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Notes From Prison (Part Two of Two)

Meng Han, October 11, 2017

 

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Manuscript of Notes From Prison. Photo: Meng Han

 

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.

 

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While Meng Han was in prison, thugs sent by the government attacked Meng Hang’s home in the city of Zhongshan to drive away his aging father who lived there. https://youtu.be/bbQFJcHxi2E

 

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.

 

Meng Han_

 

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.

Meng Han_手绘2This 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.

Trial

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….

Meng Han_手绘1Now, 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.

 

Postscript

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.

 

 


Related:

Liu Shaoming, a 1989 Veteran and a Labor Activist, Remains Imprisoned Without Sentence, China Change, May 31, 2017.

 

 

 

Notes From Prison (Part One of Two)

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

 

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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.

 

Meng Han_Lide

Worders at Lide and NGO workers at Panyu Migrant Worker Service Center celebrated victory. Meng Hang, front, second from left. Photo: China Labor Bulletin

 

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.

 

 


Related:

Throwing labor activists in jail won’t solve China’s structural problems, Quartz, November 2016.

 

Continue reading Part Two

 

 

Fear of Losing Control: Why China Is Implementing an Internet Security Law

By Mo Zhixu, published: October 4, 2015

“[T]he existence of a relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet for the regime is ‘the root of all evil.'”

 

August 5 was the last day that opinions were solicited by the government for its new Internet Security Law, meaning that in the near future the legislation will be formally unveiled. In draft form, many of its clauses have already attracted scrutiny: for example, the draft stresses that Internet sovereignty is the extension of state sovereignty into cyberspace; it also takes as its objective “protecting the sovereignty of cyberspace and national security,” granting almost unlimited powers to the administrative organs in charge of the Internet. Many think that the Chinese government is setting up a “national Intranet.”

The draft law holds website operators primarily responsible for the content on their websites, with detailed and comprehensive rules, particularly on cyber security. For instance, website operators have a duty to deal with illegal information (Article 40), they must prevent the transmission or publication on their platforms or software information that violates regulations (Article 41), and they’re required to provide all necessary support to investigatory organs (Article 23), and so on. The draft law also gives the relevant departments the power to punish those transmitting information found to be in violation, as well as to block such information (Article 43), and even to “shut down the Internet according to the law” (Article 50).

But what has attracted the most attention from regular Internet users is the real name registration system, which ensures that all information posted to the Internet can be traced to its origin (Article 20). With all this—granting state agencies extraordinary powers, forcing website operators to take total responsibility and dutifully follow the law, and funneling Internet users into a monitored real-name system—a cyberspace is created in which strict control is exercised, and from which there is no escape.

That the “Internet Security Law” would be such should come as no surprise. For the last several years, Beijing has upped its control of the Internet; the purge of two years ago [in which famous users of Sina Weibo who were critical of the government were publicly humiliated and in some cases jailed] is still in the memory of many. In the eyes of the authorities, control of the Internet is not just a matter of regular social management; it involves the so-called “national security,” or in other words, the stability of the regime. Control of the Internet has enormous strategic significance.

In my view, Internet control is of supreme importance for a totalitarian regime because of the social consequences of marketization and modernization: the regime on the one hand needed to introduce markets in order to keep the country running, but on the other hand, the social fallout of this process could also be subversive. Since the Internet is the most likely space in which this subversive effect would begin, it has become something that the Chinese rulers must control with utter thoroughness.

Before market reforms, the totalitarian system in China had no civil society to speak of, and the movement of resources, information, and people were all under its absolute control. The work unit (单位) and People’s Communes (人民公社) were the basic social structures, and every individual was integrated into a system of direct management and even personal control. Through this, the system gained extraordinary stability. Of course, such a system also lost its vitality, falling into stagnation and want which not only exemplified the differences with the free world in terms of economic, scientific, and military development, but also brought general dissatisfaction, including inside the the ruling group itself.

