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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
‘I have decided to travel to Beijing, find out what is going on, and rescue my husband’: A Statement by Wife of Taiwanese NGO Worker Lee Ming-che
March 31, 2017
Taiwanese pro-democracy activist Lee Ming-che disappeared on March 19 after clearing immigration in Macau. China has confirmed that Lee is being investigated on suspicion of ‘pursuing activity harmful to national security.’ This is an unauthorized translation of his wife’s statement. — The Editors
Lee Ching-yu’s Press Release:
I’ve been a historian of Taiwan’s period of political violence, the “White Terror,” for many years. Now that my own my loved one is detained, terror grips my heart. I’ve tried so hard to calm myself, to carefully compose my thoughts. I know from the history of the White Terror in Taiwan that when a country’s system of rule of law hasn’t risen to international standards, all attempts to offer defenses according to the law are useless. We can only offer a defense of humanity and human rights — but the legal systems in such countries aren’t built upon universal conceptions of human rights.
It’s for this reason that I make this considered announcement: I am not going to hire a lawyer and thus engage in pointless legal wrangling.
All human rights workers, all those who bring hope to corners of the world that need human rights upheld, are innocent. It is precisely through the contributions of such individuals that human welfare and civilization grows.
My husband acted selflessly and with love for mankind, and I am full of confidence that everything he has done is worthy of the utmost respect.
I’ve decided to travel to Beijing, find out what is going on, and rescue my husband.
Lee Ming-che’s wife, Lee Ching-yu
March 31, 2017
January 3, 2017
This Q & A can be read as a companion piece to the Guardian report. It focuses more on Dahlin’s work, the interrogations, and the legal features of his case. Given that China’s “Law on the Management of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations” took effect on January 1, 2017, we hope the conversation offers insight and perspective. – The Editors
CHINA CHANGE: Peter, you are a Swedish national; on January 3, 2016, you were taken into custody by Chinese national security agents for allegedly “endangering national security.” It was not until nine days later that the international press reported that you had been disappeared on your way to the Beijing airport. Then, on January 15 and 19, the Global Times and the Xinhua News Agency reported your detention. On January 19, in a CCTV news section, you “confessed” that you “violated the Chinese law through your activities here, caused harm to the Chinese government, and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” While it was appalling and a pain to watch, people also laughed because everyone immediately recognized that these were forced words. On January 26, you were deported and barred from entering China for the next 10 years. A lot went on over this 23-day period, and we hope to unpack it for our readers. First of all, please tell us how events unfolded on January 3, 2016.
PETER DAHLIN: I was taken in a raid on my home in Beijing late that evening, not on my way to the airport as reported. The misunderstanding is easy to see, as I had notified a few people in the press- and diplomatic corps that I might not make it out, leading people to assume I must had been taken at the airport.
Earlier that day, I heard that high-up officials in the Beijing domestic security police were inquiring about me, following accusations against me made by individuals who had at that time been held in ‘residential surveillance’ from several months to half a year. Less than 10 hours after I heard about that, State Security showed up at my home, with search and detention warrants for both me and my girlfriend.
For a few weeks we had been in a ‘heightened risk situation,’ knowing that something could happen to me or others. We had been taking precautions, clearing out and processing paperwork, tying up loose ends, and doubling down in IT-measures. I had not only heard stories from those who had been through detentions before, but as a form of preparation also read books like the great but unfortunately-titled In the Shadow of the Rising Dragon with stories on interrogations, secret detention, torture etc. This was of course the first time I myself was taken, but over the years there had been many similar situations, and thus this procedure to prepare had been undertaken numerous times before.
In this case, I took the preparation a bit further than normal. Since similar situations of heightened risks had happened numerous times before, besides our normal organizational procedures, I also had my own. In those cases I would keep a small overnight bag packed next to the bed, with passport, some clothes, medicine, and money, along with shoes and a jacket, and more or less have memorized the night flight schedule out of Beijing – if I ever got the message or call that an action against us was being taken and would need to try to leave the country. In this case I was already scheduled to leave China just a few days after I was taken, but moved my flight up to that very same night, and packed as much as I could – knowing that if something happened and I managed to get away, I would not be able to return and would have to start anew somewhere. In the end, the raid on my home happened just a couple of hours before I was set to leave for the airport.
CHINA CHANGE: I admit that, even though I’ve been a busy human rights and rule of law advocate for the last three or four years, I had barely heard of your organization — Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (中国维权紧急援助组). So there is quite a bit of mystery around it. Can you describe your organization’s activities in China? A New York Times report mentioned seminars, legal aid work, and training sessions. The Chinese state media portray your activities in dark, conspiratorial and menacing terms. Help us demystify them.
PETER DAHLIN: The Chinese Urgent Action Working Group (China Action) was in operation from 2009 until early 2016, and it ran a number of different programs concurrently. It was largely unknown, as we operated quietly, and even though parts of the international rights community, and much of the press and diplomatic corps knew of us, we did not allow anyone to publicly speak about us, keeping our profile as low as possible while still being able to cooperate with others. A few reports linked on our dormant Twitter account are about the only public information available.
Since its founding, China Action has responded to attacks on lawyers, journalists, and other rights defenders, especially women defenders, but perhaps our main focus has been on training and capacity development for rights defenders. We have specialized in barefoot lawyers, with the goal of strengthening the legal movement and civil society, to develop the rule of law and improve protections for Chinese citizens.
Our founding program was the urgent action program, working to arrange lawyers for human rights defenders (HRDs) at risk and to provide needed financial assistance for victims’ families, ranging from support for housing, medical bills, or a child’s education. We paid special attention to women HRDs and grassroots activists who often lacked the network and support of more high-profile defenders. We did this both on our own as well as in partnership with international and regional organizations. Later on, for the last few years, we have also had a subsection of that program to specifically address and arrange help for those with mental health support needs after detentions, kidnappings, interrogations etc.
Although primarily about direct support, through the urgent action program we also engaged in limited advocacy measures around priority cases, which involved ensuring diplomatic attention in Beijing or foreign capitals and communication with relevant human rights special procedures of the United Nations, and participation in the Universal Periodic Review of China, both alone and in collaboration with international organizations.
Many people may not be aware that governments and institutions in the EU and other countries have been offering assistance to Chinese state actors involved in the judicial system, such as police, judges, or prosecutors, in developing the “rule of law” (rule by law really), which is important. At the same time, at least until recently, there was a growing number of international and in particular Hong Kong-based organizations that provide financial assistance and training for licensed rights defense lawyers who work on public interest and rights defense cases. Unfortunately this approach has left a key group without any support. Due to financial or geographic limitations, the majority of rights abuse victims in China must rely on unlicensed barefoot lawyers, and yet this is precisely the group that has been most left out of the majority of rule of law development efforts. This is why we focused on barefoot lawyers, and our work was more preventive than reactive, with focus on training and capacity development to address the gaping hole in access to legal aid, especially among rural or poorer Chinese citizens.
CHINA CHANGE: Speaking of barefoot lawyers, Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) immediately comes to mind. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) was a barefoot lawyer too in his early rights defense activities. Another example is Ni Yulan (倪玉兰). These are citizens who are not licensed lawyers, but who seek to defend rights through legal means. This is fascinating. Tell us more.
