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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
When you hear the words “migrant worker,” what kind of person comes to mind? Are they young or middle age? Are they poor? Are they educated?
While “migrant worker” seems at first to describe a fairly uniform group of lowly occupations – factory and construction workers, aiyis, taxi drivers, etc. Their backgrounds are actually quite diverse, and the term covers a far larger group of people than we might expect. So large in fact that over 55% of those between 14-35 living in Shanghai are counted as “migrants.”
Many of these people are ambitious college graduates entering a workplace with little need of higher education degrees. As a colleague from a Chinese charity recently told me, a large number of people working at factories like Foxconn are actually college educated but have no better prospects. Additionally, many of the students I taught in Guangxi now occupy low sales positions or factory jobs in Guangdong that only offer a few thousand RMB per month. One student recently told me that she’d left her sales job to become a teacher in rural Jiangxi due to the low pay and long hours.
What’s crazy is that these jobs are actually starting to require college degrees, even though they have little need for such educated people. This shows that there is both a glut of college graduates and too few jobs which require higher education.
The best evidence of this comes from an article published by the People’s Daily entitled “200 apply for 20 trash-sorter jobs.” The job required a college degree, and even attracted a number of postgraduates. While the salary was rather attractive at 4,000RMB per month (attractive in Guangzhou), this probably isn’t what drew so many applicants. As one hopeful applicant said, “Garbage classifiers for the city government are government employees, who can enjoy stable income and other social benefits,” and added that this was especially important at a time when the country’s economic situation was “not-so-good.”
This seems like a monumental waste of talents and resources. Not only could one probably find a qualified garbage sorter for much less in Guangdong, but why are college graduates looking for work in the dumps if China’s economy is as resilient as the gov’t is claiming?
My final year of teaching in Guangxi, I had a student who was considering dropping out of school. As his teacher I wanted him to stay in school, and helped his classmates stage something of an intervention on his behalf. They pleaded with him not to leave, but the young man said (in Chinese), “My English is terrible, our college isn’t famous, and experience is more valuable than education.” His classmates started crying; they told me later it was because he was right – college was a waste of time when there weren’t jobs for them.
While China has raised hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty in the last 60 years, there are still 128 million people living on less that $1 per day (World Bank defines poverty as less than $1.25/day). This is actually 100 million more people than 2010, because the gov’t radically revised the definition of poverty which was hiding the true scale of the problem. While it might be tempting to “blame” poverty on the poor, or urge leaders to serve the people, or throw our hands up in despair, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s recent book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, offers more practical advice.
Instead of simply judging anti-poverty campaigns on whether or not they feel right (micro-credit may not be as effective as you think), or whether free-markets or gov’t assistance are ideologically correct (welfare programs that pay families for sending their kids to school might be a great tool even though kids should want to learn), they actually studied individual projects to see what the effects were on the community. While it seems obvious, organizations often focus only on the most impressive results of their projects, and often fail to ask – Are we actually helping people in the most efficient way? This book should be considered a must-read for anyone interested in poverty alleviation and social justice as it challenges many of the preconceived notions about the “right” way to give aid.
Since this is a China blog though, we’ll focus on the three ideas from this book that apply most directly to the Middle Kingdom (one big idea today, two more tomorrow)
Every Year of School Counts
In the past, Chinese families placed great importance on children because there was no social safety net; for China’s poor, this is still the case (the one child policy is not as strictly enforced in the countryside, only a handful of my 300 rural students were only children). Instead of treating each child as an equal opportunity to be supported in the future, each one is seen as a lottery ticket, and all of the family’s resources are pooled behind the most promising child.
I saw this first hand in Guangxi, where one of my students was sent to college, and her unlucky twin sister was sent to the factories of Guangdong to cover the cost. The same was true of my friend at the tea shop, whose family had pulled her out of school in 2nd grade because they saw her education as a waste of money compared to her “smarter” brother.
As the authors of this book found, most people underestimate the value of primary school and overestimate the value of secondary school. In reality, each year of primary and secondary school adds a roughly equal amount of value to the child’s future earnings. The result is that families focus on sending one child ahead while pulling their other children out of school, which limits their opportunities for escaping poverty.
The authors suggest that tying poverty relief to sending children to school has been effective in dozens of countries, but unfortunately due to China’s restrictive Hukou system, many rural children do not officially exist and would not benefit from such a program.
These circumstances mean that millions of children from China’s poor families are not receiving the 9 years of education they are entitled to. Ensuring that families in poor counties send their children through high-school should be a major priority at all levels of gov’t, but unfortunately, so many of these children will become migrant workers anyway, local gov’ts have little incentive to expend the effort to keep them in the classroom. Migrant workers also frequently leave their children with family members, who may not force unwilling children to attend school. Migrant workers who do bring their children to the city also find it difficult to keep them enrolled in school. Furthermore, due to perverse reward schemes that in many ways punish teachers for under-performing children, some teachers actually push their students out of their classrooms (I talked about this some in a previous post).
