Labor militancy ‘a rising threat to stability’ in China


china labor clbChinese authorities greeted the 25th anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square by detaining dozens of activists and lawyers, proving that Beijing continues to be haunted by the specter of those protests a quarter century after they ended. But another, less eye-catching series of detentions and convictions highlights a separate source of concern for the central government: swelling dissatisfaction among workers, analyst Stanley Lubman writes for The Wall Street Journal:

In April, a labor activist in Dongguan, in southern China’s Guangdong Province, was detained by police and accused of “causing a disturbance” for distributing information online about a strike by workers at a local factory. In the same month, a court in Guangzhou convicted 11 security guards for “disturbing public order” following a dispute with their hospital employers.

As workers’ demands for expanded social and economic rights continue to grow, the party-state’s long-standing anxiety over threats to overall “stability maintenance” is bound to increase.

A recent report (pdf) from the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin [a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy] sees Chinese workers “emerging as a strong, unified and increasingly active collective force,” Lubman notes:

The report notes the relatively recent rise of labor NGOs that provide workers with advice and support. The NGOs train  workers in negotiation strategy and techniques, including how to resist pressure from management and local governments report on sexual harassment in factories, advise on collective bargaining and provide legal advice.

As illustrated by an excellent recent study by the University of Michigan’s Mary Gallagher, the growth of the labor movement traces its roots to the beginning of China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the state sector shrank and the private sector swelled, vast numbers of rural citizens left subsistence agriculture to move to factory jobs.  The overwhelming majority of these workers lacked education and received no social security; at the same time, a growing number of urban workers were employed without labor contracts.

CHINALABORBULLWriting for The Nation, analyst Michelle Chen observes that the logic of the gradualist, legalistic approach to labor empowerment is appealing. Han Dongfang, a worker who protested at Tiananmen and now heads China Labour Bulletin, argued in New Left Review in 2005:

Will you put your trust in gathering tens of thousands of people onto the streets, or in seeking legal help from a lawyer?.… This is what we are trying to do—to solve existing social problems through existing legal systems. In a sense, you could call it a cultural project: encouraging people to trust in peaceful negotiations. That kind of confidence is needed for a healthier development of the country in the future.

However, China scholars Eli Friedman and Ching Kwan Lee have observed that unrest has actually increased during periods of legal reform,” notes Chen:

Despite more formal rights, workers remain constrained by anemic enforcement, unresponsive leadership from the management-friendly official union and, generally, labor violations on such an epidemic scale that the fundamental problems can’t be resolved on an individual basis:

The rise of rights consciousness is outgrowing institutional capacity to meet or contain workers’ demands. Workers have more rights on paper—and are more aware of them—than ever before. But in reality they have little leverage in their places of employment, and the protection that their interests receive from the courts and the government is uneven at best. Not surprisingly, worker protests do not look as if they will disappear from Chinese life anytime soon.

But they may yet spread in another direction: as consciousness of labor rights solidifies, higher-ranked workers and even managers have sometimes taken the lead in workplace uprisings, with labor demands that galvanize unrest in the lower ranks. The moments of convergence between upper- and lower-tier employees faintly echoes the brief cross-sector solidarity that protesters displayed at Tiananmen.

The CLB report notes that workers are increasingly conscious of their rights and willing to act against exploitative management, writes Lubman:

In addition, the weakness of the only legal trade union, the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), is a weak tool of the party and usually remains inactive in the face of protests.

The rise of social media and availability of inexpensive smartphones makes it easier for workers to organize and initiate collective action.  The CLB report also notes that although protests by factory workers attract the most publicity in the press, more workers’ protests occur outside factories, such as demonstrations by taxi drivers, teachers and sanitation workers.

The report concludes by predicting continued strikes and collective protests that will force more employers to respond to collective demands.  While the report emphasizes developments in relatively liberal Guangdong, it predicts that support from civil society organizations, media and the public will expand elsewhere in China. It predicts, too, that local governments will “play a difficult balancing act,” and that pressure will grow on the ACFTU to increase efforts to protect and promote workers’ interests.


Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, is a Distinguished Lecturer in Residence at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. He is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao” (Stanford University Press, 1999) and editor of “The Evolution of Law Reform in China: An Uncertain Path” (Elgar, 2012).

Details emerge of army chaos before Tiananmen massacre

US China Tiananmen PhotoOn a spring evening in 1989, with the student occupation of Tiananmen Square entering its second month and the Chinese leadership unnerved and divided, top army commanders were summoned to headquarters to pledge their support for the use of military force to quash the protests, Andrew Jacobs and Chris Buckley write for The New York Times:

One refused.