PETER DAHLIN: Because they are not licensed, the barefoot lawyers can almost never take up criminal cases. But in China, the main procedures for defending rights against government abuse are administrative laws and regulations, and this is where any citizen can get involved (although legal efforts by the State to limit their ability to take on cases continue). Barefoot lawyers can thus be both self-taught legal activists as well as lawyers who have lost their licenses. The work takes the form of filing lawsuits against government bodies responsible for illegal behavior such as torture, arbitrary detention, or forced evictions and demolitions. Barefoot lawyers have also taken the lead in testing and pushing the use of China’s 2008 Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information (《中华人民共和国政府信息公开条例》), scoring many successes. As a result, we have witnessed increased use of the Regulations in defending human rights.
In order to improve barefoot lawyers’ knowledge and practice of the Administrative Law, information disclosure regulations, and other procedures, China Action has run a number of different training programs since 2009. For example, our programs ranged from in-depth week-long training sessions in administrative law, shorter trainings on information disclosure, to specific legal issues, depending on the needs of target beneficiary groups.
To maximize the result and output of the main program, we designed the program in what we believe was both an innovative and cost-effective way:
A rights defense lawyer and an experienced barefoot lawyer would be responsible for each in-depth legal training session, selecting a group of participants from a cohesive area, along with guest teachers. Of those trained in these in-depth sessions, which would also include training in freedom of information (FOI) regulations, we would then select from the best of more suitable students, and arrange for them to, on a more local level, arrange their own shorter training in FOI or another specific legal topic. Thus the larger and more extensive trainings would give us a pool of local teachers for such smaller trainings.
When needed, a lawyer or barefoot lawyer in our network would attend those local trainings to assist. Finally, from the group trained in these shorter local trainings, the trainer would select the most dedicated participants and offer support for them to organize their own local trainings at the most grassroots level, to extend the output among the trainee’s friends and fellow barefoot lawyers.
This triple layer system allowed us to not only extend our results to the most local levels in a relatively low key and safe manner, but to ensure significant multiplier effects, all while keeping the costs very low.
Another key aspect of the training activities was about nurturing mutual trust among participants, which is part of the reason our training groups were never larger than 10 people, and always drawn from a coherent geographic area. This is especially important for barefoot lawyers who tend to have experience with only one or two particular legal issues. In this way, drawing a group of 10 barefoot lawyers from, say, Shandong to spend a week of in-depth study together would create new connections and expand their effectiveness, as they can build a mutual support network when dealing with issues outside their area of expertise. Each group would also get a direct connection to both the rights defense and barefoot lawyers arranging the training, greatly expanding networks for us as an organization, as well as for the participants, who would get a direct link to a mentor from who they could seek guidance.
The organization designed its own curriculum for these training and capacity development activities. A large part of that has included creating practical self-study guides with the beneficiaries, pairing the experts with the beneficiaries to create not only practical guides on, for example, information disclosure regulations or administrative detentions, but also manuals that deal with what the beneficiaries actually want. This approach would seem obvious, but looking at a lot of the material available, it often seems it’s produced by experts telling the readers/beneficiaries what they think they should know, instead of developing the material together with the group itself.
Finally, connecting the urgent action program and the training and capacity activities, the organization has also been working, on a small scale, to set up what we referred to as ‘legal aid stations’ around the country run by barefoot lawyers to enhance access to justice. This third core component thus consisted of barefoot lawyers who would receive training in issues ranging from arbitrary detention to information disclosure, alongside minor ongoing financial support, and they would then provide pro-bono assistance to victims in their respective regions. Many of these cases would have clear public interest components to them.
CHINA CHANGE: During your custody, did the Chinese security investigators tell you which of these activities are illegal and endangering China’s national security?
PETER DAHLIN: We always assumed that their key interest would be our work with urgent actions, and they certainly had a very strong interest in knowing which lawyers had been engaged for different cases, but their key interest turned out to be the barefoot lawyers we supported to provide pro-bono legal aid. They wanted to know about our ‘legal aid stations.’ When we first started, each station had several staff and an office, but beyond the very beginning stage, the aid was actually carried out by only one individual lawyer. However, we kept internally referring to them as ‘legal aid stations’, meaning State Security at first assumed that they were local branches of the organization, which of course was not the case at all.
They also had an interest in the various training activities, many of which over the years had been shut down by either local police or provincial state security. They found a few questionnaires from one of those trainings (distributed at all training activities for evaluation purposes), and found that some of the answers were rather anti-Party. That wasn’t helpful.
In general though, my own placement under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’ was mostly because of the incompetence of State Security. They had been led, wrongly, to believe that I was personally involved in a list of activities, which I was not, and could easily prove I was not.
A key focus of my interrogations was lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), who has now been held in secret custody for over a year. Wang and I worked closely for many years, but we parted ways and haven’t worked together since early 2014. Our work was regarding holding trainings, offering informal mentoring to local lawyers, providing criminal defense for those facing trial, and developing training materials. It would be a stretch even for the State Security to argue that any of these was bad for China, let alone being illegal.
CHINA CHANGE: You said that Chinese security organs had been monitoring your organization’s activities before your detention. Can you expand on that? How did they do so?
PETER DAHLIN: Beginning in 2013, a co-worker was repeatedly summoned by another branch of State Security for long sessions of questioning. Using carrots and sticks, State Security tried to make this person a ‘mole,’ who would continue working with us but report to the police on me, my co-founder Michael Caster, and lawyers we worked with, or any others who worked with us. State Security asked this co-worker to make copies of documentation the person had access to, and any work I gave this person to do. On several other occasions we found that either I or Michael Caster had come up in police questioning of rights defenders we had worked with.
CHINA CHANGE: You were detained in what’s essentially a black jail for 23 days, and you said you were interrogated every day. I’m always interested in knowing the questions they asked. Do you think you can go into more detail about your interrogations?
PETER DAHLIN: Overall, the interrogations were made harder by two facts: They found almost no paperwork in their raids, and their disappointment was visible when they raided my home. But they had taken in up to five people in this operation (and I also assumed that these people had been taken, although initially I could not be sure) and they were getting (some) information from them, which they used as leads for their interrogation of me. Three earlier partners had at this point been missing for many months, placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location’, and numerous other staff and partners, (then-) current and previous, had been detained and/or questioned throughout the summer, autumn and winter of 2015.
However, all core organizational aspects, details on projects, financing etc., have been the domain of only myself and Michael Caster. Others have been involved only in parts of a project or projects, without details on the organization as a whole. This was not what State Security had assumed early on. Making it clear that this was the responsibility of myself and Michael was imperative to lessen the burden on other staff and partners.
Michael was not in China at the time of the crackdown. I, being a Westerner with, I assumed, strong diplomatic support, felt a much greater sense of security than any Chinese national would. This, alongside with much information, accounts, banking etc., being based outside of mainland Chinese jurisdiction, also gave me a good position.
Thus, claiming to focus only on the administrative aspect of our work, and having poor Chinese language abilities, I could convincingly claim to only know the general outline of our work, but not the specifics for each project, and this approach allowed me to protect others.
I could, and did, also maintain the line, which is also true, that all our work had one thing in common, namely to enhance the practical application of law, that is, improve the enforcement of law, which is lacking greatly in China. We did not even involve ourselves in advocacy to improve the law itself, but focused on simply bringing practice in line with the law, especially on provincial and local levels. Even though the law is not meant to be followed to some extent, having this focus should logically decrease how and to what extent we are seen as a threat.
Despite this approach to limit what I needed to say, they did utilize extensive technical forensics on phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, USBs, etc. Everything stored is done so in encrypted form, and they never got the passwords to access those. On the other hand, using file recovery programs they could access parts of documents that had been worked on, deleted, etc. What they could get was limited, but they were able to gain access to some new documents or parts of documents every day.
