Suppose a supplier pays Manbang 1000 yuan, then of that sum the driver gets only 800 yuan and Manbang pockets the rest. This situation caused an uproar among vehicle owners, suppliers, drivers, and other industry personnel.
The crux of the matter is that Manbang is a third party service brokerage platform that not only collects an annual service fee for its information, but has reached into the transaction between trucker and supplier and take a cut from it. It’s gone from information provider to hegemon of the logistics industry. It uses its monopoly on supply and demand data to force truck operators and drivers into paying a “transaction commission” outside the normal app service fee. Manbang doesn’t expend any capital or labor to collect this massive and blatantly exploitative profit. Looking at the plans drafted by Manbang’s nine operations departments, it’s clear that it wants to completely have its way with the industry, forcing all other capital investors (vehicle owners) and laborers (truckers) into submission.
This is adding insult to injury for the truck owners and drivers already suffering under the monopolistic business landscape and predatory government authorities. The June 4 client app update was the last straw.
The actions of the truckers across China is remarkable and praiseworthy:
- This is not a sudden outbreak, but the fruits of long-term, built-up resentment. Truckers have exposed the corruption of the logistics industry before, such as when they called for strikes on November 11, 2015, and April 16, 2017. They organized nationwide and local groups on QQ and WeChat, and formed unofficial logistics associations and alliances to begin defending their rights. It can be seen as a nascent truckers’ union.
- This is an industry-wide action following on the heels of crane operators’ protests at the end of April. The strength, effectiveness, and bargaining potential of such collective actions are by no means something that could be achieved by one enterprise alone. Collective actions like group bargaining are the staple in the labor movements of many other countries. It is satisfying to see Chinese workers embark on the labor movement’s righteous path.
- The alliance of truck drivers form as a permanent organized and law-abiding force in the logistic industry. These cooperatives and other labor organizations are necessary to counter huge conglomerates like Manbang and protect small capital investors and truckers. Without camaraderie between the workers, the industry is doomed to be monopolized.
- The government is obligated to guarantee the rights of the workers to assemble and organize. It also has a responsibility to protect disadvantaged groups in the industry and the rights of workers to unionize. Only in this way will competition be fair, and as the industry makes progress as a whole, it will be possible to ensure legal rights and benefits like proper wages, working hours and conditions, and social security.
Tan Jiangying is a labor scholar in China.
Wang Jiangsong, May 7, 2018
On April 25, an open letter from a WeChat group named “Changsha tower crane operator federation” (长沙塔吊联盟) was circulated. It said:
To all hardworking front-line tower crane operators, conductors, and elevator operators, greetings! As construction, crane, and mechanical equipment operators and engineers, in the most dangerous line of work on the construction site, our salary and compensation is severely out of step with the risks we take and the utter indispensability of our work. In the construction industry, the hours we work far exceed those stipulated in the Labor Law, and we have no social security. Yet despite being in the most unsafe work and working the longest hours, our pay is miniscule. In order to trigger a wave of simultaneous strikes among crane operators around the country, in order to protect our basic labor rights and dignity, and gain an equal salary, the Changsha tower crane operator federation has decided to unite, stand-up, and declare that we have the right to basic dignity in our labor and the right to engage in collective bargaining. Thus, we call for a united strike on the eve of International Labor Day of May 1, in Changsha’s May First Square (五一广场), so that we may make our voice known. We welcome and will be grateful for support from all walks of life.
Location: Changsha May First Square
Content: Organize a more robust crane operator federation, make better videos of the demonstration scene than that of crane operators on strike in other provinces, and reiterate our demand for construction labor rights.
Given the kind of activity and the particular nature of the profession involved, we hope that all fellow workers will proactively participate and make our voice known to the whole of society.
Changsha Crane Operator Federation
April 25, 2018
The letter caused an uproar in the WeChat group, and when shared around came along with expressions of concern for the safety of the crane operators. As expected, the following afternoon, one of the workers who posted the message said: “Terrifying. Because I forwarded a post about a worker strike on May 1 yesterday, the Changsha Ministry of State Security collected all possible information about me within a day, including my address, telephone number, work unit and more. Two hours ago they came to my workplace and demanded that I come to the police station and explain myself.” The worker promised to the MSS agents that he would not participate in any of the activities and was then allowed to leave, though he’s now worried that his employer is going to fire him because of it.
