China’s labor movement, 5 years after Tonghua

chinalaborbulletinFive years ago today, Chen Guojun, a senior manager at the Tonghua Iron and Steel Works in Jilin was killed during a protest by workers angry at the takeover of the plant by the Jianlong Group, at the time China’s largest privately-owned steel company, which Chen represented, China Labour Bulletin reports.

The “Tonghua Incident” became one of the most talked about events of the year. It focused attention on the volatile state of labour relations in many workplaces in China and the need to find a more effective and peaceful way of resolving labour disputes.

But while government officials, policy makers and commentators were debating the issue, China’s workers themselves were showing everyone the way forward.

A lot has changed in China’s workplaces over the last five years, and it is the workers’ movement that has been largely responsible for generating that change. China’s workers have shown that they are not rabble-rousers: They are determined to stand up for what is rightfully theirs but crucially they are also willing to sit down with management and work out their differences in peaceful, face-to-face negotiations – as was shown just this week in the Shenzhen QLT factory strike.


China Labour Bulletin is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

Commemorating slain Russian rights defender Estemirova

estemirovaRussian and international rights organizations have called for justice on the fifth anniversary of the killing of slain Chechen rights activist and journalist Natalya Estemirova, RFE/RL reports:

Estemirova was abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on July 15, 2009. Her body was found the next day in Ingushetia. The Memorial Human Rights Center, where Estemirova worked, said an investigation by authorities showed the possible involvement of law enforcement officers in the crime. No one has been arrested for her murder.

“Ms. Estemirova’s courage and dedication continues to serve as an inspiration for those who have carried on her work in Russia and elsewhere,” said the U.S. State Department. “Sadly, many of her colleagues in Russia continue to face harassment for their work. We call on the Russian Government to ensure that human rights defenders can safely and freely pursue their work, which is so vital to a healthy, democratic society.”

David Kramer, president of the rights watchdog Freedom House, said Russian officials had “dragged their feet and pushed forward a version of events [of Estemirova's death] that is obviously fabricated, shielding her killers from justice, effectively validating their actions.”

US slams Cuba for ‘intimidation tactic’ of dissident arrests


Cuba's Capital Havana Prepares For Pope Benedict XVI Visit To The Island Nation

The Obama administration has condemned a crackdown by Cuban authorities who arrested an unusually large group of about 100 dissident marchers Sunday, breaking up a march by the Ladies in White opposition group, AFP reports:

Shouting “Freedom! Freedom!,” the women offered no resistance as they were put on buses by dozens of police and plainclothes agents of the only communist-ruled country in the Americas…..The women’s group, formed in 2003 by wives and relatives of political prisoners, marches with the government’s permission every Sunday in the Cuban capital after hearing mass at Santa Rita parish church.

Since theirs is the only group that has government permission for a regular protest, arrests are few and infrequent. But on Sunday, dozens of police moved in and surrounded the large crowd of marchers two blocks from the church after they headed toward the sea instead of along their usual route on Miramar’s Quinta Avenida.

“We strongly condemn the Cuban Government’s continued use of this intimidation tactic to silence its critics and disrupt peaceful assembly,” said the U.S. State Department. “We urge the Government of Cuba to end these practices and respect the universal human rights of the Cuban people.”

Cracking down hard

“The Ladies in White are growing and increasing their base in society… and this is really dangerous for (the government’s) legitimacy. That’s why they are cracking down so hard,” said dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua.

Award-winning fellow dissident Guillermo Farinas agreed.

“I think the Cuban government is pulling out all the stops to keep the Ladies in White from growing. That explains so many arrests on Sunday,” added Farinas, the 2010 European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize winner. The Ladies in White won the prize in 2005.

The women were planning to lay flowers in memory of the adults and children who died when the tugboat they had hijacked sank as it was pursued by the Cuban authorities in Caribbean waters. Dissident groups allege the vessel was rammed and flooded with water cannon, the BBC reports.

China: civil society activism emerging despite crackdown


Achina ngo color revn image passed around social media site Weibo shows several men straining to hoist a flag atop rubble, a reference to the iconic World War II image of American troops hoisting the United States flag at Iwo Jima. But on the flag are red letters spelling “NGO,” not the stars and stripes of the 1945 photograph. The message is clear: Americans use NGOs to conquer, DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW writes for the New York Times’ Sinosphere blog:

Many Chinese officials believe Western governments use nongovernmental organizations to encourage democratic “color revolutions,” pointing to what they regard as a foreign hand in the recent political tumult in Ukraine and Egypt and in calls for greater democracy in Hong Kong. That attitude may have spawned a new investigation, one that apparently began not long after China’s new National Security Commission, headed by President Xi Jinping, met for the first time on April 15: a “penetrating” security review of foreign nongovernmental organizations in China….

china ngo form ny timesChinese nongovernmental organizations around the country, meanwhile, are being asked whether they receive foreign funding, how much and from whom, and how they use it. A page from a form [right] said to be from the government, requesting information from foreign nongovernmental organizations.

Three forms sent to a leading Chinese nongovernmental organization that receives overseas funding contained a total of 36 questions, asking for names and ID numbers of employees and “cooperating Chinese persons,” as well as questions about the organization’s “sphere of work,” “political background” and “goals.” It also asks for the names of “NGO employees who are active in China,” in language that is sometimes used to describe spies.

The Chinese government’s crackdown on activists and civil liberties shows little sign of abating, even though the tense 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre has passed, said Human Rights Watch:

A wide range of activists – some more prominent than others, some involved in activities directly related June 4 and others less so – have been detained. For example:

  • In Henan Province, at least nine activists, including two lawyers, Chang Boyang and Ji Laisong, have been detained since May 27 on suspicion of “gathering crowds to disturb public order.” They are held, sources say, for participating in an activity in February commemorating the Tiananmen anniversary.
  • In Guangdong Province, three activists, including a lawyer, Tang Jingling, have been detained since May 16. They were first detained on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles” but formally arrested on June 20 for the more serious crime of “inciting subversion.” Their alleged crime is related to their promotion of the concept of nonviolent civil disobedience in Guangzhou.
  • In Beijing, prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was formally arrested on June 13 for “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles,” and “illegally obtaining citizens’ personal information.” The basis of the charges against Pu is not clear.
  • A journalist, Gao Yu, has been detained since April 24 for “leaking state secrets.” Gao allegedly provided a certain “secret document” of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee to a foreign website, which published it in full and it was reposted on a number of other websites, official media reports said. The authorities have not clarified which document she allegedly leaked, but scholars and journalists believe it to be Document Number Nine, which warned Chinese officials to be vigilant about “seven subversive elements” in society, including “universal values” such as human rights, media reports said.

“The authorities’ already-limited tolerance for activism has significantly shrunk in recent months and, increasingly, peaceful speech is being treated as criminal,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “The intention appears to be to make everyone think twice before they act, as there is no telling what people will be detained for next.”

Yet grassroots activism is bubbling up despite the crackdown, NDTV reports.

James Miles, the Economist’s Beijing Bureau Chief, said in CNN’s report: “What we might see now compared with 25 years ago during Tiananmen, is that the cells of organizations are more quickly formed.” 

“It would be more difficult for the government to control information, to stop people organizing, and to stop the flow of information in these kinds of critical events.” Miles believes civil society may very well play a crucial role in changing China’s political landscape.  


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).