Sunday, December 30, 2018

The year 2018: China’s civil society past, present and future

At first glance, the new Terminal 2 at the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport comes across as a elegant technological marvel. It has a polished, ultra-modern feel with high ceilings, open spaces, sparkling storefronts and the latest in high-tech digital hardware. But as you walk through it, you realize there isn’t much life inside. The floors are a cold, gleaming granite and the commercial space is filled with stores selling luxury brands, a few restaurants and coffee shops, and one convenience store. 

The lower your income bracket, the fewer places you have to hang out, which is a problem if you’re seeking to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for travelers. There is none of the vibrant energy you find in other airports in other parts of Asia or Europe or the U.S., with hip restaurants, bars and stores catering to travelers of more modest means.

Terminal 2, like many other of the new structures being built in China, could serve as a metaphor for the kind of civil society China is building, one that is carefully constructed from the top down and looks beautiful on the outside but lacks the energy and life that comes from the engagement of individuals and groups having ideas to express and problems to address. Both Terminal 2 and China’s present civil society are like someone’s utilitarian fantasy or nightmare. Why would someone construct structures like this, a society like this? I would suggest the impetus has more to do with conveying strength and imposing order and control and less with expressing or satisfying human needs and desires.

This civil society present represents a significant departure from civil society past which is the civil society that was emerging prior to the new era ushered in by the supreme architect-in-chief, President Xi Jinping. While control and repression by the state was a part of life before Xi, grassroots groups of different shapes and sizes found soil to take root in and grow, like weeds in a well-tended lawn. It was a stunted civil society but nevertheless one with a human core. More importantly, it was a civil society building the necessary foundation to begin a dialogue with the state on the country’s future. There were environmentalists taking on air pollution and monitoring Chinese investment overseas, public interest lawyers representing workers stricken with pneumoconiosis and Falun Gong practitioners, performance art by feminists and anti-discrimination activists fighting against sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring practices, labor activists training workers on labor law and collective bargaining, and NGOs calling for equal access to education for migrant children.

Under President Xi, civil society has undergone a makeover and the product as it appears in the year 2018 is as impressive as it is disheartening. Terminal 2 comes to mind when surveying civil society present and the civil society that might come to pass – civil society future. The building blocks for this makeover are now familiar to many and have been documented in this blog over the last few years:

n  the passage of more restrictive laws and regulations governing foreign NGOs, charity, social organizations, religion, volunteers;

n  the provision of state funds to outsource services by social organizations and the creation of government-supported incubators and development centers to guide “social construction”;

n  the closing down of independent civic groups engaged in activism and advocacy and house churches, and the arrest of human rights lawyers, feminists, labor activists, environmentalists, and ministers over the last four years;

n  the requirement for all social forces to submit to the orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism and the leadership of the Communist Party

I witnessed these changes in my many conversations with activists and NGOs in China in 2018. Some activists had headed underground for cover. Others were seeking to remake themselves by registering as social organizations working on community and charitable issues like providing services to migrant families or helping the elderly and disabled. Many NGOs, unable to get support from overseas donors due to restrictions imposed by the Overseas NGO Law, had difficulty finding funding. To my surprise, many were now relying heavily on funding from the government. Other more pragmatic types were looking to start new business models like social enterprises. Still others continued to hold out either because they chose not to go after government funding or because they were on a blacklist and were unable to register as a social organization, which was a prerequisite for applying for government funding. A common refrain I heard from my NGO friends was, “At least we’re alive. We see that as a victory.” 

Their persistence is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year. In one of the biggest crackdowns on labor groups, police and security forces rounded up workers, students and labor activists involved in the Jasic Technology factory protests in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen. Many of the students were self-identified Marxists from top universities like Beijing University and Renmin University. There were also a few elderly Maoists who joined the mix.

The Jasic case epitomizes the moral bankruptcy of the Xi regime which seeks to impress, control and terrorize yet has no ideological or moral core of its own. The striking irony of Xi’s “new era of socialism with Chinese characteristics” should not be lost on anyone. A regime that is building the most formidable Marxist edifice of the 21st century rejects the Marxist appeal of students and Maoists to support workers in their struggle against capital.

I’d like to end my last post of 2018 on a bright note with a reminder that next year marks the 100th and 30th anniversaries of two important historical mileposts in the development of China’s contemporary civil society: the May 4th Movement of 1919 and the June 4th Movement of 1989 respectively. Civil society future has a long way to go to recapture the moral core of these movements, but let’s hope it can take baby steps in that direction in 2019.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The Chinese state’s repression of Jasic workers and their supporters, and the international response

Today is International Human Rights Defenders Day, and tomorrow December 10 is International Human Rights Day, so it’s only appropriate that we use this opportunity to remember the Jasic workers and their supporters and explore ways to work for their release.

I was in the process of preparing a list of the 32 individuals associated with the Jasic case who have been in custody, detained and/or disappeared but then two days ago, Human Rights in China provided a valuable public service by issuing an urgent appeal on behalf of the Jasic workers and their supporters, along with a better, more up-to-date list.