Moreover, the event was not limited only to crane tower operators in Changsha, but one that had been called for by various WeChat groups of tower crane operators across the country, making it a national event. On April 26, the spokesman for crane operators in Hainan published a video on Weibo calling on all operators in the province to join the national strike on the morning of May 1, with the demand that their regular salary and overtime wages be increased. “If we don’t strike, who’s going to increase our income?” he asked, adding: “A strike won’t be nationwide without workers in Hainan. Hainan crane operators too are full of passion, so let it burn!” On the same day, crane tower workers in Zigong, Sichuan Province, held a demonstration, their banners demanding wage hikes, or else they’d also join the May 1 strike.
The following day, workers in the following eight cities in eight provinces also held banners and circulated photographs of their protests online: Nanchang in Jiangxi, Tianshui in Gansu, Zhumadian in Henan, Xiantao in Hubei, Qingzhen in Guizhou, Huaian in Jiangsu, Hengyang in Hunan, Xiamen in Fujian.
Over the next three days, workers in at least 13 cities (Wuhan, Shijiazhuang, Yinchuan, Sanmenxia, Luoyang, Lankao, Yuncheng, Zhuzhou, Yueyang, Pingjiang, Dazhou, Zhongshan, Maoming) and elsewhere also held assemblies and shared photos and videos of their protests online. As of April 30, according to a preliminary count, the provinces in which crane operators staged demonstrators, held banners, called slogans with their demands, and shared photos or footage online, include: Hunan, Hubei, Henan, Hebei, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Hainan, Fujian, Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, Sichuan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Guangxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Shaanxi — 19 provinces, with protests in between 27 and 30 cities. Participants ranged from dozens to hundreds in each event. This is the first instance of such a large-scale, nationwide, collective action by industrial workers in China for over decades, and may in fact be the first instance of its kind ever.
When May 1 came around, however, China’s crane operators did not formally go on strike. There are three potential explanations for this.
The first is that some places already agreed to the demands to increase wages and overtime pay, while other cities saw those examples and emulated them; the second is that some local governments said they would strictly prohibit any such strike, and the workers were sufficiently cowed as to call off the plan; the third is that the crane operators didn’t want to get mixed up with the ‘May First National Civil Resonance’ (五一全民共振) called for by some overseas activists, which has explicit political objectives. The latter, under the strict control of the authorities, didn’t go anywhere.
Despite that, the genesis of this large scale ‘mass incident’ of crane operators deserves our attention and analysis.
- This is an inevitable development in the evolution of China’s market economy and labor-capital relations
During the first wave of labor mobilization in China from 2010 to 2015, almost all collective worker actions took place at specific companies: for example, with strikes at Carrefour and Walmart. In these cases, though the strikes spanned multiple stores, the number of participants involved was not large, and still the action was limited to that particular chain of stores.
China’s labor movement is bound to follow the trajectory of the broader economy and labor-capital relations, and thus expand from actions in particular companies to actions spanning multiple companies, regions, and even industries. This instance of a simultaneous mobilization of crane tower operators in dozens of cities across the country has every qualification to be considered the beginning of a historical inflection point in labor in China.
Strictly speaking, collective rights defense taking place at one enterprise can only be called a ‘collective labor action,’ and not really a ‘labor movement.’ Only when many workers establish horizontal ties among one another, achieving a cross-enterprise and cross-region network, can it be called a labor movement proper. One of the most effective and powerful forms of organization, allowing a group of geographically distributed workers to unite their forces and coordinate actions in a single organizational structure, is the industry-wide labor federation. This is also why this form is a core component of labor movements in market economies, and the primary vehicle for collective bargaining between labor and capital. The reason for this is that workers in the same occupation, business, or industry, are in the same position vis-a-vis capital, and have identical interests that they demand from the same counterparty, thus their solidarity and unity has the lowest cost. As soon as they unite, they immediately have the power of scale; once they’re successful, they have ongoing efficiencies of scale to maximally resolve the structural problem [of disparate power between capital and individual workers], and the collective bargaining agreements they reach with industry have the power of law in governing labor-capital relations. All this is entirely consistent with the aspirations and demands of freedom, equality, and justice in exchange and contracts in a market economy, and at the same time is the fundamental meaning of a market economic system governed by the law. The responsibility of the state (defined as legislature, administration, and judiciary) is located in the preservation, not the destruction, of the freedom, equality, and justice of this negotiating mechanism between labor and capital.