This apparatus saps the energy from the system, and in extreme cases can become another threat to it. The massive changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to a large degree demonstrated this. In this regard, mainland China’s limited introduction of market economy can be seen as a need for self-repair to overcome its own systemic deficiencies, narrow the gap between it and the rest of the world in the development of its economy, science and military, and boost the vigor and lifespan of the dictatorship.

Over the last 30 years the market reforms in China have to a very large degree achieved those goals: markets have brought economic development, they’ve overcome general stagnation and underdevelopment, and have indeed lessened the gap between China and the rest of the world on the economic, scientific, and military fronts. This is the basis of the so-called “Three Self-Confidences.” It’s also clear that reforms have since the beginning all been about preserving the dictatorship, not what some wishful observers think — a step in the transformation of China’s polity toward a democracy.

However, while the regime gained all these benefits, markets have indeed brought new challenges for the maintenance of dictatorship.

First, market reform requires the free movement of capital, information, and people, so members of society need to be granted personal rights, economic rights, and cultural (and consumption) rights. This also inevitably brings about the dissolution of the work unit and commune system, and removes the vast majority of the people from direct, personal control by the state.

Secondly, marketization has brought about new constellation of interests and resulted in new social groups, who each have their own interests and demands, one after another. For instance, statistics from varying sources all indicate that mass incidents [protests involving between dozens and tens of thousands of people] have gone straight up in recent years.

Finally, marketization and opening up have the inevitable effect of stimulating demands for rights from newly emerged classes, spreading liberal ideas, and expanding the social base of people who harbor fundamental suspicions about the status quo.

All these changes on the one hand bring endless pressure for the authorities to engage in “stability maintenance,” and on the other become a primordial fear they will never be able to shake: The vast masses, who are not under direct administrative control and who are free to move, have a natural desire for rights and interests that stand in opposition to the system; they have a natural affinity for freedom. As soon as the social and economic conditions appear—that is to say, once a crisis descends—this vast group is entirely capable of turning around, questioning the fundamental legitimacy of the system, and setting off a subversive social movement.

This fear has stalked China’s marketization, and the result of it is the increasing rigidity of the stability maintenance system and the covering-all grid of  social management. 

A relatively free, relaxed, and anonymous Internet has offered just such a suitable platform for such a possibility, and has thus become a thorn in Beijing’s eye. On the one hand, the mainland does not have freedom of speech; all media are still owned and controlled by the government, making the Internet the most important platform for the spreading of liberal thought. On the other hand, China has no freedom of association, and no formal opposition group can form, so cyberspace offers the tools for all kinds of informal associations and opposition networks, and facilitates protest actions. For the authorities, the Internet is the most important, or even only, platform for people under no direct control to assemble together. Not only that, but as soon as the right social conditions arise, and doubts about the system bubble up widely in society, the Internet is the only place it could converge, potentially becoming a platform for revolutionary mobilization. Because of all this, the existence of the Internet for the regime is “the root of all evil.”

Over the last few years, Beijing has launched wave after wave of attacks against the spread of all manner of ideas and protests on the Internet. These attacks have first of all targeted activists that are known to the authorities: through implementing the grid of stability maintenance system, and through a continuous purge from the Internet [through account deletion or censorship], activists have been put under thorough control and pressure. This is evident in the recent mass arrest of lawyers since July 10. After years of continuous repression, they have already eliminated the possibility of any organized resistance developing; and because of this, in the eyes of the authorities, they have already reduced to the utmost the possibility of an organized and subversive movement.

But just eliminating the threat of organized resistance doesn’t mean Beijing can sleep peacefully; there’s still the possibility that under certain economic and social conditions, mass incidents could take place, forming a social movement that topples the regime. If such a movement were to happen, cyberspace and Internet tools again become crucial—their immediacy and scope give them explosive and revolutionary possibilities. For the authorities, getting rid of this is like buying the ultimate insurance policy; or put another way, like finding the final puzzle piece for regime security. This is precisely the base reason for the “Internet Security Law,” and the draft version completely displays Beijing’s intent.

