From the TUC

China persecutes activists to prevent its own reforms from succeeding

10 Dec 2015, By

The government of China has engaged in a nasty and bizarre campaign of repression against labour activists, just as its own reforms threatened to do some good.

A few days ago, Zeng Feiyang, Director of the Guangdong Panyu Migrant Worker Centre, along with a colleague and two other activists, were – according to a Guardian report – taken from their homes in handcuffs. As the eye-witness states, this is a significant escalation of what is normally a cat and mouse game between the authorities and activists, in which the government usually relies on harassment to disrupt the work of campaigners. For some reason, the cat has suddenly got its claws out.

The four detainees have, shamefully, been denied prompt and regular access to their lawyers – something that is only supposed to happen in the case of serious charges like terrorism; three of them have been charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and other with embezzlement, which doesn’t quite sound like a national security emergency. A further four activists have disappeared, leading to fears for their welfare.

Zeng Feiyang’s less-than-seditious role was to provide advice to workers whose factories were closing. Factories in China are supposed to provide compensation to workers when they cease operating, but that doesn’t stop many of their managers attempting to disappear in a puff of smoke, leaving their former labour force confused and impoverished. The Panyu Migrant Worker Centre was supporting representatives of these workforces, giving them training on their rights and in collective bargaining to try and create binding agreements before factories shut down.

What makes the behaviour of the authorities particularly perverse is that the government itself has – in theory at least – been promoting collective bargaining as a mechanism for economic and social development. In its latest five year plan – the same one that was widely reported as abolishing the “one-child” policy – the government laid out its goals of doubling both China’s GDP and the per capita income for Chinese workers (against a 2010 benchmark) by the end of the decade. A “system of collective bargaining” is listed as part of that ambition, and Chinese provinces have been introducing variants on a collective bargaining law.

The problem with collective bargaining in China, however, is who is bargaining with whom. China’s only legally recognised union confederation, the ACFTU, is effectively an arm of the state, and is notorious for blurring the lines not just with government, but also between the ‘union’ and companies. One British trade unionist, being shown a signed workplace agreement on a visit to China, tells the story of how, after looking over the document, he spotted something odd.

“Why do both the signatures on this agreement look quite similar?” he asked. The Chinese trade union leader replied. “Because when I signed as the head of the union I used my right hand, and when I signed as the head of Human Resources I used my left”.

The Chinese are more than aware of this problem. Two years ago, President Xi Jinping publicly urged the confederation to do more to “protect workers’ interests and promote social justice to win public trust and support.” With new legislation on collective bargaining spreading across China, it seemed like the country might be prepared to back those words with action.

Groups of workers, like this one in Wal-Mart factories, began to add to top down cajoling from the government by “applying pressure on the ACFTU from below” and trying to arrange genuine independent representation in workplaces. The International TUC (of which the ACTFU is not a member) was encouraged when some retired ACFTU officials engaged in coaching some of the new generation of workplace activists. It seemed the reforms, along with government encouragement, might be creating a new era of healthy competition for the AFCTU that could drive genuine change.

The latest crackdown has pulled the rug out from under that new generation, fatally undermining the promise of the new laws and leaving workers with no doubt as to whose side the government – and the official union – is taking. Now laws controlling foreign NGOs – another source of support and legal advice for workers – are being introduced, further limiting opportunities for workplace rights to be enforced.

Whether the government ever truly intended to empower workers is hard to tell. Tim Pringle, from the University of London’s SOAS, suspects cold feet on the back of chilly economic winds. “As the economic climate changes … the government probably feels there is less room [for] manoeuvre in the coming 12 to 18 months.” He told The Guardian. “So it is probably cleaning the house, saying, ‘Let’s get these guys out the way so we can deal with the downturn in the economy with less pressure’.” The arrests would therefore form an attempt by the government to “constrain and control” the inchoate independent labour movement while they still could. If this is true, it’s a cowardly and despicable response to changing circumstances.

The TUC and ITUC are writing in protest to their contacts in the Guangdong and National ACFTU offices, and Amnesty International has an urgent action calling for safe release and access to legal representation for the detainees.