- The state should rationally treat self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective actions and acknowledge and protect the three rights of labor
The outside world only learned about this collective action by crane operators after the fact, and knew nothing of their internal discussions, contact with one another, organization, and planning before the fact. There is also no information or evidence indicating that outside players (for instance labor NGOs) got involved or played any role in assisting, counselling, guiding, or providing any other form of help. Even less has there been any shadow of ‘hostile foreign forces.’ Thus, we have every reason to understand this sequence of events as a self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action on the part of crane operators themselves.
If this conclusion is valid, then the mistaken judgement of the relevant organs in the government must be corrected: they believe that collective action by workers are necessarily directed, organized, manipulated, and planned behind-the-scenes by hostile foreign forces or domestic NGOs, and that they’re competing with the Party, government, and official unions for the working class. This is likely one of the primary reasons behind the mass arrests and prison sentences of labor organizers in December 2015, particularly the arrests on December 3. Following the December 3 incident however, instances of collective rights defense by workers did not contract in scale, but after a short lull in fact came back in full force, and as in the case of the crane operator demonstration attained a high water mark. All this abundantly demonstrates that the level of [labor] consciousness and organizational capacity of workers in China has reached a new level, at least in some sectors and regions, and they’re capable of their own collective action without the involvement of outsiders.
In the past, the standard operating procedure for the relevant organs when faced with labor protests — they themselves having failed to do their job and duty of defending the legal rights of workers, then lost the trust of workers — was to find a scapegoat: blame it on the incitement of hostile foreign forces or domestic NGO activists. This was how they passed it off to their own superiors. The shame is that this sort of buck-passing is actually able to deceive the higher-ups, though workers aren’t fooled, and the actual problems facing workers are unchanged. Thus the resentment and rage builds up daily, and the conflicts between labor and capital, and even between labor and the government, become more and more intense. Put it bluntly, the scapegoating that goes on is simply digging the government into a pit.
The experience and norms of market economies tells us that the state should rationally and forthrightly address issues raised by self-initiated, self-directed, and self-organized collective action, and acknowledge and protect the rights of workers to form organizations (freedom of assembly), to engage in collective bargaining (the right to collective dispute resolution), and to strike (the right to industrial action).
- The demonstration by crane operators establishes a model for broader labor and social movements
Crane operators, as the prime movers behind this collective labor action, appear to have come to a clear realization of themselves as a specially-positioned technical worker in the production chain — they have a ‘structural power’ and to a degree are irreplaceable. The crane operators also effectively reached out to and integrated in their efforts crane conductors and elevator operators, upon which they recognized that the interests of the entire construction site and all the workers and jobs on it are related, to a large extent, and in common with their own. From this they could foresee that as long as there is no undefendable attack by an outside force, the natural course of affairs would have it that a construction industry union is formed. This is the only fundamental means of getting at the root of the chaos and problems in the construction industry.
From a broader perspective, it is beneficial not only to workers, but the entire construction industry, society, and the nation. The next direction for the labor movement in China is for workers in each industry and sector to autonomously form their own federations.
There is absolutely no evidence indicating that the collective action on the part of the crane operators had any connection with the ‘national civil resonance’ advocated by overseas democracy activists. In fact, the opposite is the case: just as that event failed to gain much traction, the protests by crane operators appeared all the more remarkable and successful.
It can be said that in contemporary China’s social transition, the democracy movement (referring to the narrow opposition political movements that aim to change China’s political system) should perhaps take a leaf from the book of the labor rights movement. The current stage of the labor movement of course focuses on increasing its economic benefits, and this is the primary reason that they’re able to mobilize and unite a sufficient number of workers and thus gain some small victories, or at least be able to retreat largely unscathed. The political quality and value of the labor movement requires only that individuals with perspicacious judgement look beneath the surface, make their own inferences, and carry it forward.
Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is a labor scholar in China.