In a stunning rebuke to his superiors, Maj. Gen. Xu Qinxian, leader of the mighty 38th Group Army, said the protests were a political problem, and should be settled through negotiations, not force, according to new accounts of his actions from researchers who interviewed him.

“I’d rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history,” he told Yang Jisheng, a historian.

Although General Xu was soon arrested, his defiance sent shudders through the party establishment, fueling speculation of a military revolt and heightening the leadership’s belief that the student-led protests were nothing less than an existential threat to the Communist Party.

9 states murder or ‘disappear’ workers seeking rights

ITUC-Global-Rights-Index(2)Uruguay, South Africa and Germany are some of the countries with the best worker rights records in 2013, while Cambodia, Guatemala and Nigeria are among the worst, according the 2014 Global Rights Index released this week by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The Solidarity Center notes that the annual index, which documents violations in 139 countries recorded between April 2013 and March 2014, found that in the past 12 months:

Murder and disappearance of workers were commonly used practices to intimidate workers in at least nine countries.

Governments of at least 35 countries have arrested or imprisoned workers as a tactic to resist demands for democratic rights, decent wages, safer working conditions and secure jobs.

Workers in at least 53 countries have either been dismissed or suspended from their jobs for attempting to negotiate better working conditions. “In the vast majority of these cases,” the report notes, “national legislation offered either no protection or did not provide dissuasive sanctions” to hold abusive employers accountable. Rather, “employers and governments are complicit in silencing workers’ voices against exploitation.”

Laws and practices in at least 87 countries exclude certain categories of workers from the right to strike. At least 35 countries impose fines or even imprisonment for legitimate and peaceful strikes.

The most frequent violation of worker rights occurred when workers went on strike, followed by violations of the rights of workers who sought to join unions.

The survey notes that because countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia exclude migrant workers from labor rights, more than 90 percent of the workforce effectively has no recourse for addressing forced labor practices which exist under archaic sponsorship laws.

“The World Bank’s recent ‘Doing Business’ report naively subscribed to the view that reducing labor standards is something governments should aspire to,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary. “This new Rights Index puts governments and employers on notice that unions around the world will stand together in solidarity to ensure basic rights at work.”


The Solidarity Center is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.



People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited

chinatianenmen limThe annual crackdown before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre came early this year, notes a prominent analyst, revealing how relevant the events of June 4, 1989, remain to China’s Communist Party 25 years later 

“After all, to remember what happened is to remember the scope of the protests,” notes NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” which will be published June 4.

There weren’t just thousands of students protesting in Tiananmen Square, but hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from every conceivable occupation paralyzing dozens of cities around China,” she writes for The Washington Post:

In the course of my research, I unearthed new details about the violent suppression of protests in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where government accounts admitted that eight people died and 1,800 were injured in three days of chaotic fighting in the streets. Witnesses believe that the death toll was much higher. Remembering those untold stories is dangerous, because how many other untold stories exist in a country of 1.3 billion people?….

Remembering the demands of 1989 — the cries for greater democracy and the calls to tackle official corruption, official profiteering and the concentration of power in the hands of a few — is to recognize how they remain unmet. Reporters have tracked down assets worth $2.7 billion controlled by relatives of former premier Wen Jiabao. Yet anti-corruption activists asking government officials to disclose their assets have been jailed on charges of inciting subversion of state power.

“China’s leaders are personally vulnerable because they trace their lineage to the winners of the power struggle that cleaved their party in 1989,” writes Lim:

When the current generation of leaders took power 18 months ago, some optimists hoped that they might be far enough removed from the events of 1989 to initiate a reassessment of what happened. Instead, party leader Xi Jinping’s refusal to repudiate Chairman Mao Zedong effectively rules out any acts of historical reevaluation. The party’s ultimate goal is ensuring its own survival, and it has clearly decided that it needs to keep a lid on discussion about Tiananmen in public, in private and in cyberspace.

On June 4, 1989, the world watched as Chinese tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, bringing a violent end to the peaceful, student-led democracy movement and killing hundreds, maybe thousands, of citizens who sought political reform. Despite this brutal crackdown, and 25 years of harsh repression since, brave Chinese voices continue to call for democracy and human rights.

The National Endowment for Democracy is proud to honor two of these voices – Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong – both locked in Chinese prisons because the regime views the power of their ideas as an existential challenge. We also honor today a tireless defender of human rights in China and around the world, the Hon. Frank Wolf.