This meant that I had to plan my interrogation keeping in mind to limit information, remove details such as names, locations etc., while at the same time make sure not to say anything that might be contradicted by the document they might have the next day. Keeping this in mind late at night after hours of questioning was perhaps the hardest part, but due to preparation it went fairly well. Basically, I had to make sure not to directly lie, but also make sure to not give out information that could be used against me or others.
The first 24 hours, I was under detention and not residential surveillance, they asked about my background, family and education, a few coworkers, and they also brought up the names of Wang Quanzhang, Xing Qingxian (幸清贤) and Su Changlan (苏昌兰). The first three days were handled by a ‘bad cop’ interrogator, who overplayed his hand and made me uncooperative, since I don’t respond well to being forced. After that, a ‘good cop’ took over most interrogations. All along I knew my girlfriend, who has no connection to my work, was sitting in the same facility somewhere, unable to give them anything, which at least at first I assumed State Security would think of as being uncooperative and possibly take measures to try to force non-existent information out of her.
For the first two weeks there was, on average, one session per day, lasting usually five to six hours, often held throughout the evening and night, with some minor variation. Later on they would accompany those with what I came to think as ‘fireside chats,’ with the ‘good cop’ coming into my cell, opposite to the interrogation room, to have informal chats. He’d offer cigarettes and an occasional Nescafé. These fireside chats would allow for more philosophical discussions, and for me to offer more extended explanation on why I disagreed with this or that.
Later on, one interrogation session would also double as a lie detector test, or ‘psychological test to enhance communication’ as they framed it. They attached electrodes to my fingers and used specialist cameras on the pupils, asking me a combination of test and real questions. The guy brought in to administer it couldn’t quite get it working, and in the end they didn’t seem to get anything from it, and stopped it for the last part of that interrogation session.
They used an interpreter at the interrogations, but as time went on they started to shed that charade, since the interrogators had far better English than the interpreters.
Two weeks into my detention, they realized that neither I nor China Action was related to the alleged crimes of Xing Qingxian and Su Changlan. They also realized we did not work with Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所), and had had no partnership with Wang Quanzhang for years. On top of that, upon learning that the activities I developed and worked on with Wang were related to provision of legal aid, training lawyers, and developing training materials, they must have realized that these would not be all that useful to smear him or convict him of any national security crimes.
They also became aware of my medical condition and just how serious it was. Not wanting to have a dead Western human rights activist on their hands, they paid close attention to my condition for the rest of my custody, which limited what methods they could use against me. I also knew that media broke the story after the first two weeks, and it was quickly gaining momentum, as I had expected it would. I realized that media had broken the story because the interrogator asked me one day about the reporter, Megha Rajagopalan at Reuters who first wrote about it. The annoyance and anger was very clear.
It must be around this time that they decided to eventually deport me and move on. For the remaining days, they tried to get from me as much information about how NGOs work and about civil society in general. Of course I would also be used as a propaganda tool against foreigners, civil society, and NGO work. For the last week or so the amount of interrogations dwindled, and besides some more “fireside chats” I was just killing time waiting for the next step in the process. This mostly consisted of staring into the suicide padded wall, spending time doing some basic calisthenics, and trying to remember Bob Dylan lyrics. His song “Love minus zero / no limit” was especially helpful to keep my mind occupied for a few days. Each day and every minute was feeling longer, not shorter, and it started getting to me.
Many people who talk on the subject of solitary confinement mention that at some point your thoughts turn to suicide. It was never a serious consideration for me, but yes, at some point I spent hours analyzing the room and considering the possibilities for committing suicide. The padding and setup was so meticulous, though, that I realized it was not going to be possible even if I wanted to.
CHINA CHANGE: The reports said that your organizations received grants from various sources, the largest donor being EU, but the Chinese seem to have a fixation on NED – the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy. How is that?
PETER DAHLIN: The EU was by far our largest donor, but my interrogators had almost no interest in this fact. Instead their focus was on NED, whose support to us, being crucial for one of our key programs and the organization as a whole, was nonetheless limited to a few hundred thousand dollars through the five years the program ran. To some extent they were also interested in rapid response assistance groups like Front Line Defenders. Me pointing out that the EU had supported numerous training activities for Chinese state actors, and that we were basically just doing the same for barefoot lawyers perhaps made them realize focusing on the EU angle would be more difficult in terms of painting it as a crime, a threat to national security, or in general play the ‘anti-China forces’ card. At this point they had also stopped trying to paint me as an EU spy.
Specifically, they wanted me to admit that NED was guiding us, that they were the ones giving orders on what we should do. I think this was partially because it’d fit their narrative, but also (to a lesser extent) because they don’t understand the grantmaker and grantee relationship. Likewise, they liked to refer to the barefoot lawyers we support as our ‘branches.’
Naturally they also inquired about other organizations, like International Service for Human Rights, who provides training on international law related issues (outside of China), and various groups based in Hong Kong. They however had very little information on our work with such groups, and it passed as a topic of conversation.
State Security became aware of our ‘legal aid station’ work from an internal NED document they somehow had access to, but the document did not contain names or exact locations, so a fair amount of time was spent on interrogating me about who these lawyers were. The names of some of the lawyers were provided by coworkers, and later documents they retrieve through file recovery work on hard drives etc. provided the legal aid station lawyers’ names. In the end, State Security gathered enough information about it, and it was the first program to be shut down as we started closing the organization after my deportation.
CHINA CHANGE: I have read a fair amount of interrogations of Chinese human rights defenders, and the interrogators always want to know whom they are connected to. I imagine they want to know every single person you have worked with or known in China.
PETER DAHLIN: They seemed to place a lot more interest on people than the work. They asked about a long list of people — some appeared in documents they had found, and others whose names had come up during interrogations of someone else. They wanted to know who attended our trainings, but they seem to accept that, due to the breadth and amount of our work, I could not have retained names of attendees of various trainings in my head, or even which teachers had been involved in what trainings. They also asked me about people simply because they are well known HRDs, key rights defense lawyers, and NGO workers. But I maintained, as I had done earlier, that my work focused on administrative issues and, having poor Chinese, I had very limited knowledge of most of these people, except for a few which they already had evidence that we had worked with directly.
They assumed that we would have connection with domestic NGOs, but that was in fact not the case. Likewise, our cooperation with international groups is limited to a handful of groups. They spent considerable time trying, but got very little on that topic. Same with the Fengrui Law Firm and people like Wang Yu and Li Heping, with whom we have had only limited contact.
They spent considerable time trying to convince me that some coworkers had ratted me out and I should respond in kind and come clean, basically that all blame was being placed on me, and if I didn’t defend myself my fate would be far worse. This mostly just triggered my Churchillian instinct. When they realized after repeated attempts that I would do nothing but defend them, they gave up. I remember repeating the same line over and over again: These people “not only constitute the best China has to offer, but people any nation should be proud to have as their citizens.”
CHINA CHANGE: The television confession — tell us what that was like.
PETER DAHLIN: Toward the end, when it became clear that deportation was likely, a late night final deposition was made in the interrogation room which basically summarized the key points they had learned from interrogations of me and others.
The focus was to try to find an angle to smear Wang Quanzhang. Considerable time had been spent on calling Wang a criminal, despite me pointing out almost daily that his case had not even been transferred to prosecutor, let alone having resulted in a conviction. Similarly, they refused to point out any activity by Wang that was actually a crime, except saying his work threatened national security, and that he has defended ‘evil cult’ practitioners and used his social media to highlight his work as a lawyer.
