Much of the recent news about Chinese civil society has centered around the trial of China’s rights defense lawyers such as Pu Zhiqiang, Zhou Shifeng, and most recently Xia Lin who was sentenced to 12 years in prison. All of them deserve a great deal of attention for the courageous and important work they do in taking on difficult cases.
In this post, I want to make sure that Chinese labor activists and workers are not neglected because they are some of the most active and potentially influential civil society actors in China. Worker strikes and protests are at historically high levels and worker self-organizing is taking place among Walmart China workers, teachers, and taxi drivers, among others. In some cases, workers are assisted in their organizing efforts by activists working for independent labor NGOs in provinces like Guangdong. Such is the case of the Guangzhou-based Panyu Workers Center which helped workers in dozens of factories organize and engage in collective bargaining with their employers. In doing so, they acted in the role of de facto trade unionists doing the job that China's official union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), should do but does not. In their most recent successful case, the Panyu Center helped workers in the Taiwanese-owned Lide Shoe Factory reach a collective agreement with management for economic compensation and unpaid overtime and social security totaling nearly 120 million yuan.
A number of the staff of the Panyu Center are now about to go on trial tomorrow (September 26, 2016) at the Panyu District Court on criminal charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence. The staff on trial are Zeng Feiyang, the director, and Zhu Xiaomei. They will be joined by another labor activist who is not on staff at the Panyu Center, Tang Huanxing. A third Panyu Center staff member, Meng Han, had his trial postponed when local prosecutors sent his case sent back to the police for further investigation.
This is a high-profile case that began on December 3, 2015 when a number of labor activists in Guangzhou were rounded up and interrogated. Many were later released, with the exception of staff from the Panyu Center who were clearly the center of this attack. Unlike previous cases of repression against labor groups which originated from local authorities, this one showed clear signs of coming from Beijing. Soon after the crackdown, China’s main state media organs – the New China News Agency, CCTV and the People’s Daily – launched a smear campaign against the Panyu Center, and Zeng Feiyang in particular.
I encourage readers of this blog to follow this case closely to see how authorities of the Communist Party of China – the party of workers and farmers – treat some of China’s most prominent labor activists. The Panyu Center staff have already had their rights violated by the police and other authorities on a number of occasions. The state smear campaign, which sought to try them in the media, before they even had a court trial, was only the most brazen example. We also know that the police did not allow them to see their lawyers for several weeks. In Feiyang’s case, it took six months before he was able to finally meet with his lawyers. In addition, their family members weresubjected to physical threats and verbal harassment when they did not cooperate or, in the case of Feiyang’s mother, after she filed a lawsuit against the state media organs for defaming Feiyang's character.
I will be posting more on this case once we hear the results of the trial. Hopefully, I will have some good news to report.