The National Endowment for Democracy cordially invites you to the presentation of the 2014 Democracy Award to Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong and the  2014 Democracy Service Medal to Rep. Frank Wolf

Thursday, May 29 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

Rayburn House Office Building, Room B-338, 45 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, D.C. 20515

About the Honorees

Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, was unable to receive the prize due to an 11-year prison sentence for his critical writings and role in launching Charter 08. The declaration calling for political reforms and human rights published in 2008 quickly garnered over 10,000 signatories from throughout China. Liu Xiaobo has played a major role in advancing democratic ideas and values in China.  Among his many contributions were his work as editor of Democratic China magazine for several years until his arrest, and his tenure as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2003 to 2007.  Both organizations have received annual NED grants for many years.

Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar, has been at the forefront of campaigns for rights in China for the past decade. He cofounded the Open Constitution Initiative, an independent center, which brought together rights lawyers, liberal intellectuals, journalists and citizen activists to work for rule of law in China from 2006-2009.  Dr. Xu’s landmark article in 2012, China Needs a New Citizens’ Movement, helped define and encourage hundreds of initiatives to help citizens assert their rights and demand accountability. Dr. Xu and dozens of others involved in the New Citizens’ Movement have been detained since 2013. Dr. Xu received a four-year prison sentence in January 2014, after a closed-door trial found him guilty of “gathering a crowd and disturbing public order.”

Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) is one of the Congress’ most eloquent and persistent advocates for human rights around the world. In addition to speaking out on behalf of victims of religious and other forms of persecution, Rep. Wolf is the co-chairman, along with Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, and was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

About the Democracy Award

The Endowment’s Democracy Award is a small-scale replica of the Goddess of Democracy that was constructed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, during the student movement for freedom and democracy in 1989. The original statue was created by art students from the Central Academy of Art in Beijing and by democracy demonstrators; it was unveiled in Tiananmen Square on May 30, 1989. During the government crackdown on June 4, the statue was destroyed by a tank—an unforgettable moment that was witnessed throughout the world.

San Francisco sculptor Thomas Marsh led a project to re-create a 10-foot bronze replica of the original Goddess of Democracy with the help of some Chinese students beginning in 1989. The bronze replica was unveiled in 1994 by Chinese dissidents and Representative Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco. Later, Marsh created smaller replicas of the statue to recognize those around the world who have made

About the Democracy Service Medal

The Democracy Service Medal was first awarded to the former Polish President and founder of the Solidarity trade union movement Lech Walesa, and former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. It was presented in April 1999 on the 10th anniversary of the roundtable agreement that led to the peaceful transition to democracy in Poland. It has since been presented to a wide range of individuals who have demonstrated through personal commitment, their dedication to the advancement of freedom and human rights, and to the building of democratic institutions.


Saudi activists ‘hibernate’ after crackdown

Saudi court hands rights lawyer jail sentenceThe literal translation of Waleed Abulkhair’s surname is “father of all good,” and I cannot think of a Eman_al-Nafjanmore appropriate name for him, Eman al-Nafjan (left) writes for Al-Monitor.

Until his arrest on April 15, he had been tirelessly advocating for the rights of all citizens, regardless of gender, sect or tribe. He volunteered to defend the blogger Raif Badawi when most Saudi lawyers would not want Badawi’s case and their name mentioned in the same sentence, let alone the same paragraph…..

Abulkhair (above) had organized a weekly open house featuring talks by influential thinkers. These gatherings, in Jiddah, would get so crowded that most visitors could not find a place to sit. Abulkhair called these meetings ”smoud,” which translates as “steadfastness” or “resistance.” His only condition was that attendees take to heart each other’s right to freedom of expression. Now the word “smoud” has become synonymous with Abulkhair and a motto for his activism.

Abulkhair is currently being held and prosecuted as a terrorist on 11 charges, including breaking allegiance with the king, doubting officials’ good intentions, insulting the judicial system, making international organizations hostile to the kingdom, establishing the Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia and potentially compromising public order……

Many Saudis have stopped expressing their opinions in such public forums as Twitter and Facebook and have chosen instead more guarded options, such as Whatsapp, Telegram and Path. The stranglehold on expression of dissent makes the future of Saudi Arabia more difficult to read. Diminishing freedoms and security to publicly discuss issues facing the country has made the reality on the ground more volatile. 


Eman al-Nafjan is a blogger and linguistics PhD candidate based in Riyadh who has been campaigning against the ban on women driving.