Also by Wang Jiangsong:
A Six-day Strike in Shanghai Caused by a $110 Pay Cut – Collective Action by Sanitation Workers in China’s ‘New Era’ of Stability Maintenance
Wang Jiangsong, April 13, 2018
In late March in the Changning district of Shanghai, 3,000 sanitation workers went on strike. Before long, the air was filled with a foul odour as garbage quickly began piling up in the streets. Trash collection is a public service, and the consequence of a strike is not limited to the walls of a factory compound like most industrial actions. In this case, hundreds of thousands of residents, including students, public servants, intellectuals, white collar workers, and entrepreneurs all had their lives disrupted. When they understood the reason for the strike, however, they were sympathetic and supportive of the workers, and took it upon themselves to post pictures and comments on social media (here, here, here). Police were quickly dispatched to the scene; photo and video show clashes between police and workers. After six days, the strike ended. This sudden rights defense incident, taking place in the far more repressive atmosphere that has come to characterize the advent of China’s ‘New Era,’ surprised many observers.
The Origins of the Strike
Shanghai’s sanitation workers are paid the city’s minimum wage of 2,300 yuan (about $366) per month; if they want to earn more, workers have to do overtime. In the past the work schedule was seven days a week, though at the end of last year this was changed to six days. This means that if they want to earn, say, 4,000 yuan a month, they’d need to do a few hours overtime every day, and then pick up another shift on the weekend. After paying into the social security fund, based on an income of 4,000 yuan, they would be left with take home pay of around 3,000 yuan.
Starting April 1, the Shanghai municipal government raised the minimum pay from 2,300 yuan per month of last year to 2,420 yuan, an increase of 120 yuan. On this basis, the overtime of sanitation workers would be 500-600 yuan, making the increase in pay in total around 700.
In March, however, the three companies that control waste management in Changning District decided to scrap the meal subsidies, as well as the early morning and graveyard shift allowances, which came to about 700 yuan per worker. This was, obviously, a significant portion of monthly income for the workers, so they went to the companies and demanded an explanation.
The companies responded that scrapping the morning and late night allowances and meal subsidies didn’t bring the workers’ official income down, and thus the companies didn’t harm the workers. The workers refused to accept this senseless explanation: the waste management companies are paid by government appropriations; if the state has raised the minimum wage of workers, it means the state wants to increase the workers’ income. The companies’ maneuvering meant that they themselves swallowed up the increase in income meant for workers, with the result that there was no change in the workers take home earnings. It was this abuse and insult that led the workers to strike in protest.
For years, whenever a strike took place anywhere in China, the local government immediately went into a high state of vigilance, treated the strike as a ‘mass incident,’ and initiated ‘stability maintenance’ measures. Police are brought in to take control and shut down the demonstration, and there are clashes between police and residents. In this case, the workers’ appeal was met with no reasonable explanation, and the conflict between labor and capital turned into a conflict between labor and the government. This chain of events is seen regularly on the streets of China.
A Macro View of Strikes
Some have asked: China these days is in an era of hyper stability maintenance, and whenever the government identifies buds of unrest they quickly crush them — yet this was a strike involving sanitation workers, in Shanghai of all places, and it went on for six days, so how did this happen?
In fact, there is nothing miraculous about this. Strikes of this scale have been taking place for years, and we could probably enumerate at least a few hundred since 2010.
Examined from a macro perspective, with the depth and penetration of industrialization and the market economy in China today, the conflict between labor and capital has become a structural contradiction, and the most important economic contradiction in the country. China is still not a market economy: it lacks regulations, rule of law, fairness, as well as protections for human rights or the rights and benefits of workers. For these reasons, conflicts between labor and capital are not only widely seen, but they’re also intense and fierce. Sanitation workers have gone on strike before, in the Panyu district of Guangzhou, as well as in the Yuelu district of Changsha, Hunan, among other places. Strikes by workers in other industries — including traffic management and other public industries, as well as manufacturing, construction, and services — have become the most common collective expression of conflict between labor and capital. This sort of conflict has seen spiraling growth in recent years.
Workers are not permitted to have their own, independent union in China. Where there are unions, they’re inevitably a department of the government and exist in name only, not actually playing the role of representing the interests of workers, bargaining on their behalf for better conditions and pay and protecting their rights with the law. This is why when conflict actually breaks out, workers surge forth, immediately going on strike to establish their bargaining position. This method of negotiation, widely adopted by worker groups in recent years, has come to be called “strike first, talk later” (先罢后谈) — a way of forcing the owners of capital to the negotiating table. The standard pattern in countries with market economies, of course, is “talk first, strike later,” because only if negotiations break down do workers feel the need to resort to their ultimate threat and gambit.