The next day, in the early evening, the ‘good cop’ walked into my cell. Cigarettes and small talk. He said a panel of judges would decide on my fate, whether bringing charges or deportation. The best way, he said, would be to record an interview on camera for them to review. Knowing that they already finished the active investigation and would not get any more information by an interview, that my girlfriend would be kept for as long as I would, and that only with my deportation would she be set free, and also knowing that time was ticking in terms of my medical condition (by that time I had already lost some 5-6 kilos), I said yes.
What followed is easy to imagine. He came back with a paper with both questions and answers written down, which in their mind ‘summarized’ our discussions over these weeks. Some arguments followed as they wanted me to call Wang, Xing and Su criminals, despite none of them having been tried. My refusal was finally accepted and some changes were made.
When I saw the final line on that paper, “having hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” I realized that the recording was obviously for CCTV, though they had never said so. Later, when I was led into a meeting room, also part of the same secure wing as the cell and interrogation room, I saw the CCTV ‘journalist’ and her cameraman.
The CCTV lady was about my age, perhaps slightly older, not overly friendly, but relaxed and someone with obvious experience as an interviewer. All the key State Security people, maybe 8 of them or so, were sitting in the back behind myself, the CCTV woman and the camera man. We ran through the questions and answers pretty quickly. The only hiccup was saying that final line on hurt feelings. After the 4th attempt the ‘journalist’ said to me, “you really don’t want to say this, do you?”
However, that line on hurt feelings is a key reason I agreed to do it despite knowing it was for CCTV and PR. It’s a well-known meme in the China community, and I knew that everyone would know the true nature of the ‘confession’ when they heard that line. Basically, including that line negated the whole purpose of it, from the point of view of the international community, and to some extent, inside China too.
CHINA CHANGE: Following your deportation, the Beijing-based lawyer and legal scholar Zhang Qingfang (张庆方) penned a commentary, taking issue with the legal procedure of your deportation. He said that the deportation order should have been made by a court if you were guilty of a crime, or by the PSB or national security agency if you were found to have violated an administrative statute but had not committed a crime. Your case had never been brought to a Chinese court, and yet the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced that you confessed to having committed “the crime of funding criminal activities that endanger China’s national security.” She, a government spokeswoman, convicted you of two crimes in one breath! I bring this up because the arbitrariness of the entire episode highlights precisely the importance of your organization’s work and the work of those barefoot lawyers and human rights defenders. It’s so basic – it’s the ABC of ABC of the rule of law, yet it’s not acceptable to the Chinese government and it’s demonized by state propaganda.
PETER DAHLIN: As far as the law is concerned, I was placed under residential surveillance and investigated for violation of Article 107 — using foreign funding for illegal and subversive activities. But besides accusing me of supporting Su Changlan’s alleged protests and of me being the mastermind behind Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun’s alleged crime of taking Bao Zhuoxuan, the son of Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, across China’s borders, they could not really pinpoint any activity that I had undertaken that would be illegal (besides illegal business operations, which is not a national security crime). And I had nothing to do with these two incidents anyway.
Their argument that actions supported by us would challenge national security, based on the National Security Law, is easily dismissible. They did spend time picking on our operating in the mainland without registration, and thus failing to pay tax, but that was not the crime I was accused of and it seemed just a minor issue for them.
In the end, I was deported under the new Espionage Law, but was not allowed to receive any documentation of any kind about any step in the legal process against me: the list of confiscated items, the house search, personal search, detention, residential surveillance, deportation, and the ban from entering China for 10 years — nothing.
Also, deportation under criminal charges would require a court decision, with notification to the embassy, myself, and the allowance of a lawyer, even if only a state-appointed one — but none of those things happened. That would render the process itself illegal, since deportation can only be decided by the police if it’s part of an administrative punishment, and if the latter is true I would first have to be released from criminal detention and moved to an administrative detention facility. Even with the world watching, China’s police and justice system couldn’t even operate, despite having such a wide range of tools and exceptions available, within their own law.
CHINA CHANGE: The way your case was dealt with, the Chinese law is apparently irrelevant despite all the rhetoric of the state media about the law being served. What do you think your real ‘crime’ is anyway? The Global Times said you stepped on a red line, what’s the red line?
PETER DAHLIN: Well, it’s hard to know who claimed I had participated or directed actions that led to “crimes,” as all of these people remain detained and incommunicado. So what led to the action being taken, I don’t know.
What can be said is that nothing that I was doing in 2016 was any different from, say, 2013. What earlier led them to want to monitor and keep tabs on us now meant they wanted to take us down. That would be in line with a general harshening of the climate, a greater focus on “anti-China” or “foreign forces” in their work to counter civil society growth, and also seeing an opportunity to use me as a tool concurrent with the new law and regulations on foreign funding and NGO operation.
CHINA CHANGE: Before and around the year 2008, the international community was euphoric about China embracing international norms. I remember there was a catchy phrase in those years in state media: “China and the World Joining Tracks” (“与世界接轨”), about China’s supposed integration into the world order. Today you don’t hear this phrase anymore and China’s outlook has changed. Many independent NGOs have been shut down over the past couple of years. You came to China almost 10 years ago as a young man, and 10 years later you were expelled as a national security threat. Do you have any final thoughts as we conclude this Q and A?
PETER DAHLIN: Outsiders are slow to react and adjust their thinking, which I guess is natural. However, it will become harder and harder for outsiders, including politicians, to keep up the charade that China is continuing its peaceful rise and, if only incrementally, developing a system of laws, and therefore creating a better society. The longer Xi Jinping stays in power, the harder it will be to continue to pretend things are developing in the right direction — but few nations want to be the first to reverse course in how to develop ties and interact with China, especially if economic ties are threatened. Luckily, China is so inept at PR that their threats against sovereign nations who seek to change course are becoming clearer, with the UK being a good example. Not even the Tory party can pretend anymore, as seen in the report they released (The Darkest Moment).
Despite having my life’s work, in a professional sense, thrown into the garbage, and the fact that my lifelong medical condition came from my time in China, I’d still say it was worth every bit despite the risks. We cannot publicize the specifics of our work, especially on urgent actions, but knowing the results for myself was enough to motivate me to continue. Even if the positive results we saw as a result of our interventions were cut in half, I’d still say it was worth it all. Sometimes you’ve got to “put your money where your mouth is,” as they say, and I believe I did that.
Yaxue Cao, July 26, 2016
Li Tingting (李婷婷), also known as Li Maizi (李麦子), is one of the “Feminist Five” in China who were detained on the eve of the International Women’s Day in 2015; they were planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transportation, which is insidiously prevalent in China. The women were released after 37 days in detention following an unprecedented international outcry. I met with Li Tingting recently over a Sunday brunch, and we spoke about her detention, women’s rights, LGBT advocacy, and civil society. — Yaxue Cao
YC: Let’s begin from your experiences during the arrest of the Feminist Five on March 6.