The regime’s claims about Internet sovereignty being the enbodiment and extension of state sovereignty are just a means to block information inflow from the world, and eliminate the voices of support for China’s civil resistance and social movement. Pushing the responsibility onto Internet operators is to thoroughly purge the voices that call the legitimacy of the regime into question, and to get rid of all manner of dissent and protest. And finally, the real name registration system is a means for ridding the Internet of anonymity, allowing the authorities to identify the activists and dissenters, driving them completely out of cyberspace.

After the roll-out of the “Internet Security Law,” the Internet will never have the same freedom, tolerance, and anonymity which have been steadily diminishing anyway. As a result, mainland China’s voices for liberalization and opposition will gradually lose their only platform. And then, even if there are the right social and economic conditions, Beijing will still be able to prevent the Internet from becoming a platform for people and ideas to coalesce, thus lowering the possibility of sudden large-scale gatherings, and stopping the Internet from acting as a source of revolutionary mobilization. The so-called “shut down the Internet according to law” article in the new legislation makes clear this intent.

There is no suspense or uncertainty about the goal of the “Internet Security Law”: it is to keep the dictatorial system in power. Since its entry to China, the Internet has been heralded as the agent of “change in China,” but as the “Internet Security Law” is enacted, this virtual space will fall under the same strict control as real space, and all the romance will depart like a dying breath.

After losing this important, or even sole platform, what form will China’s civil resistance take? Without the Internet as a meeting place for people and ideas, what form will sudden, mass protests take? None of these questions have ready-made answers, but there is no doubt that the “Internet Security Law” will bring the gradual silencing of the Internet, the herald of an unendurable ice age. This will profoundly influence, and even transform, the development of Chinese society.

 

Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor to Chinese-language publications, known for his incisive views on Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.

 

 

 

————

Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change:

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China, April 2013

Internet Freedom in China: A Menace that Must Be Removed, March 2014.

The Advent of a National LAN in China, July 2014.

Related:

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview, by Wu Qiang, China Change, August 2013.

 

中文原文《莫之许:中国为何要推网络安全法》, translated by China Change.

 

Beyond Stability Maintenance – From Surveillance to Elimination

By Teng Biao, published: June 22, 2014

 

June 4th has passed, but the arrests continue, and every day brings bad news from China. While scholar Xu Youyu, artist Chen Guang and others have been released “on probation,” many are still being held and others have been formally arrested, including Jia Lingmin (贾灵敏) and two others in Zhengzhou, Henan, and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) in Beijing. On June 20 in Guangzhou, lawyer Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and activists Wang Qingying (王清营) and Yuan Xinting (袁新亭) were formally arrested on subversion charges. Earlier this week, three New Citizens Movement participants Liu Ping (刘萍), Wei Zhongping (魏忠平) and Li Sihua (李思华) were harshly sentenced for fictitious “crimes.”

Some people explain these arrests as an increase in stability maintenance before the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on June 4th. Others explain the arrests as the misuse of police power by the political and legal systems and a loss of control over the police forces. Still others explain them as the result of factional infighting among the Central leadership. I’m afraid all these explanations are wrong.

This wave of large scale repression of civil society did not start with the arrest of the “Five for  Commemorating June 4th on May 3rd,” but rather, it started last year with the arrest of the “Beijing Xidan Four.” On March 31, 2013, Yuan Zhong (袁冬), Zhang Baocheng (张宝成), and two others gave a speech at Beijing Xidan in which they called on government officials to make public their property holdings. They were arrested on the spot. This was the official prelude to the authorities’ repression of the New Citizens Movement and the civil society. Within a year, throughout China no fewer than two hundred human rights activists were arrested and incarcerated. These included: Xu Zhiyong (许志永), Wang Gongquan (王功权), Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄), Li Huaping (李化平), Chen Baocheng (陈宝成), Zhang Lin (张林), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Liu Ping (刘萍), Yuan Fengchu (袁奉初), Ilham Tothi (伊力哈木), and others. Among these human rights activists, the authorities tortured to death the noted activist Cao Shunli (曹顺利). Suppression has increased markedly not only against human rights activists but also against dissidents, underground churches, Falun Gong adherents, petitioners, activist netizens, and liberal scholars. Meanwhile we have been witnessing a marked tightening of information dissemination and ideological control.