No less problematic is that educational policies from the Central Gov’t tend to fit into the pattern of what Abhijit and Esther call the “Three I’s” – Ignorance, Ideology, and Inertia. Ignorance – educational programs were expanded without increasing funding and without adequate personnel, legislating a system that would be difficult to implement. Ideology – The needs of rural students were not taken into account, nor were the conditions of rural schools; this lead to curriculum that is “impractical,” focusing more on creating a few students that can pass the college entrance exam, than making sure that all students master basic skills. Inertia – the system continues to focus on the most capable students, simply because Chinese education has always focused on these “smart” children.
The authors would likely have several suggestions from their studies, these would include 1. emphasize the benefits of education to the parents, and create incentives for local gov’ts to keep children in school 2. re-evaluate the national curriculum to ensure that practical skills are taught 3. widely publicize where education funds are destined so that parents can monitor the results (this apparently worked well in Uganda despite epidemic levels of corruption. Schools had only been receiving 13% of their entitled funds, but after making the funding more transparent this increased to 80% ).
- China’s tomb raiders laying waste to thousands of years of history, by Tania Branigan. Soaring prices offered by collectors and lax monitoring of China’s thousands of historical sites have led to grave robbing on a massive scale. One researcher estimates that 95% of Chinese tombs have been plundered, and that without sufficient protection it could all be lost in the next 10 years.
- Chinese authorities and villagers clash over mosque – From around mid-December there have been a number of crackdowns on religious groups in China, with Buddhist, Muslisms and Christians all being effected. This time the clash happened in a Hui region, which is unusual, since Hui have traditionally been tolerated.
- The children left behind by China’s migrant workers – great photos and an important angle to keep in mind during the Spring Festival migration.
- The writing on the wall, by Evan Osnos, is a great take on China’s growing demographic problem, a huge number of soon to be retirees who will only have one child to take their place.
- Beijing’s ‘culture war’ isn’t about the US, by Damien Ma. Counters the coverage of Hu’s speech earlier this week (my take on it). While I agree with his point that Hu’s speech is targeted at Party members instead of foreigners, the wider trend has been to try to limit western culture in China.
- Garbage recyclers make way for real estate – Beijing’s largest recycling dump which employs nearly 30,000 workers will be shuttered in favor of urban development. While the move isn’t surprising, it’s sure to be a sore spot for the migrant workers who have made a living making Beijing a little greener.
- Anger over online railway ticket sales – It looks as if the online system that was supposed to relieve the yearly travel headache has made things worse for China’s migrant workers who rely on the trains. The new system seems to favor urban travelers who are able to navigate the web and have a bank card (which many foreigners have been unable to manage).
- Digging up China’s bones, from People’s Daily, is a fascinating account of one archaeologist’s life in the Middle Kingdom. It includes brief mentions of the state of historical protection during the Cultural Revolution that I found shocking.
- Dissident says China will review fine for tax evasion – Ai Weiwei’s case is now under review. I am not very hopeful, but it seems like Beijing would be better off on the international stage if they let him go. He is currently detained AND vocal, which makes him more of a headache for Beijing than when he was free.
- Celebrating the cold in China at Harbin ice and snow festival – Great photos of one of China’s most beloved seasonal attractions.
I just wanted to let you know that I am starting work on a book. At the moment it is in the very early stages, and I am writing this open letter partially to put pressure on myself to complete it.
The book will be similar to the blog in some ways, as I will discuss a variety of topics that have already been mentioned briefly here including: education, rural life, issues facing migrant workers, the environment, and also a touch of politics, history and economics. I am also planning on a few topics that I have a closer connection with, like the difficulties facing disabled people in China and the Rape of Nanking. These topics will be presented in more depth than on the blog, and include more personal experiences and discussions with Chinese friends. It will also include a bit of my personal history to clarify my evolving relationship with China. The book will be almost entirely new content.
If there are other specific topics you’d like me to tackle in this book, please leave your suggestions in the comment section below.
At the moment, I don’t have a publisher lined-up (publishers can contact me at: Tom@seeingredinchina.com), but this is something that I have been wanting to do for some time now and I’ll figure out those pesky details when the time comes. I plan on continuing the publishing schedule on the blog (currently 8-9 posts per week), but I reserve the right to skip a day now and then to focus on the book.
I’d like to thank each and every one of you for your interest so far in SeeingRedInChina.com, I never expected so much support so quickly. We are now seeing over 40,000 visitors each month, far beyond what I initially dreamed for this site, and somehow it continues to grow. I would also like to thank my wife for editing (she is wonderful), as well as Yaxue and Casey who continue to contribute great content and push me to keep writing.
Thank you again for your continuing support, and I hope when completed, this book will provide you with an even more complete view of the country that has become my second home.