Li Tingting: At that time my girlfriend and I were living in a rental. The police came knocking on the door at about 10:30 pm, but I didn’t open it — initially I thought that they weren’t looking for me. I didn’t want to deal with the hassle, and had the event the following day to get ready for. But they knocked on the door continuously for about 30 minutes, and from their conversation I knew they were after me. They said they’d been monitoring my phone calls, and that I’d just called so-and-so. Then they called in a locksmith company to pry open the lock, so I opened the door for them. They looked flustered and furious and made a show of trying to frighten me. They took out a blank warrant of detention as well as a blank notice of criminal detention, slapped them onto the table, and began searching the apartment. They confiscated all of our electronics, including computers and cell phones, of which I had more than one. Then, they took us away. Downstairs, they were going to put Suan Xiaola (酸小辣, Li Tingting’s partner) and myself in different vehicles, and I told her: just say you were only staying with me for a couple of days and had planned to leave tomorrow. The police then forbade us from talking. Suan never acknowledged our relationship — if she did the police would exploit our intimate relationship to get information from her. At the local police station, the police went through our private conversations, listening to them one by one. It was infuriating. Later an opportunity presented itself: an officer asked me how to unlock my phone. I said: “I can do it for you,” and then went in and deleted my entire WeChat history. At that point I didn’t think that they’d detain us, because we hadn’t even carried out our activities — there was nothing we’d done for them to lock us up.
On that first night we arrived at the police station at 12am. The following evening we were led into a basement carpark and taken away in a 9-seater van. At that point they’d already let my girlfriend go. The whole time they were afraid I’d escape, and held me by the arm the entire trip. Wei Tingting (韦婷婷) was in front of me. I was in the middle. Wang Man (王曼) was in the back.
YC: Had the other two been brought from elsewhere to the same police station?
Li Tingting: Right. We drove for a long time. I don’t know where we ended up. Wei Tingting was in front of me, and it was easier to speak with her. I said: “It looks like we’re going to a detention center. Let’s keep our mouths shut for 37 days, and then we’ll be let go.” My thinking at that point was really naive. When we got to the detention center we were handcuffed and made to stand and wait. I was chatting with Wei Tingting. She remarked: “This is on my to-do list.”
YC: Ah — going to jail being on one’s to-do list. That would have to be a “Chinese characteristic.”
Li Tingting: Wei Tingting asked me: What is there to do in jail? I said, you can have a one night stand. She said: can you really? In the end when she left jail she really did find a girlfriend.
YC: Based on the interrogation, what did the police primarily want to find out?
Li Tingting: Their early questions were all about this anti-sexual harassment activity that we had planned, and they asked about it thoroughly, again and again. Then they asked about foreign forces, whether we were being used by foreign forces. They were extremely nervous about these “foreign forces.” “Who are paying for your activities?” they asked. But I didn’t know, and I really had no idea.
YC: Do these kind of activities need much funding at all?
Li Tingting: They do — for instance to cover the cost of printing materials. Some activities are paid for by volunteers themselves. The police asked about this over and over again. Then they asked about our other public protests: Occupying Man’s Room, the Wounded Bride protest, and the head shaving protest, as well as how we exposed our breasts to oppose domestic violence. When they printed out photos of our bare chests, they even censored out our nipples with black crosses. I thought it was hilarious.
YC: Where was that topless protest?
Li Tingting: The photos were posted to social media, but they were professional shots taken in a studio. They asked again and again: “Why are you doing these activities?” I said that everything we did was for gender equality in China, it’s not for anything else. Another question they asked was: Why are you working at an NGO? I said: “I have to work, I need to survive.”
YC: What kind of question is this? Is working at an NGO illegal or scandalous in China?
Li Tingting: There was a period in which every day they asked us about our organization. They also raided our office.
YC: At that time you were at Yirenping. What specific work did you do there?
Li Tingting: I did gender equality advocacy. Later I did LGBT work. They were asking about the details of those projects — they wanted every possible detail of them. They asked so many questions, but I was not in charge, nor in control of a lot of resources, nor did I receive any money from “foreign forces.” Besides, even if we did receive money from abroad, did the law prohibit it? Now China has passed the NGO law, but there wasn’t the law at that time.
They’re very good at scaring us. They’ll suddenly burst into the room and yell: “Li Tingting, you haven’t been honest with us, you’re lying again!” Then they’ll intimidate me, saying: “We’ve gathered such-and-such new evidence.” I thought it was quite amusing. Just like a cops and robbers movie, like they were deliberately acting out the drama, trying to scare you.
YC: Were you scared?
Li Tingting: I was at first. But as they just kept doing this, I got used to it and wasn’t afraid anymore. I feel that, while you are in their clutches like that, it’s like playing a game of chess with them. When you’re locked inside, you can’t think about when they will release you. I always expected the worst, so I’d be psychologically prepared.
YC: Did you ever think that your work would land you in jail?
Li Tingting: I was more prepared for it than others. Before we were arrested, lawyer Chang Boyang (常伯阳) was taken in, and the offices of Yirenping (亿人平) in Zhengzhou were raided. At that point I knew that there was risk in doing what we did. Actually, even earlier, when Xu Zhiyong (许志永) was arrested, I’d considered this possibility.
YC: Do you know Xu Zhiyong?
Li Tingting: I don’t know him. But the fact that he can be charged with disturbing public order and sentenced for four years, just for helping the children of parents with non-Beijing household registration (户口) attend school in Beijing, means that the authorities could use the same charges against us.
When lawyer Chang Boyang was released, he told us a lot. It was a very good preparation for me. He said, firstly, don’t collaborate with the police; secondly, don’t go along with the kind of predatory behavior that inmates often resort to to survive; and thirdly, if someone bullies you, ring the alarm. These points were extremely useful for life behind bars.
YC: How have these 37 days in prison changed and impacted you, a young NGO worker and rights advocate?
Li Tingting: For a long time after being released I had a very hard time focusing. After a period of mental training, I improved to some degree. Another thing is that I often had nightmares of being arrested. Others in the Feminist Five were the same. Also, we’re now all on the Chinese media blacklist, so no one dares to speak about or report on us.
Another direct impact is that our NGO was shut down, so I had no stable work and source of income. We became a “model case” in the NGO crackdown, and the surveillance against us was increased as a result. In the past we were just “troublemakers,” but now we’ve become political offenders in their eyes. Even though the platform of our movement is gender equality, once the government arrests you, life becomes harder. The government is still resorting to all sorts of methods to prevent the issue from reaching a wider audience.
YC: I recently saw the film Hooligan Sparrow (流氓燕). An elementary school principal in Hainan province took 11-year-old students from his own school to a hotel room, and it was suggested that these young girls were offered up as gifts for the “use” of local officials. It’s such a revolting act that you’d think the All China Women’s Federation (妇联) would immediately come out and condemn it. But the Women’s Federation didn’t make a sound. But when rights lawyers and activists went to the scene to protest (lawyer Wang Yu and lawyer Tang Jitian, as well as several other female activists, went to Hainan with “hooligan sparrow”), they were stalked, violently confronted, and later harshly retaliated against. This incident demonstrates how important citizen power is in China. If civil society doesn’t come out and organize protests, this society has no effective channel for seeking justice or resolving problems.
We also know that in February of this year Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling Service Center (众泽妇女法律咨询服务中心) was closed. As far as you know, what’s the current state of affairs in terms of civil advocacy on behalf of the rights of women and children in China?
Li Tingting: Right now the “path struggle” (路线之争) is more obvious than ever. When us young people began doing street activism, a lot of the older generation of feminists were supportive — including when we went to universities to give speeches, a lot of the teachers in the state system were very welcoming. Now the number of teachers that invite us to speak has dropped considerably. In 2012 and 2013 many universities invited us to come and give speeches. When I went to the Shandong University of Finance and Economics, I was received by the dean of the law school. At that time, even though we were considered sensitive, we weren’t so sensitive that state-affiliated teachers didn’t dare cooperate with us.