Although this wave of repression did not take the same form as the repression during the period of the “Jasmine Revolution” in the spring of 2011, a period of repression that saw kidnappings, secret detentions, and torture (all of which are an escalation of stability maintenance under a state of emergency),  it surpasses that of the Jasmine Revolution in duration, scope, number of people arrested, and the severity of punishments.

It is clear that, after Xi Jinping assumed power, he has been trying to change the mode for dealing with civil society. We can consider the incident of the “Beijing Xidan Four” in 2013 as the beginning of this shift. The authorities, in the process of cracking down, collected information, watched for reactions to the process, accumulated experience, and continued to deepen and strengthen this new mode for dealing with civil society. We could call this “a shift from surveillance mode to elimination mode.”

This new mode is not an emergency response and not directed at individual incidents. No, this new mode is planned and undertaken step by step. It is not aimed at specific individuals, but rather at the whole of civil society. Previously, they arrested those who crossed red lines, stood out, took street actions, or appeared to be organized, and so on. Now, however, the authorities are making a clean sweep of civil society. Those who are active, influential, or action-oriented probably have their names on a list of people to be arrested. A certain person arrested during a given incident does not necessarily mean that this person was arrested because of the incident. Arrest is just an excuse, an opportunity to settle old scores, to have a reckoning.

Before, the goal was primarily to punish those who crossed the line, and to retain the advantages of strong stability maintenance. Now, however, the goal is simultaneously to eliminate the nodes of civil mobilization, eradicate emerging civil leaders, and disperse the capacity for civil resistance. From the spring of last year until the present, we can see from the large scale of the arrests and the fierceness of the crackdown that the intent of the authorities is the total elimination of civil resistance. At a minimum, the authorities want to curb the momentum of the last ten years in which civil society has been quietly but steadily growing and flourishing.

Xi Jinping is no Gorbachev. He is a Maoist. From his position as a member of the “Princelings’ Party,” from his educational experiences, his schooling in the Party’s culture, and from the speeches he has made both before assuming power and since, we can see that there is no such thing as “democracy” or “constitutionalism” in his mindset. Through speeches and official documents, suchas “no exporting of revolution,”¹ the “two periods that cannot be used to negate each other,”² the “seven don’t mentions,”³ “Document No. 9,”⁴ the “August 19th speech,”⁵ and political moves such as Mao worship on December 26, 2013, and the formation of the National Security Committee, the Party Secretary has been rattling his sabers. And no more harboring illusions on the part of the public intellectuals.

The discerning magazine, the Economist, put Xi Jinping on the cover wearing emperor’s robes. Compared to Mao’s power, however, imperial power was negligible. Maoism, the one party system, an eternally red China – these are the “universal truths” to which Xi adheres. In fact, the differences between Hu Jintao’s way of thinking and Xi Jinping’s are not that great, but Xi is more motivated, more forceful,more confident with fewer constraints. Xi flaunts his power in the “five black categories” (human rights lawyers, underground religion, dissidents, internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups), and has gone after them with real weapons. Even more importantly, in the eyes of the leaders of the party-state, if the regime does not align its forces against the civil power represented by the “five black categories,” and does not use “unconventional deterrence” against these opposition forces to deal them a devastating blow, then these forces will be a “real and imminent danger” threatening the party’s political power and interests (or the so-called “interests of the people and social stability”).