The most immediate explanation for why this explosive strike of sanitation workers took place in Shanghai is because there was no collective bargaining or mediating mechanism between capital and labor, in which they could effectively discuss and resolve the outstanding issues.
By the sixth day of the strike, when Changning district workers went back to their jobs, it was, in the first place, because police began arresting people, and the workers didn’t have a close-knit organization and leadership, so were not prepared to resist those kind of body blows; and secondly because the company backed off slightly, changing their policy to only deduct 260 yuan from the shift allowances, rather than the original plan to deduct 560 yuan.
Over the years the pattern around China has been that after workers unite and strike, and receive the support of public opinion, local government and firms make some temporary concessions. But then they begin to carry out harsh retribution against the most active rights defenders among the workers; they claim that they were taking orders from hostile foreign forces, and in some cases even frame up charges and get them sent to prison. This, however, doesn’t frighten workers, who are fighting for their own survival and that of their families. This is different from, for instance, the struggle for freedom of speech. Stripping workers of their income and benefits is a direct threat to their lives — but no one dies because they can’t speak the truth.
Late 2015 there was a crackdown against labor rights NGOs in Guangzhou, and of a sudden everyone seemed to be in a panic and besieged. Some made the calculation that the crackdown on these labor rights groups would bring an end to collective protest by workers. This reckoning was mistaken.
Both before and after the collective action by Shanghai sanitation workers, there were a number of large-scale actions by thousands of workers in Guangdong, and they achieved even better results than in Shanghai. The strike by sanitation workers in Changning was ad hoc, an emergency response — there was little solidarity or organization between workers. Though many people took part, it was essentially a mob event. The strike at the Panyu Shimen Hand Bag Co. (广州市番禺世门手袋有限公司) in early March was different. Around 1,000 people in the factory area went on strike, essentially taking it over. The workers were highly organized and prepared to strike a knock-out blow to management, and in the end were able to satisfy their demands for the social security payments and housing subsidies held in arrears to be paid off. Once the employer paid social security funds for the workers, the latter, especially the older among them would have a retirement payout, and it’s a much better position than if they’d been kicked out on their backsides back to the countryside, as would have happened otherwise.
Another noteworthy case involves Shenzhen SEG Co Ltd. The company wanted to move, and it would have to compensate workers. The law stipulates that if the company wants to sever the relationship with workers for its own reasons, not having to do with the employees themselves, then it must provide financial compensation to workers so affected. Usually, firms won’t inform workers that they’re going to move factories; instead, they quietly transfer their purchase orders and gradually move their machinery and equipment to the new factory district hundreds of miles away. The orders of the old factory decrease, workers only get minimal pay, and when workers’ lives are so stretched that they can barely make ends meet, they’re forced to look for jobs elsewhere. As this process takes place, after 18 months or so, what was a factory of thousands of workers has turned into just a few hundred. By the time management announces that they’re relocating production, there are only a few hundred parties they owe compensation to.
In the case of Shenzhen SEG, however, workers saw what was going on very early in the piece, and seized the initiative to strike first. They nominated, via direct election, 4 low- and mid-level management representatives and 7 worker representatives to form a ‘factory asset protection squad’ (守护资产的护厂队), and also formed another squad to act as bodyguards for the asset protection squad. Worker representatives submitted 10 demands to management, sought negotiations, and livestreamed the bargaining process. The compensation standard they submitted was “3N+5,” meaning that each year of seniority equalled three months of salary, with five months salary in addition. According to the Labor Contract Law (《劳动合同法》), legally rescinding a labor agreement requires compensation of one month of salary for each year of seniority, while illegally cancelling a labor agreement requires compensation of one month of salary for each year of seniority, and then an additional month’s salary as ‘notification payment.’ But these are the lowest stipulated compensation standards; the law doesn’t establish an upper limit. The demands made by Shenzhen SEG workers far exceeded the minimums requirement by law.