YC: What exact is this “path struggle” that you just referred to?
Li Tingting: It’s that there are women’s rights activists in China who think we’ve made this issue politically sensitive and have negatively impacted their own work. They keep a distance from us now. We used to work with the Women’s Federation, but not anymore.
YC: The detention and release of the Feminist Five was quite a shock to me in different ways. I had never heard of any of you, nor had our site written about women’s rights before then, because I had never really considered it part of our focus. When you were detained right before International Women’s Day, I was slow to react, thinking you’d be released after a few days at most. I was shocked because, firstly, I never thought the kinds of activities you engaged in would land you in jail, and it was an alarm bell for how bad things were deteriorating for activists — activists of any kind. Secondly, the global response was something rather amazing, unprecedented in speed and scale. The fact that feminist organizations and LGBT networks like All Out came out, in the tens of thousands signing petitions, also created a classic case study for effective activism, because these are not the “usual suspects” who speak out for human rights in China. And as it happened, Xi Jinping and his wife were to preside over the UN Women’s Summit. What a joke, but also, what an opportunity!
So ever since the release of the Feminist Five, I have been talking to the usual suspects about identifying the unusual suspects in each case, and about exploring potential opportunities.
Now, let’s talk about the state of LBGT rights in China.
Li Tingting: Most of mainland China’s LGBTs are still living in the closet. They might come out of the closet in their circle of friends; they might have their own communities, or bars, but they do not come out to their parents and employers, because the cost would be very high.
YC: The costs include?
Li Tingting: If you’re homosexual, you will be fired. If you tell your parents, they will beat you, curse you. There’ll be family discord. Some have been sent to mental hospitals, others have been stalked or detained. There are a lot of such cases. I knew a case where parents twice sent their daughter to a mental hospital and forced her to take medication until she promised her parents that she’d never engage in homosexual relationships again. Such private violence against LGBT is prevalent in China.
Take myself for example. My aunt, who is my mother’s eldest sister, cursed me in the most vicious language when she learned that I’m a lesbian. When I had my wedding ceremony with Suan Xiaola, she said I was a pervert and my parents would die as a result of me marrying my partner. It was so hurtful. I’ve never been close to her — what makes her think she has the right to judge my life? Well, just because she’s my mother’s older sister, she feels she has the authority to do so.
YC: What about your mom?
Li Tingting: My mom was embarrassed by me. She didn’t attend my wedding, my dad wouldn’t let her. She also said to me: “Can you not have your ceremony so close to us?” In other words, don’t shame us on our doorsteps. But my girlfriend’s parents were supportive. They spoke to my mom, so my mom called my aunt, telling her that “my daughter’s life is not your business.”
YC: Are there individuals and organizations openly advocating the legalization of gay marriage?
Li Tingting: Yes, there are. Some couples advocate gay marriage, like us, by holding marriage ceremonies to make a political statement about their rights and their desire to see the legalization of same-sex marriage in China. In Changsha, a gay couple went to the government asking to register their marriage. There has been an effort to rally support for same-sex marriage from parents whose children are homosexuals. This is a very good strategy, because Chinese culture values family, and parents want to see their homosexual children living in a family setting. Also, when parents support their children, it greatly increases the visibility of the issue.
YC: I read in the news recently that, in a college in Guangzhou, a lesbian proposed to her partner on the day of their graduation. Yesterday I noticed that there is an All Out signature campaign that collected over 20,000 signatures in two days since its initiation. According to Wang Xiaoyu — one of the lesbian students, though that’s not her real name — Party officials at her college outed her to her parents, and threatened to withhold her diploma. The police also raided her apartment.
Li Tingting: I know this case. The university sent people who opened her apartment, and had the police search it.
YC: That’s right, to collect “evidence.” Evidence of what?
Li Tingting: They said these students were manipulated by foreign forces.
YC: You’re kidding! “Foreign forces” everywhere! In a way, this incident reflects the official attitude of the Chinese government: it’s like, we’ll hold our nose and tolerate you homosexuals, but don’t “overdo” it, or we’ll get you. So, it’s worrisome. Now on top of that, we all know that over the last three years the rights advocacy work, not only in political rights but also women’s rights, has all but been shattered as a result of severe crackdowns and the promulgation of laws, especially the foreign NGO management law. Is there room for LGBT advocacy work?
Li Tingting: Yes, there is, because it hasn’t been politicized. But as soon as an LGBT activist is arrested for his or her work, it will become political.
YC: Give us some examples.
Li Tingting: The more mainstream advocacy that I just spoke about, the homosexual friends and family associations that identify with mainstream family values — they are occasionally reported on in mainstream media outlets. And they raise funds from the public, because they want the support of average citizens. There is also the Chinese Rainbow Media Awards given to media outlets that are friendly to the LGBT subject. In other cases, advocacy groups work with companies to hold job fairs just for gays and lesbians. One such event was held by a foreign company.
There is also a network of public interest lawyers known as “the rainbow lawyers” — they help meet the legal needs of the LGBT community.
The other recourse is lawsuits. The first case was in 2013, when a lesbian named Yanzi in Chongqing sued a psychological counseling center that used electric shocks to “treat” homosexuality. The court ruled that homosexuality is not a mental illness. That was a historic ruling. Since then there have been other lawsuits, but not all of them were successful. [Here, here, and here.]
But with litigation, if you are getting support from NGOs, the government can accuse you of working with foreign forces, because most advocacy NGOs receive funding from foundations overseas.
YC: Are you saying then that the civil advocacy work right now is still being done by NGOs?
Li Tingting: Right. Work done by civil society has already decriminalized and depathologized homosexuality, but they haven’t managed to normalize it. The wider public and the government are still prejudiced against homosexuality, like it’s something dishonorable. The problem is that they simply have no interest in actually understanding this group of people. But because LGBT groups have started to spring up in recent years, the police need to monitor them, and they also need to understand them. The reason this issue is still fairly safe is in part because the authorities don’t really want to touch it. So the government’s lack of advocacy and support also protects this population, allowing them to continue their advocacy in the current climate.
YC: Have you gotten involved yourself?
Li Tingting: Of course. Getting married is a prime example. When I was in second year university in Xi’an, myself and three others founded a “Lesbian Community Training Group.”
YC: Doing what?
Li Tingting: We played board games the first time. When we grew in number, we begin some advocacy work. Mainly it was service delivery: for instance, psychological counselling, providing all kinds of other support.
YC: One thing I noticed was that, when the five of you went to prison, the lawyers who took on your cases were all human rights lawyers. I was puzzled: you’re advocating women’s rights — are there no other lawyers who are willing to represent you?
Li Tingting: They were the only ones who dared. Our’s was a political case. There were also public interest lawyers willing to take it on, but their defense strategy was completely different to that of human rights lawyers. And I definitely prefer the human rights lawyers.
YC: When I meet you, the impression I get from you is that you’re really free — your facial expressions and gestures, everything about you seems to proclaim: I’m free. And yet this totalitarian system every day presents you with another message: I’m controlling you, you’re not free. You make me think of myself when I was in my 20s. At the time I was still living in China, and every single day I felt a fundamental, intrinsic sense of freedom clashing sharply against the external oppressiveness. But at that time there was no internet, no so-called civil society, so disgust and helplessness became a state of life. But I had never thought, in 2016, the term “freedom” still remains a remote, dangerous expression. You’ve been jailed, and you’re gay — tell us about your existential state.