China’s civil society, however, has already developed the basis on which to repair itself and to grow steadily. On the one hand, there is development in China’s internet, marketization, globalization, legalization, and civil consciousness, as well as an accumulation of social movements. On the other hand, the present regime lacks legitimacy, the present political system continuously violates civil rights, and continuously creates contradictions and conflicts, while the present ideology continues to lose its hold on people, the ecological environment continues to deteriorate, and the present development model continues to show cracks. Against this larger social and economic context, the upward trend of civil society and liberal democratic force is all but impossible to stop by the will of a few individuals.

Invariably, this process will be tortuous, frustrating, with low points and sacrifices. Even more people will have to pay a heartbreaking price. The bad news will continue to come. The context of the times and the society described above, however, is both the reason that the authorities have shifted their mode of suppression and also the reason that the new mode of suppression in the end cannot achieve its purpose.

 

Endnotes (by translator):

¹Xi Jinping’s anti-foreigner speech in Mexico in 2009: “China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty, nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?”

²In a January 2013 speech (Chinese), Xi Jinping said that “one cannot use the historical period after the ‘reform and opening up’ [of 1978] to deny the historical period that came before

‘reform and opening up;’ likewise, one cannot us the historical period before ‘reform and opening up’ to deny the historical period after ‘reform and opening up.’”

³The ‘seven don’t mentions’ are: universal values, freedom of the press, civil society, civil rights, the historical mistakes of the Communist Party of China, the bourgeois elite, and an independent judiciary.

Document No. 9 addressed several political trends that, if not suppressed, the party leadership felt could force the party from power. These trends include: western constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, neoliberalism, a western perspective on the news, historical nihilism (i.e. denying the role of the party in creating the new China), and doubts about reform and opening up.

⁵In his August 19, 2013 speech (Chinese), made to a Nation-wide Propaganda and Ideological Work Conference, Xi Jinping stressed the leading role of Marxism, and that propaganda and ideological work units had to defend Marxism against a small group of reactionary intellectuals who use the internet to attack, slander, and foment rumors about the party.

 

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao (滕彪)

Teng Biao (滕彪) is a legal scholar, human rights lawyer, a pioneer and a leader of China’s rights movement.

 

Related:

Speech during the June 4th Vigil in Victoria Park in Hong Kong, by Teng Biao

Statement by the New Citizens Movement Website with Respect to the Sentences of Liu Ping, Wei Zhongping and Li Sihua

Two More Rights Lawyers Criminally Detained, Another’s Home Searched, by China Change

What Crimes Did Liu Ping Commit? by China Change

China National Security Council orders probe of foreign NGOs: Reports, AFP

 

(Translated by Ai Ru)

Chinese original (translation based on an updated version by the author)

 

Urban Grid Management and Police State in China: A Brief Overview

By Wu Qiang, published: August 12, 2014

A model for a contemporary police state.

Urban grid system is nothing new. In ancient Rome, the grid was the standard layout of military camps. Urban grid planning, from the very beginning, bore the marks of militarized management. In Beijing, the grid-like streets and alleys (hutongs) have a lot of to do with the layout of military installations in imperial China. To a great extent, today’s urban neighborhoods of Beijing have geographically inherited this traditional grid layout, although structurally the grid has been based on a social system of “work units” that was formed in the 1960s and 1970s and have served the purpose of social control as part of the country’s social system. In brief, this is the background for understanding how and why China has been implementing grid management for, among other things, social control.

As GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and data grid technology have made big strides, the US government began to invest in grid technology research in the 1990s, established lab models and projects such as Globus, Globe, NetSolve, and Javalin, and planned to build the Global Information Grid, led by the Department of Defense, by 2020. China launched its gird plan somewhat in October, 2002 under the “863 Program,” or the National High-Technology Research and Development Program. In December, 2005, China Grid Computing Center was officially formed to lead the China National Grid project (CNGrid) and conduct grid research.