Changning district sanitation workers and Shenzhen SEG workers both went on strike on March 26; both strikes also concluded on March 31. In the end, however, the sanitation workers still ended up with a deduction of 260 yuan in their wages, while Shenzhen SEG workers managed to get a 1.5N + 1 payment for the factory’s relocation, as well as 10,000 yuan as an award for agreeing to that contract. This significant difference in outcome is a direct result of the different degrees of organization between the two groups of workers.
Resolving Labor Conflicts by Granting Workers Three Rights
Whether in state-owned enterprises or private companies, problems arise between labor and management — the only difference is that in the case of the former, it’s a conflict between state capital and labor, and in the latter it’s between private capital and labor. The history of Western countries over hundreds of years has shown that preserving three rights of workers is an effective means of resolving such disputes — but regrettably, China has yet to establish this sort of mechanism.
To the contrary, in China, the moment the government sees that workers are taking action, it calls it a ‘political incident’, or claims that it’s due to the incitement of hostile foreign forces. In the Changning, Shimen, and Shenzhen SEG incidents, there was no so-called foreign interference whatsoever. Why? with the Foreign NGO Management Law and the crackdown on labor NGOs in recent years, ‘foreign forces’ can’t get involved anymore. Yet, just because there is no help from labor rights groups, it doesn’t mean that workers themselves are unable to organize. Workers can learn, and from 2010 to 2015 with the wave of the labor rights movement, with the spread of internet access and spread of information, workers quickly grasped three basic points:
- Firstly, that they need to elect worker representatives. In southern China, this is known as a ‘worker representative system.’ This has legal grounds: according to the civil law, a group of individuals can elect representatives to negotiate on their behalf with management, government, the courts, and arbitration bodies — and this is known in the law as an entrusted agent relationship; further, it is grounded in the Labor Law, where in workplaces without unions, workers can elect representatives to engage in collective bargaining. Of course, there is ambiguity in the Labor Law in cases where there is a union but it does nothing; in such cases, can workers elect their own representatives? The law hasn’t made a clear determination on the matter.
- Secondly, they need to dispatch those representatives to negotiate on their behalf with the owners of capital, as a form of collective bargaining.
- Thirdly, that after the workers have elected representatives and invited management to negotiate, yet management has refused to respond, they need to exercise their right to strike, to force the owners of capital to the bargaining table.
These are the three rights of labor in the international context. Many workers in the south of China are now clear on these concepts, and are able to put them into practice. Given this, if the government continues to use an abnormal, crude form of ‘stability maintenance’ thinking, claiming that these workers are being used by hostile foreign forces, or even leveling the claim that independent labor organizations are competing with the Communist Party and its official unions for the ‘laboring classes,’ setting up a ‘second union,’ then they will be pushing workers into the opposition. For the government, this is politically unwise.
Why won’t the authorities allow these representatives, elected by workers themselves, to take part in the government-controlled unions? Hasn’t Xi Jinping criticized these unions and other similar organizations for bureaucratization, organizational involution, aristocratization, and general frivolity and misbehavior? How can these four negative tendencies be arrested? The only path forward is a constructive one: they should integrate the existing worker’s representatives and make them union cadres.
The state should have two primary functions: Firstly, to establish itself as a neutral party between labor and capital, and be an objective and fair umpire. The government should side neither with capital nor labor. Both forces are the fundamental constituents of productivity, and both are necessary. The state should mediate between them, not tilt the scales. As one worker once said, “we don’t need the government to come stand on our side — we simply need the government to remain neutral.” Secondly, the state should establish laws that govern the interactions between labor and capital, including administrative and judicial services that maintain the peace between the two sides. This would include a mechanism for reasoned negotiation and bargaining, in order to facilitate the two parties to resolve their problems.
Now, the situation in China is that the government comes out and forcibly shuts things down when labor and capital act unreasonably and clash to the point of harming the interests of the entire society.
Dr. Wang Jiangsong (王江松) is scholar of labor issues in China.