The Jasic case will be remembered as an important event in the annals of Chinese labor history, less for what Jasic workers achieved on the factory floor and more for their success in mobilizing wider social attention to the workers movement and for the ferocious repression by Chinese authorities and police.

How the Jasic case got this big

The details of the Jasic Technology case are by now well known. Over the past two years, the factory had asked workers to step up production and changed the scheduling system to redefine leave and thereby reduce workers’ overtime pay. They also imposed a new disciplinary system to ensure workers fell in line. As early as July 2017, a handful of Jasic workers went to the local Labor Bureau to submit a complaint about management practices. Jasic management made some superficial changes but not enough to address the workers’ concerns.

In May and June of 2018, these Jasic worker activists took a different approach to improving labor relations in the factory. They found that Jasic did not have a enterprise union as required by law, and approached the local Pingshan district union to ask about setting up an union and holding democratic elections for union positions. Jasic management took steps in June to set up a union and hold elections but then manipulated the elections for union posts by assigning their preferred candidates to run. While the Pingshan union originally supported the worker activists, they did nothing when Jasic management hijacked the election process. In the end, none of the worker activists who had proposed setting up a union were elected. In July, these activists continued to solicit the support of other workers about the need for a democratically-elected enterprise union. Jasic management responded by firing six of the activists in mid-July.

The Crackdown

At this point, things got out of hand as the worker activists began to share information on social media about their problems at Jasic and failed efforts to establish a democratically-elected union.  Supporters from diverse groups – university students, former Jasic employees who had been fired or pressured to leave, workers from other factories, Maoists – began to show up at the factory gates calling for reinstatement of the fired worker activists.

The hardline police response that followed escalated the conflict. On July 20, the police seized 20 of the protestors and held them at the police station overnight. The protestors were released the next day and went back to the factory to continue the protests along with other supporters. On July 27, the police formally detained 29 of the protestors. This news brought attracted more supporters from different cities to support the workers and those who had been detained. On August 24, police seized about 50 more supporters, detaining some or placing them under residential surveillance, and interrogating others. Most of these people were later released.

On September 3, we heard news of the first formal criminal charges filed against those on this list. Four of the Jasic worker activists were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” which carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. On September 8, Fu Changguo, a staff member at the labor NGO, Dagongzhe Center, was formally arrested under the same charge. No other criminal charges have been filed against any of the others.

From this chronology of events, we can see that if Jasic management had made a good faith effort back in June to set up a democratically-elected union and started negotiations with workers to address their concerns, this case would not have escalated to this level.

Jasic as a labor rights and human rights case

Jasic now stands as the biggest case of police repression against workers and their supporters since the central government’s crackdown on labor groups in Guangzhou on December 3, 2015. The Jasic case is already turning out to be larger in scope than the 2015 crackdown which resulted in the formal detention and trial of three labor NGO staff for “gathering a crowd to disturb social order.”  The police have already formally arrested four Jasic workers and one labor NGO staff on the same criminal charge, and seized at least 27 others, mostly university students and NGO staff.  Some of these have been disappeared, others have been detained and still others placed in residential surveillance. News about the workers and their supporters is being continually updated online by the Jasic Workers Support Group.

The police have also taken a harder line against suspects in this case than in the 2015 crackdown. This may be in part because of the participation of university graduates from top universities in Beijing and Nanjing, which raises the specter of a worker-student coalition, but also because police seem to be taking a harsher line against collective protests. Multiple violations of procedural safeguards for suspects and detainees have been reported by the friends and family of the detained, many of whom have not been able to see a lawyer. Lawyers need authorization from family members to take on a case, and according to the reports of HRIC and other informants, police are putting pressure on family members not to give authorization and on lawyers not to take on Jasic cases. 

Like the 2015 case, Jasic has become both a labor rights case and a broader human rights case, highlighting violations of the right of workers to freely organize and form a union, as well as citizens’ rights to freedom of assembly and due process under the law.

How the international community can help

The international community has an important role to play in mitigating the effect of the repression against Jasic workers and their supporters. Fortunately, many organizations and individuals have already begun to raise their voices in protest. Foreign media have covered the repression as it has grown in scope, notifying the international community of new developments. International human rights groups have publicized urgent appeals to foreign governments and the broader international community calling for the release of the workers and their supporters. Foreign scholars have called their universities to stop exchanges with Chinese universities and academic conferences.

More can still be done. International human rights and labor unions organizations can bring the Jasic case up at the UN and ILO which have mechanisms and special procedures for reporting violations of international labor and human rights principles. Foreign diplomats can make their governments aware of the human rights violations in this case and raise them at meetings with their Chinese government counterparts. At a more personal level, foreign diplomats can, whenever possible, visit affected family members to show support and send a message to the Chinese police that the family members will not be intimidated.

Foreigners naturally wonder whether their actions would be helpful or backfire and make things worse for the people they are trying to help. Many Chinese activists are now making it clear that intervention on the part of the international community is helpful. They note that the Chinese government is sensitive about its international image and cite a number of cases where international attention has ameliorated the treatment of Chinese activists, their families and lawyers.