Workers in a Workers’ State

The Chinese state has dramatically escalated repression against workers organizations.

On December 3, four workers organizations in the southern manufacturing hubs of Guangzhou and Foshan came under attack from Chinese authorities. Dozens of staff, family members, and affiliated workers were questioned, and seven remained in custody for over a month. Four have now been formally charged: three of them for “assembling a crowd to disrupt social order” and one for “embezzlement.”

Little more is known about the detainees. While a group of sixty lawyers volunteered to represent the activists, they’ve been barred from meeting their potential clients. In the meantime, the state media has unleashed a harsh smear campaign aimed at destroying the activists’ personal and professional reputations and legitimating the crackdown.

The crackdown didn’t come from nowhere. Labor groups and activists in China are regularly subjected to state repression and harassment. What sets the current sweep apart are the number of workers organizations (or labor NGOs, as some call them) and individuals targeted, and the severity of the criminal charges they are facing. The Chinese state’s goal is to stifle these and other workers organizations through humiliation and fear.

So why does the Chinese state feel threatened by these workers organizations? What role have they played in the worker unrest that’s reached a fever pitch in recent year? And what does the sweep mean for the growth and development of the China’s labor movement?

Independent Struggles

Under China’s system of quasi–state corporatism, the official trade union body — the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) — monopolizes worker representation; independent unionism is strictly banned. But labor NGOs have carved out a limited space to work, helping foster a burgeoning constellation of labor groups and activists.

The organizations targeted in the current sweep are among the most vocal labor groups in China. The most prominent is the Panyu Dagongzu Center in Guangzhou (henceforth Dagongzu), one of China’s longest-running and most established workers organizations. Its director, Zeng Feiyang, a lawyer-turned-labor activist who is seen as the leader of a network of labor groups, is no stranger to harassment and assault.

Also swept up were former migrant workers who became activists and then Dagongzu organizers through their participation in labor struggles. Meng Han led a strike of hospital security guards (and served jail time as a result). Zhu Xiaomei, during her time as a workers representative, successfully sued her employer for illegal dismissal after trying to ensure the company made social insurance contributions. (A former Dagongzu organizer who has appeared in the state media accusing Zeng Feiyang of misconduct was also detained.)

Additional individuals targeted include He Xiaobo, who left Dagongzu to set up his own labor group in Foshan called the Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Organization. The director of Haige Labor Center, Chen Huihai, was also held but was later released; Deng Xiaoming, another organizer at Haige, remains in custody, as does Peng Jiayong of the Labor Mutual Aid Group.

Given the severe repression against any independent, oppositional groups like trade unions, such labor groups are the closest thing Chinese workers have to genuine workers organizations.

For the most part, these workers groups were established by former workers and labor activists. They support fellow workers in legal disputes and collective struggles. Usually with a staff of less than half a dozen and a peripheral layer of affiliated workers and lawyers, these groups resemble community-based workers centers more than professionalized non-governmental organizations.

The earliest labor groups — like Dagongzu — were established in the late 1990s in response to the millions of rural migrant workers experiencing gross violations of labor rights but unaware of labor laws. Taking advantage of the growing political space and discourse of civil society, NGOs sprung up in a wide range of areas such as labor, environment, gender, and health. But these groups lead a precarious existence, forced to register as nonprofit businesses rather than social organizations and subjected to close monitoring by the authorities.

Most Chinese labor groups started as legal aid centers, promoting awareness of laws and mutual aid among migrant workers. They expanded as migrant workers’ need for legal representation increased and the state sought to curb rising labor unrest by stressing workers’ statutory rights. There are now dozens of labor groups across China, with most based close to the manufacturing zones.

While many focus exclusively on legal aid and shy away from collective disputes, a number of labor groups — including the groups being targeted — have come to recognize the limitations of individual, court-based strategies and have embraced collective forms of struggle and collective negotiations with management. In the process they’ve been able to link up with militant workers, putting them at the center of labor struggles in China today.

Increasing Militancy

The current sweep comes amid intensifying labor protests in the slowing manufacturing sector.

From 2014 to 2015, recorded strikes doubled. Companies commonly inform workers that factories are closing only when machines are being moved out, with no intention of compensating workers. In response, workers have taken collective action to secure severance compensation and protest underfunded social insurance. Some lasted for months and featured highly organized, sustained mobilization — prompting a police response and detention of strike leaders.

The immediate catalyst for the latest crackdown was the targeted organizations’ involvement in such strikes, which was undermining the state’s efforts to isolate and atomize workers’ struggles.

Dagongzu, for example, helped leaders of a shoe workers strike strategize after strikers approached the labor group. While these labor organizations do not initiate strikes or protests, they supply important legal information and negotiation skills.

The ACFTU hasn’t taken kindly to labor organizations’ involvement. Regarding the more militant labor groups as competitors for workers’ allegiance, the trade union body has fiercely denounced them in speeches to striking workers. For their part, workers have largely shrugged off such vituperation, seeing labor groups as a useful resource and the ACFTU as a company ally.

The repression of worker groups should therefore be understood as part of a dual strategy in which the state co-opts and integrates some groups by purchasing their services while intimidating and suppressing others who do not cooperate. However, this is not a cut-and-dry process. Some of these labor groups — including organizations like Nanfeiyan that have accepted government funding — are also targeted because they remain too independent. Numerous other prominent labor groups, by contrast, adamantly refuse to cooperate with the authorities.