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
China Change, May 31, 2017
Liu Shaoming’s (刘少明) work as an activist, while based in Guangdong, saw him travel across the country in recent years. In Guangdong he joined the calls for releasing dissident Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Tang Jingling (唐荆陵), and numerous other participants in the Southern Street Movement (南方街头运动). He traveled to Xinyu in Jiangxi Province (江西新余), Jixi in Shaanxi Province (陕西鸡西), Jiansanjiang in Heilongjiang (黑龙江建三江), and many other places where citizens gathered to scrutinize the abuse of power. Over the last few years he has been summoned in for talks with the police or detained in police lockups dozens of times, but by what he called “luck” he was spared serious persecution. One human rights lawyer has described Liu as enthusiastic and selfless — like a brother. Indeed, at 59 years of age and a veteran of the June 4 democracy protests, for most of those in the field today Liu is of an older generation of activists.
In May of 1989 he was a worker at a steel factory in Jiangxi; he left behind his wife and infant child to travel to Beijing and live in one of the tents on the square, joining the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation (北京工人联合自治会), administering first-aid to the student protesters. He stayed with them until the early hours of June 4, and departed the square with them. He was later identified and jailed for a year.
According to Liu Shaoming’s defense lawyer Wu Kuiming (吴魁明), since 2014 — apart from his civil rights activism — Liu has been most heavily involved in helping workers in the Pearl River Delta (珠三角) region defend their rights. In the evening of May 29, 2015, in Guangzhou, he was taken away by unidentified men; two weeks later he was detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (寻衅滋事). His lawyer explained that the police have devoted enormous investigative resources to collecting and analyzing information about Liu’s participation in labor rights work, as supposed criminal activity. From this, the lawyer says, it’s clear that Liu’s labor rights work is the reason the authorities apprehended him.
Xiao Shu (笑蜀), a well-known writer on activist affairs who has observed the labor movement in Guangdong for many years, said that Liu Shaoming is one of the founders of the “Labor Defense Volunteers” (工维义工) collective in Guangzhou, a loose coalition of volunteers in southern China who advocate on behalf of workers’ rights. It had only been founded a few months before Liu Shaoming was arrested, but even by then the group had gotten involved in numerous labor rights incidents. Xiao Shu noted: “Over the last five months [in 2015], they’ve been involved in a strike at the Guangxin Shoe Factory in Ebu, Haifeng County, Guangdong (海丰县鹅埠广信鞋厂), and labor rights incidents at the Second Heavy Machinery Group in Sichuan (四川二重) and the Lide Shoe Factory in Guangzhou (广州利得鞋厂). The Lide strike was a total victory, and Liu Shaoming’s contribution was essential.”
On December 3, 2015, the Guangdong authorities targeted numerous labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta region. Seven activists — including Zeng Feixiang (曾飞洋), Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), He Xiaobo (何晓波), and Meng Han (孟晗), among others — were arrested on charges of “gathering crowds to disturb public order” for organizing strikes and fighting for the legitimate rights of workers. Another several dozen people were summoned and interrogated. China’s state media engaged in an all-out character assassination of them, accusing their small-scale grassroots organizations of “long-term receipt of funds from foreign organizations, profiting off labor and management disputes, severely disrupting social order, and severely trampling on the rights and benefits of workers.” Over the course of 2016, under immense international pressure and domestic cries of support, these labor activists were gradually given suspended sentences or released on probation.
But not Liu Shaoming. He has been treated like a different sort of criminal, and was indicted on January 5, 2016. Despite the fact that the police had collected a vast amount of information and evidence about his labor rights activities, when they arrested him the focus of the prosecutor’s accusations lay elsewhere entirely. Their charges said:
“An investigation performed according to the law has ascertained: From 2014 to May 2015, the defendant Liu Shaoming himself composed and compiled the documents “A Letter to the CCP’s Low-ranking Soldiers and Police in the Armed Forces” (《给中共当局基层武装力量的士兵和警员的一封信》), “A Letter to My Chinese Compatriots” (《告中国同胞书》), “My Views on the Overseas Democracy Movement” (《我对海外民运的看法》), “My Personal Views on the Reformist and Revolutionary Schools” (《我个人关于改良派和革命派看法》), among many essays and expressions which engaged in rumor mongering and slander against the state power and socialism. These texts were distributed via WeChat, QQ, Telegram and other software on his cellular phone, and were received by numerous friends on WeChat and Telegram; he also on numerous occasions disseminated these texts to WeChat and QQ friend groups, under the circumstances that he was fully aware that there were a large number of friends in those groups, identifying himself under the term of endearment ‘Old Migrant Worker Liu Shaoming,’ all of which had the effect of inciting subversion of state power and overturning the socialist system.”