Li Tingting: I think that the pressure is inescapable — it affects your personal relationships, and it affects your daily life. So we’ve all had to become superhuman: we have to stand against the pressure, and also work while under it. The government’s invisible tentacles are reminding you every single moment: “I’m watching you.” I’ve always been a rebellious person, incompatible with a mainstream lifestyle. Other people have said I’m “radical.” But once you choose your way of life, you have to walk the path to the end. So, freedom has its costs. Every way of life has its costs, it’s just a matter of what costs you choose.
YC: I hate the very thought, but have you considered the possibility that you’ll be jailed again? You didn’t think you’d be jailed when you planned the anti-sexual harassment protests on buses and subways. Maybe one day you’ll do something that you don’t think is dangerous in the least, and yet you might get arrested.
Li Tingting: Right. We can’t control whether we’re arrested or not, so there’s no point thinking about things we can’t control. We can’t censor ourselves excessively.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao.
Wu Rongrong: How I Became a Women’s Rights Advocate, April 27, 2015
Who the activists are, and why the government is striking hard against their NGOs
By Yaxue Cao, published: December 10, 2015
Chinese police on December 3 began a series of sudden raids of labor rights organizations in Guangdong, questioning at least 25 staff members and managers of about five organizations, according to labor activists and lawyers in the area.
Three individuals—Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), Zhu Xiaohai (朱小梅) and He Xiaobo (何晓波)—were confirmed to be criminally detained. On December 7, Deng Xiaoming (邓小明) was criminally detained, while two other NGO staff members are still in police custody and their status remains uncertain. The father, wife, and older brother of Zeng Feiyang have all been interrogated by police. Peng Jiayong (彭家勇) also may have been criminally detained, given that the police said that they had sent a notice to his address.
Many of the NGOs are based in Panyu, a district of Guangzhou with a high concentration of migrant workers.
Zeng Feiyang and Zhu Xiaohai, a manager and staff member respectively at the “Panyu Migrant Worker Service Document Handling Center” (番禺打工族文书处理服务部) in Panyu, Guangzhou, have been accused of “organizing a crowd to disrupt social order.” The NGO is typically known as Panyu Dagongzu Service Center.
He Xiaobo, the manager of the Nanfeiyan Social Worker Center in Foshan City (南飞雁社会服务工作中心), has been accused of “embezzlement”. It is unclear what charges have been levelled against Deng Xiaoming, a staff member at the Haige Labor Center (海哥劳工服务部) in Panyu, and Peng Jiayong, the leader of the Panyu Workers’ Mutual Assistance Group (番禺区劳动者互助小组).
A labor rights defense website reported that this “surprise attack” has targeted some of the leading NGOs defending and advocating labor rights and awareness in the Pearl River Delta.
The Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center (“Dagongzu” hereafter) was founded in 1998; its primary business was legal consultation and representation for workers. This included assisting injured workers in navigating applications for compensation, getting involved in collective bargaining and strikes in order to see that workers are paid their social insurance, assisting in the drafting of labor rights agreements, and abolishing the use of temporary labor agencies, among other activities. As one of the earliest labor rights NGOs in the Pearl River Delta area, it became a model for many of the later labor rights activists; before long, over a dozen similar labor NGOs had blossomed in the area, and Dagongzu earned the playful moniker of the “Whampoa Military School” for labor rights. (One of Republic of China’s military academies, Whampoa trained many top Nationalist and Communist Party military officers before 1949.)
The Foshan-based Nanfeiyan Social Worker Center was founded in 2007 and officially registered with the local Civil Affairs agency in 2012, according to Caijing, a business magazine. Nanfeiyan began with a focus on helping injured industrial workers to gain compensation, but its range of activities later expanded significantly, including the provision of service to migrants in Foshan. The range of community services it provides includes supporting education for the children of migrant workers who are denied enrollment in local public schools; medical insurance for women giving birth; and shelter services, among others. According to Nanfeiyan’s website, in the seven years of their operations up to 2014, the NGO has “provided legal training workshops to over 7,000 people, and cumulatively assisted nearly 10,000 injured workers in gaining legally prescribed compensation. The agency has accumulated rich NGO work experience from a large number of injury compensation cases.”
According to its Weibo account, the Panyu Mutual Assistance Group was founded by Peng Jiayong and advocates a worker representative system, direct elections for union leaders, collective bargaining, and solidarity among workers.
The Haige Labor Center in Panyu, although only founded in November 2014, is led by a veteran labor rights activist—Cheng Huihai (陈辉海). He began as a worker in a jewelry factory, first defending his own rights then helping and training other workers to defend theirs. In an interview this year he said that the Haige Labor Center primarily focuses on training workers to use collective bargaining to ensure the protection of their rights, and that many such cases have been successful.
Another labor rights NGO that has been raided and questioned is the Sunflower Women’s Center (向阳花女工中心) also in Panyu district.
The Detained NGO Workers: Who Are They?
Zeng Feiyang graduated from South China Normal University with an associate degree in law in 1996. Through family connections he secured a position in the judicial bureau of his hometown of Nanxiong in Guangdong—the sort of public service post widely sought after in China. But Zeng found it far too dull, left it in less than a year, and moved to the Jinglun Law Firm in Guangzhou, according to 2010 profile by Southern Window (《南风窗》).
At the law firm his principal job was to represent corporate clients in their disputes with workers: mediating wage negotiations, injury compensation, backwages, and more. His clients and his firm were very happy with his work, but he sunk into guilt. “The migrant workers make a living by selling their cheap labor. Now they have lost their only asset—a strong and healthy body—and can’t get fair compensation, how will they face the future?” He felt compelled to help them.
He soon became the head of the Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center, or Dagongzu. The first few years were a struggle: they received hardly any service fees, found it difficult to keep running, and were regularly harassed by the government. At one point their business license was revoked. In early 2000s Dagongzu transformed itself into an NGO and started accepting funding from Hong Kong and abroad, no longer charging any fees from migrant workers. Dagongzu became China’s first labor NGO.
In 2003 Dagongzu set up a “Migrant Worker’s Cultural Service Center” in the Shiqi township (石碁镇), using a sponsorship of $15,000 by Reebok. The center provided cultural and sporting facilities, and held training classes and activities that built fellowship among workers. There were computer classes, dancing classes, and English classes on a rotating basis. The goal of the center was to enrich the lives of migrant workers through learning and camaraderie, to give them a sense of belonging. Workers appreciated these activities. But in 2007 police closed it down because they feared that with hundreds of migrant workers congregating in one place, it would be easy for them to get organized and set off “mass incidents.”
Zeng Feiyang recognized that, while labor NGOs had resolved many problems for the government, by making life easier for workers and reducing their pressure and anxieties, the government’s stance towards these NGOs was still deeply suspicious and apprehensive. He remarked that the primary obstacle to the growth of labor NGOs in China came from “government and industry.” In reality, Zeng was perfectly clear on what he was doing: his organization was not based on creating a social movement, but serving and supporting migrant workers as and when they needed it. “Getting involved in mass protests—that’s absolutely off the table,” he says in the Southern Window profile.
A month prior, Dagongzu had helped Shatou street sanitation workers to win a collective rights defense case, awarding them their seniority compensation.
In December 2014, when Dagongzu was helping workers at the Lide Shoe Factory (利得鞋厂) in Guangdong in a collective bargaining negotiation, police detained Zeng Feiyang for 24 hours. While in custody, the police essentially threatened to kill him, intimating that these days, if someone dies under mysterious circumstances, police can’t always solve the case. Two days later Zeng was assailed by four unidentified men. Over 1,000 activists signed a petition protesting violence against labor activists.