Even the best labor groups, however, are far from flawless. Most are heavily shaped by the personality and politics of the founders and directors, and are rarely democratic or transparent.

The opacity is partially a result of the circumstances in which these labor groups emerge, as well as the limited space they have to develop as organizations. Regardless, many are marred by undemocratic structures and misuses of funding. And as non-membership-based groups, they’re less accountable to workers than traditional trade unions.

Moreover, these groups are not allowed to raise funds domestically because they cannot register as non-profit, charitable organizations. Lacking other sustainable streams of money, they depend heavily on foreign funding.

Their source of funding, however, doesn’t so much shape their day-to-day decision-making as give authorities a pretext to detain labor organizations’ leaders (even though foreign sponsorship is not illegal). The issue of foreign funding is so fraught that the state has been crafting the Foreign NGOs Management Law, which will regulate and monitor the activities of international NGOs that operate in China.

The question of workers groups’ politics is also important. Even the more radical organizations tend to channel worker unrest into legal and wage negotiations, emphasizing collective bargaining as the means to resolving conflict. While partially necessitated by the repressive environment, this approach is also a partial reflection of their politics.

Still, reformism from below, emanating from the labor movement, is not the same as ACFTU-backed reformism from above. In the present conditions, something as simple as defending workers’ legal rights and settling for collective bargaining is a radical act, even though it may restrict the movement in the long run.

Ultimately, these labor NGOs are contradictory, at once advancing and limiting workers’ struggles. They supply resources and give strikes — especially those that demand sustained mobilization — an organized form. Their dedicated and militant organizers build and transmit experience and skills. But their specific form of organization, as well as their generally “pragmatic” approach, often limits the potential of labor struggles.

Normalizing Criminalization

Last month’s sweep is part of an escalation of criminalization of labor activism and workers organizations over the last few years.

In 2012, a number of workers organizations in Shenzhen were forced to move their offices after authorities made a concerted push to restrain their activities. Harassment of this kind has since continued. And over the last two years, the state has charged numerous individuals fighting for labor rights. Labor activist Wu Guijun, for example, was detained and sentenced originally to five years in prison for leading a labor protest in 2013; following a successful legal challenge, he was released in 2014.

Wu Guijun’s treatment highlights the state’s new strategy toward oppositional social forces — a much harsher punishment of not only political dissidents but also much more moderate individuals and groups. A range of civil society advocates and groups — most notably the activists known as Feminist Five and anti-discrimination groups such as Yirenping — is experiencing harsher political restrictions.

The repression represents a deliberate response to a cluster of economic and social contradictions confronting the ruling Communist Party: the economic challenge of managing an economy increasingly plagued by capitalist dynamics of crisis (as manifested in the 2015 stock market crash, which occurred despite significant state control and regulation); the political challenge of rescuing the party from a legitimation crisis (which has sparked the expulsion of tens of thousands of party leaders and government bureaucrats); and the social challenge of containing popular movements.

The authorities are doing their best to present the latest crackdown as entirely lawful. Instead of harassing and arbitrarily detaining activists as it has done in the past, the state is trying to build airtight legal cases against them.

This change in tactics — reminiscent of how liberal democratic states sometimes handle militant trade unionists — risks setting a dangerous legal precedent. It not only criminalizes otherwise lawful activities, but normalizes such criminalization.

The thinly veiled abuse of the legal process has been complemented by a not-so-subtle smear campaign in the state media. While disgraced celebrities and officials have been on the receiving end of such tactics before, targeting labor activists constitutes a new level of repression.

Broadcast on the main state television station in late December, the smear campaign alleged financial and moral misconduct as well as ulterior political motives, specifically against Zeng Feiyang. This was followed by active blocking of articles posted on social media that responded critically to the sweep and defended the detained activists, silencing any alternative voices available in China.

The significance of the crackdown goes beyond these particular organizations, activists, and the workers whose struggles they have been supporting. If the detained activists are sentenced, it could open up future persecution of other labor organizations, discouraging workers and their supporters. Labor activists could begin to face much tougher consequences — not just dismissal and harassment, but lengthy prison sentences.

No Passive Victims

Labor organizations in China are imperfect vehicles that nonetheless bolster workers’ struggles. They absorb dedicated labor activists who come out of real struggles while disseminating legal knowledge, organizational skills, and mobilization strategies.

Emerging out of a labor movement weakened by the long arm of the state, these workers groups may in time be eclipsed by more autonomous, democratic labor organizations. That would be a welcome development. But today it is critical to defend them against repression.

Fortunately, solidarity campaigns to release the detained activists have sprung up in the most significant international effort to support Chinese workers’ struggles in many years.

International academics, activists, workers organizations, and trade unions have generated petitions and articles, and protesters have demonstrated in Hong Kong.

Although largely framed as an abuse of law and a state incursion on civil society rights, organizers and backers of the solidarity campaigns know they aren’t supporting passive victims, but militant workers active in collective struggles. And while there are undoubtedly limits to campaigns from the outside, the labor movement is nothing if it’s not international.

Workers have also played a central role in defending fellow workers and activists. During previous strikes, workers have not hesitated to take direct action to demand the immediate release of jailed strikers. And they have won, demonstrating the strength of workers when they take collective action in solidarity with each other.

After the detained activists were charged, a group of sanitation workers who had received strike support from one of the activists demanded his release. Such solidarity efforts are no easy undertaking in the face of an authoritarian, well-resourced state. But as the labor movement grows and matures — becoming more organized and militant — Chinese workers will not be denied their organizations for long.