Two defense lawyers pointed out that the police arrest of Liu Shaoming was “simply because the police regard Liu is a ‘troublemaker.’ Even if they had no evidence, they would still have arrested him.”
China Change has observed a key feature of the Chinese government’s suppression of civil society over the last several years, which goes some way to explaining the “special treatment” Liu Shaoming has been subjected to: this is that, horizontally, Liu’s activism spanned across the rights defense movement, political dissent, and labor rights spheres, and vertically, that its origin can be traced all the way back to the June 4 democracy movement and the ideas that animated it. This, in the eyes of an increasingly paranoid Chinese government, makes Liu appear somehow more “dangerous” — even though all of the activities he has engaged in, whether 28 years ago with the June 4 demonstration, or the labor activism in the Pearl River Delta today, are perfectly permissible under the Chinese constitution.
“When it comes to political cases,” remarked a human rights lawyer who wished to remain anonymous, “the key basis for the decision to arrest, investigate, and sentence a politically sensitive individual is not a question of the facts of the matter, but a question of whether they want to do it or not. It’s all about whom they want to get rid of and persecute.” Liu Shaoming now suffers the misfortune of having become one of the people the Party authorities want to remove from the scene.
Liu Shaoming was tried in the Guangzhou Municipal Intermediate People’s Court on April 15, 2016, for “inciting subversion of state power.” The hearing ended without a sentence. It is now over 13 months since the trial, and Liu has still not been sentenced. China’s Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that under normal circumstances “A people’s court shall pronounce the judgment on a case of public prosecution within two months or, not later than three months.”
In his statement of self-defense in court, Liu Shaoming responded to the charges thus: “Because of some essays and memoirs I wrote which accurately recorded that period of national and personal history, and because I expressed some political opinions that diverge from those of the authorities, I’ve been accused of ‘rumor mongering,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and put in the defendant’s chair in a court of law. Whatever the result, I will assume it calmly. This is the most I can do to comfort the fallen spirits of those who have laid down their lives for the project of democracy in China. As to whether I’m innocent or guilty, history will be the fairest judge. Whether it’s the 20 square meter cell of jail, or the 9.6 million square kilometer thought prison of the entire country, for those who yearn for freedom there is little difference.”
Of his own activism, he said: “The pursuit of liberty and democracy is what I have dreamed of and pursued my entire life… Our resistance and suffering today is nothing but the final stage of resistance and suffering in the five thousand years of history of the Chinese people. This time we’re making a stand without any of the slaughter and bloodletting of the past: this is a rational, peaceful, non-violent pursuit, to bring the light spring wind of constitutional democracy and liberty to this great ancestral land, and to bless China.”
He said that public security personnel in pre-trial interrogations focused exclusively on his involvement in labor activism, as well as on his support for human rights lawyers. But, he said, given that the indictment contained no mention of this, “You don’t mention it, I don’t defend it.”
In 2015 and 2016 China rolled out an intense battery of new legislation: the Foreign NGO Law (《中华人民共和国境外非政府组织境内活动管理法》), the Charity Law (《中华人民共和国慈善法》), the Cybersecurity Law (《网络安全法》), the State Security Law (《国家安全法》), and most recently a draft of the State Intelligence Law (《中华人民共和国国家情报法》草案), which will likely become a law in the near future. The international community has regarded this series of laws as primarily a formal codification of well-practiced repressive policies. They demonstrate how the Chinese authorities regard civil society as the greatest threat to the regime, and they’re aimed to maximally restrict the normal activities and growth of civil society in China.
From when he left Jiangxi as a steel factory worker, to his current imprisonment, half of Liu Shaoming’s life has been spent in the Pearl River Delta region as a migrant worker. He has worked as a porter, a construction laborer, an enterprise manager, a factory director, an advertisement salesman, and a copywriter for advertising pamphlets — he couldn’t be any more the Chinese everyman. Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), a colleague who has worked with him on labor rights, said: “He established a studio for advocating on behalf of workers and joined forces with them completely — eating together, living together. He never accepted any money from any organization, and no one ever gave him a salary or stipend. His juniors affectionately called him ‘Uncle Liu.’”