China carried out its first urban grid management experiment in Dongcheng District, Beijing (北京市东城区) in October 2004. It took a page from the grid management of Westminster, London, and can be regarded as a tentative application of the aforementioned large grid research project. Based on the municipal government‘s digital administration network and the city’s basic geographic information system, the model uses 3S technology (RS, GIS, GPS), geographic coding technology and mobile information technology to divide 25.38 square kilometers into 1,652 geographic grid cells, with each cell 100 by 100 meters (lawns and vacant lots larger than 10,000 square meters were marked as a single cell). Combined with the geographic information system, each cell was given a unique 14-digit code, and public properties within the cell, such as buildings, lampposts, sewage covers, benches, and etc., were catalogued, coded, located and saved in databases.

Subsequently, Dongcheng District made the following changes to its urban management:

  1. Equip urban management enforcers (Chengguan, 城管) with multi-purpose “Chengguan Tong” (城管通), a device for both information collection and mobile communication. It can make phone calls, send group text messages, take photos, fill out forms, position, record audio and video, and browse map and data, making each Chengguan an on-site end collector of information.
  2. Create more layers, as well as the overlapping of layers, in urban management, and implement more refined management according to the grid. On the one hand, the original three-tier responsibility system was increased to a four-tier responsibility system, that is, the district government, 10 neighborhood offices, 137 community committees, and each organization’s “three-responsibility” (门前三包) person in charge. As a result, a total of 589 social management grid cells were created. Each community consisted of an average of 2-5 grid cells. On the other hand, each grid cell is equipped with “seven forces.” They were: grid cell managers, grid cell assistants, grid cell police officers, grid cell supervisors, grid cell communist party secretary, grid cell legal judiciary workers, and grid cell firefighters. Each social management grid cell was equipped with at least one full-time assistant, and police officers were assigned to take charge of areas based on grid cells. In a small number of communities, each grid cell was assigned a police officer, and each Chengguan was responsible for patrolling averagely 12 grid cells.
  3. The social management was indeed improved. Government functions at top levels could receive precise information about a specific location in real time through the grid information system, and they could monitor lower functions’ handling of matters. This concluded the so-called “circuit” of information and implementation involving what’s believed to be 27 government functions and the aforementioned 4-tier responsibility system.

This grid management system, once in operation, was highly praised by Jia Qinglin (贾庆林), Wang Qishan (王岐山) and other top Chinese leaders. Integrating high-speed internet, high-capacity computers, large databases, sensors and remote equipment, the grid improved the performance of public governance and expedited electronic administration. But more important was its improvement of government’s response to contingencies, a capacity most valued by the Chinese authorities. In any given grid cell, not only were all fixed objects coded and positioned, but much more than that, any activities or contingencies, including cultural activities, public safety, criminal cases, mass protests, sensitive figures in terms of “stability maintenance” and their activities were all sorted and coded, with information about them being collected and reported all the time. Based on these data, sensors and wireless equipment such as surveillance cameras and wireless routers were deployed.

Grid management center in Yichang, Hubei province.

Grid management center in Yichang, Hubei province.

Following the example of Dongcheng District, Beijing, from 2004 to April 2007, China carried out trials of the urban grid management project in 51 areas in three batches. Among the first batch of cities and districts participating in the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development’s digital urban management trials were Shenzhen, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Wuhan, Yangzhou, Yantai, Beijing Chaoyang District, Shanghai Changning District and Luwan District, and Nanjing Gulou District. Urumqi in Xinjiang became a trial city in the third batch in April 2007, but before it was completed, large-scale ethnic violence broke out in 2008. By July 2010, 40,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Urumqi, covering 3,400 buses, 200 key public transportation stops, 4,400 streets and alleyways, 270 schools and preschools, and 100 large shopping centers and supermarkets. During the same period, a staggering 200,000 surveillance cameras had been installed in Bo Xilai’s Chongqing, one indication of the nature of the “crackdown on black” campaign led by its former police chief Wang Lijun.

A grid management training session in Xinzheng municipality, Henan province.

A grid management training session in Xinzheng municipality, Henan province.

While in urban China grid management depends more on technology, equipment, Chengguan and the police force, the development of grid management in rural China is different and worth our thoughts. In the trial run in Xintai county, Shandong province (山东新泰), apart from surveillance cameras, landline telephones and roadside lamps were installed, and all of the cab drivers and sanitation workers in the county seat were “hired” as grid management “information reporters.” In Wuxi, Chongqing (重庆巫溪), the supplementation of human resources took another form: upon dividing the county into 117 grid cells, each cell was paired with a government unit with the latter providing one-to-one support for the cell. These units would also provide funding to help the grid cell community, or village, improve public management with an emphasis on solving the petitioning issues. In some cases, some long-time petitioners themselves were hired as grid cell social workers.

From the limited cases discussed here, we conclude that, as China implements grid management for social management with the aid of the latest technology, geographic information systems and super computers, it has most likely tightened social control over the last ten years or so in the name of “stability maintenance.” In particular, following the breakout of the Jasmine Revolution in North Africa in 2011, the Chinese government responded with the so-called “innovative social management,” multiplying the grid management trial in Dongcheng District, Beijing, across the entire country as the core of this “innovation in social management.” The Party-state’s authoritarian control over cities and the society as a whole has thus been made more refined, more precise, more high-tech, and more systematic. Moreover, after comparing the cost and quality of grid management between cities and rural areas, the Chinese government has recognized the high efficiency of using urban grid management for social control. This in part lends confidence to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang’s plan of urbanization. Down the road, if China remains devoid of real democratic checks and balances, there is little doubt that the continued development of grid management will only lead to a model of a contemporary police state.

 

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) of Tsinghua University

Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) is a political science professor at Tsinghua University. The article is written specifically for ChinaChange.org.  

———-

Related reading:

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China by Mo Zhixu

 

Chinese original, translated by China Change.

 

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China

“A longer, more pessimistic outlook [than the Economist’s special report on China’s internet]. – the author

By Mo Zhixu, published: April 6, 2013

 

Leading dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Beijing-based dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

On March 28, the General Office of the State Council issued a “Notice about the Division of Labor in Implementing ‘the Plan for the State Council’s Institutional Reform and Function Change’” (国务院办公厅关于实施《国务院机构改革和职能转变方案》任务分工的通知) which lays out, among other things, the time table for implementing the information network real-name registration system (“The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and State Internet Information Office, along with the Ministry of Public Security, will be in charge of it. It shall be completed by the end of June, 2014”); and for establishing a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system based on citizens’ identification numbers (implementation will start in 2015 and be completed in 2017).

Few people would realize the connection between the two, and fewer people would think, as I do, that the gradual implementation of the online real-name system, a unified credit information platform, and a unified social credit code will mark the arrival of an unprecedented information totalitarianism.

The attempt to apply the online real-name system is nothing new. As early as the mid-1990s, when the state was drafting regulations on residential access to the Internet, the Ministry of Public Security wanted each computer to have a fixed, singular IP to access the Internet. It was a form of a real-name system since information such as a unique address and identification must be provided to apply for access. But due to technical reasons, such as the limited number of IVP4 addresses, what was then called the Ministry of Information Industry opposed that requirement. Arguments between the two ministries, according to a direct government source of mine at the time, went all the way to the then-top leader of China who made the decision to solve the issue with a simpler approach, perhaps to expedite China’s WTO entrance.

The attempt for a real-name system was then scrapped, but you can see that the attempt to control the Internet was on the mind of the Chinese government from the very beginning.

As Internet use skyrocketed, the government also became more and more vigilant. The notorious GFW has becoming more capable than ever with “walls” being erected higher and higher. But for the worth of the Internet, enthusiastic users have always found ways to scale the walls, and also to hide their traces under the searching eyes of the government. The large-scale surveillance and detentions during the non-existent Jasmine revolution in the spring of 2011 were largely a result of the government’s sense of crisis about hidden, cross-border information flow and its potential power to mobilize. Furthermore, with the emergence of Weibo and other social media platforms, the government has been alarmed by the fact that sudden events can spread and amplify instantly, and can potentially cause chain reactions. At the same time the government is less and less tolerant of the growing number of activists. As a result, Internet real-name system is becoming inevitable.

The real-name system has two purposes. One is the chilling effect, and it works very well on average netizens but not so much on activists. The other and the main purpose is to be able to locate activists and eliminate them from certain information/opinion platforms, in the same way that opinions of dissident intellectuals are completely eradicated from the traditional media.

The online real-name system has been implemented for some time now and the results are less than remarkable. A casual online search can yield a string of ID numbers which you can use to register online accounts. Because of this, many people have little sense of the Internet real-name grade system that is coming. The Internet real-name system that will be upon us soon enough will leave no hiding place for anyone, and all of the activists will be like fish caught in the net once this system is integrated with a unified credit information platform and a unified social credit coding system.

First of all, once the real-name system is used in website backstage management where one ID card matches one ID number, as Alipay (支付宝) does, those ID numbers culled online will soon become useless for repeated use. Secondly, with regard to activists using ID numbers of relatives and friends, if the conventional deterrence measures don’t work, the government could resort to building control into services by bundling ID card and the correlating social credit code with matters of personal interest. That way, relatives and friends will not want to, nor dare, to lend their ID numbers to anyone else.

Having established “a unified credit information platform with gradual input of information about finance, commercial registration, tax payments, social security contributions, traffic violations and other credit information” and “a unified social credit coding system based on identification number,” personal credit information will necessarily include information about Internet use. Thus, the Internet real-name system will be tied with one’s social credit code, and even with the social welfare system. From there, it’s not unimaginable for the government to use the unified credit code as the exclusive online ID code.

Imagine, when that becomes a reality, who would dare to let others use his or her credit code when so much is at stake? This code is tantamount to issuing you a “driver’s license” for speech: You will be subjected to point deductions for speech violations (which Weibo censorship frequently tells its users); once you have no points left, you will be barred from “going on the road” again, and that is, you will be barred permanently from speaking on information/opinion platforms. (After all, there are already plenty of citizens, such as Ai Weiwei, who have not been able to maintain a Weibo account without being deleted instantly–Yaxue)

You can imagine what it will be like in China’s online opinion platforms. First, the threat of being permanently banished from Internet access will have a much more powerful and chilling effect. Second, online opinion space will become similar to the grid management of stability maintenance in current life (网格化维稳)¹, that is, any activist, once exposed, will be stripped of access permanently, the same way the traditional media shut out  dissenting voices. Consequently, online opinion platforms will be just like the traditional media today where you can never hear the voices of dissent and opposition.  Finally, the chilling effect and the denial of activist users will make online platforms much less active; as a result, even non-sensitive emergency events will not spread explosively, nor are any chain reactions likely, due to the absence of active participation. This, as you can imagine, is a dream come true for the rulers of China.

By scaling the wall, activists perhaps will still be able to receive information, express their opinions, and exchange views with others on overseas platforms, but without reverberation and coordination on China’s domestic opinion platforms, the circles of activists will become small and isolated, making it difficult for them to participate in real-life events. This of course is a grim outlook, but by no means unheard of. After all, this had been the state of opposition activities in China before the rise of Internet. What makes me sad is that, while this brand new information totalitarian system is marching toward us in full gear, I see no realistic force that can stop its arrival. Despite today’s globalized world, a “Great China 1984” will be upon us within a few years of time.

¹ Following this post, Seeing Red in China will publish an exclusive article by Dr. Wu Qiang of Tsinghua University explaining “grid management”(网格管理) to our readers.

 

The Chinese original is published in the latest issue of iSunAffairs Weekly (No. 49). You can also find it here. Other commentaries by Mo Zhixu (@mozhixu) on this site: The Opposition Path and China’s FuturePerspective on Southern Weekend Incident: Root, Failure and Future.