Zhu Xiaomei is a worker at Dagongzu. At midday on December 3, police came with a warrant to search her home and make an arrest. Her husband, 10-year-old son, and still breastfeeding one-year-old daughter were all there. Her husband couldn’t take the baby because he had to work, and nor would the police allow Zhu Xiaohai to take her. In the end, the ten-year-old picked up the baby and watched on as police handcuffed his mother and led her away.
On December 4 the family received a notice of criminal detention informing them that Zhu Xiaohai was being held in the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center under suspicion of having “gathered a crowd to disturb social order.” When they attempted to bring the infant daughter to the lockup so she could be breastfed, they were turned away by police.
At the age of 16, Zhu Xiaohai came down from Henan to Guangdong to work, spending 16 years at a Hitachi factory in Panyu. When she’d just arrived in Guangdong she had little life experience and didn’t understand Cantonese (the local language). She was made to do endless overtime shifts, and she was afraid, lonely, and tired, yet didn’t dare tell her family back in Henan, according to an interview she gave to Chinese media this Mother’s Day. The first time she called home—when telephone calls still cost 3 yuan per minute—she said not a word, choking in tears before hastily hanging up. Because she worked diligently and took on hard tasks without complaint, she became a group supervisor within a few months. Four years later she was promoted to an entry-level manager. In 2014 Zhu, in her role as elected worker’s representative, sought to ensure that workers were provided with basic social security and received their pensions, as dictated by the law. For this she was illegally fired. She initiated a lawsuit against her employer for illegal dismissal, which she won, and then joined Dagongzu to become an NGO worker.
He Xiaobo went to work in Foshan in 2006 and soon lost three fingers on his left hand in an industrial accident. In hospital he encountered a Dagongzu volunteer and learned for the first time about worker’s compensation. For the next year or so he threw himself into learning the law and defending his own rights, while also volunteering for Dagongzu. He was 32-years-old then. He also experienced what every other migrant worker had faced: he had to leave behind his daughter in his hometown because she was not allowed to enroll in public schools in Foshan, and his wife was denied maternity insurance when she was pregnant with their younger daughter.
Later he founded the Rights Defense Workshop for the Injured, which was the predecessor of Nanfeiyan, and became a well-known labor activist. Up until last year his NGO was still working with the government on a number of projects and received official funding. Both He Xiaobo and his NGO received numerous recognitions and honors in Foshan: He was declared one of the Top Ten Social Workers, for instance, and Nanfeiyan was given the Red Rose Award for charity work, both awarded by the Foshan municipal government.
Peng Jiayong, from Yichang, Hubei Province, joined labor rights defense work in 2012. Previously he was himself a worker but was fired after participating in union elections and collecting bargaining at a foreign-invested enterprise in Zhongshan. He then began working at Zhongshan Laipowan (来泊湾, a labor NGO), Dagongzu, and the Haige Labor Center. In April he was assaulted by eight unidentified men and severely injured. In May he led the establishment of the Worker’s Mutual Assistance Group.
Deng Xiaoming, a native of Leiyang, Hunan, came to Guangdong to work when he was still a minor. After a work injury he got help from Dagongzu, and later became involved in labor rights NGO work, pitching in at Dagongzu and Haige.
Why the Authorities Launched This Crackdown
According to a report about the plight of Chinese labor NGOs by Financial Times Chinese earlier this year, Dagongzu began receiving fund from foreign sources in 2002, including from, at various points, the German-based Church Development Service (Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst), the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee, and the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, among others. But in September 2014 public security authorities warned Zeng Feiyang that his organization could no longer receive any funding from China Labor Bulletin, at that time their only source of financing.
In September and November, 2014, Zeng Feiyang attempted twice to enter Hong Kong and was refused on both occasions, upon which he was told that he had been placed on the list of those refused exit from China. When he attempted to fly to the Czech Republic for a human rights meeting in December 2014 he was again stopped by Customs.
In September 2015 several of Nanfeiyan’s service stations were shut down, their contracts with government severed. Their projects and funding for helping communities of migrant worker children were also affected, and their accounting books were re-audited by the authorities, looking for irregularities. In November, He Xiaobo was also restricted from traveling outside China.
The Sunflower Women’s Center in Panyu, meanwhile, used to be supported by the All-China Women’s Federation, but in June received a notice of administrative penalty from the Civil Affairs office, declaring that the center’s registration as an NGO would be revoked.
An open letter by Nanfeiyan in October provides some background on the sudden deterioration of the environment for labor NGOs in China:
“In July 2011, Wang Yang (汪洋), the then Party Secretary of Guangdong, put forth the ‘social construction’ doctrine during the 9th plenary meeting of the 10th Party Committee of Guangdong. … In March 2012, secretary Wang Yang came to Gaoming District in Foshan to conduct field studies for innovation in social management. He asked a manager of a company, who’s also a Party member: ‘If workers, wanting to have better benefits, come to odds with the factory, whose side will you lean to?’ The Guangdong government embraced the new social management concept in response to the increasingly acute confrontations between workers and their employers seen in the Pearl River Delta. As a result, in 2012, many NGOs in Guangdong, including Nanfeiyan, blossomed as never before: many groups were able to obtain NGO registration, and receive government funding to provide services. Between 2013-2014, Nanfeiyan also began to receive government funding for operating social work programs. However, the conditions changed abruptly at the end of 2014. The vibrant and innovative atmosphere for social management quickly withered. At first, the government suddenly cut funding for NGOs, including Nanfeiyan. Then, in the new social management regulations to be promulgated, the government made it very difficult for us to obtain foreign funding. On top of that, from around the end of 2014 to early 2015, we felt the government began to tighten control on, and suppress, a select group of NGOs. Our space for survival has sunk to its lowest, and we’re on the brink of extinction.”
A veteran labor activist based in Guangzhou, who wishes to remain anonymous, told NGO commentator Zhao Sile (赵思乐) that all the people detained or questioned this time have worked at Dagongzu at one point or another. He said that the authorities have been investigating Zeng Feiyang for a while. “It’s obvious that the raids were well planned from a higher level of government,” he said. “From the way several friends were questioned, you can gather that the authorities want to ‘prove’ that several independent labor organizations are part of a network, with Zeng Feiyang as the ring leader.”
This activist said that the latest assault on labor NGOs in Guangzhou and Foshan is a manifestation of the government trying to tighten control as the economy continues to slide. “On the surface it’s cracking down on labor NGOs, but in essence it’s suppressing the workers’ movement.” He predicted that the suppression will continue as more factories shut down and labor disputes multiply.
Guangzhou-based labor rights activist Liu Shaoming (刘少明) was arrested in mid-2015, charged with inciting subversion of state power, and has not yet been tried. In February 2015, the authorities in Guangzhou closed down a labor research center jointly operated by UC Berkeley and Sun Yat-sen University. Throughout the year, the Chinese government has closed or outlawed independent rights NGOs across the country, including NGOs for women’s rights, for HIV/AIDS patients, and for the disabled. The crackdown also aimed at independent think tanks. Meanwhile, China is moving towards passing the much-discussed “Foreign NGO Management Law.” It is widely believed that the regime seeks to pass such a stringent law in order to cut off foreign funding for NGOs, especially rights defense NGOs, in order to check the expansion of China’s civil society.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao.