Monday, January 4, 2016

A 2016 New Year's Message from China's Labor Rights Defenders

Below I repost the Chinese original and the English translation of an important and eloquent New Year's Message from some of China's labor rights defenders at a time when those defenders are coming under a fierce, high-level attack that has resulted in dozens of labor activists monitored, interrogated and detained. To date, the seven activists mentioned below are still in detention and have not been allowed to see their lawyers. An earlier draft of this translation was posted on China Change. Here I post the final version of that translation.

In a Vast and Frozen Land, Spring Arrives in All Its Glorious Color: A 2016 New Year's Message from China's Labor Rights Defenders

Dear Fellow Workers and Compatriots: Happy New Year!

Towards the end of 2015, China’s labor rights defenders experienced an unprecedented attack. A group of activists who have dedicated years to defending the rights and interests of workers were detained, monitored and interrogated by the police. It could have been a moment for fear and paranoia to set in. But labor activists and people from other walks of life responded quickly by drafting a petition to the Communist Party Central Committee, National People's Congress and State Council. The petition described in no uncertain terms the severe and widespread violations of workers' rights and interests over the last few decades, and the inevitable emergence of independent labor NGOs and worker centers and their valuable contribution to the protection of labor rights and social justice, and demanded the release of the detained activists. In less than two weeks, over 490 people added their names to this petition, and over 60 Chinese lawyers joined a legal aid team. This response was followed by petitions, appeals and demonstrations by over 200 organizations and thousands of individuals from the international labor and academic community in over 40 countries condemning the crackdown and expressing support for the arrested labor activists. Their calls however fell on the deaf ears of Chinese authorities. The detained activists have to this date still not been allowed to meet with their lawyers. In addition, the Communist Party's propaganda apparatus - the New China News Agency, People's Daily and China Central Television (CCTV) - launched a smear campaign against these activists, in particular Zeng Feiyang (曾飞洋), essentially sentencing them without a trial in the court of public opinion. Feiyang's wife and child have been intimidated, and Zhu Xiaomei (朱小梅) has been separated from her baby daughter who was breastfeeding when she was detained. The families of the other detained activists - He Xiaobo (何晓波), Meng Han (孟晗), Peng Jiayong (彭家勇), Deng Xiaoming (邓小明) - are all sick with fear, and the whereabouts of another former worker-turned-collective bargaining specialist, Chen Huihai (陈辉海), is still unclear. Their treatment reflects a callous approach to the rule of law and legal and procedural fairness in criminal proceedings.

Fellow Workers and Compatriots, if the rights and interests of workers who make up the large majority of China's population cannot be protected, if workers are increasingly deprived of their economic, political, cultural and social rights, if the contradictions between officials and citizens, workers and capital, rich and poor, continue to worsen, then what is the  prospect of everyone living in a free, equal, fair, democratic, law-based society where "socialism is the core value"? It is doubtful that even our most basic survival and security can be assured in such a society! It follows then that defending and fighting for workers' rights and interests is not only essential for workers, but also to the stability, security, fairness and well-being of society as a whole. Labor rights activism is not a crime! Labor rights organizations have not committed any crime! Labor rights activists have not committed any crime! Not only are they are not guilty of any crime, they have also made great contributions to our society, state and nation. They are the underlying force behind a labor movement that has emerged in waves since 2010. They are why people from all walks of society are increasingly paying attention to, and supporting, the labor movement.

China’s 30 years of rapid economic growth is coming to an end, and its demographic and environmental dividend have been exhausted. At the same time, the social and historical contradictions hidden by economic growth are now becoming apparent. Government, businesses and workers face the dual burden of an economic recession and social instability, with workers bearing the greatest share: they gain the least in times of economic growth, and inevitably lose the most in the downturns. Not only are they the first to lose their jobs and become destitute, but as soon as they protest they are suppressed by the “stability maintenance” authorities.

How is it that the working class is destined to continually bear the costs of economic growth and recession? Why should the powerful classes reap the profits when the economy grows and let others take the hit while they do nothing in times of recession? In early 2015, some of China’s labor activists proposed a “New Deal for Workers” to the government, suggesting a reform of the system of wealth distribution, and the establishment of universal social insurance. Another option would be to boost domestic demand, but this would require government and businesses to give a bigger piece of the pie to workers and society. This type of policy helped the United States make it through the economic crisis of the 1930s, but do Chinese leaders have that kind of heart and will?

Fellow Workers and Compatriots, it is true that we wait on the government to appraise the situation and put forward the correct policy, but we also know that freedom, equality, justice, security and happiness are things that we cannot wait for; they can only be obtained by fighting for them. If we fight we may lose, but if we do not fight we gain nothing. In this new year, labor activism may face an even more severe threat. But we are convinced that the labor movement will follow its inherent tendency to progress from its infancy to a more mature form. The rights to organize, to engage in collective bargaining, and to strike, and workers’ economic, political, cultural and social rights, will all be achieved step by step.

"Strong grows the grass on plains rich with blood, across a vast and frozen land, spring arrives in all its glorious color." We labor rights defenders offer these lines of poetry as our New Year message and our outlook for 2016.









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