How a simple labour dispute descended into a nightmare of black jails and labour camps

Zhu Xianghong was well-educated, resourceful and fully aware of her rights as an employee. She was confident that she could find another job after being fired from her position as a teacher at a youth centre in the eastern city of Shaoxing; all she needed from the centre was an official termination document and, hopefully, some severance pay. That was back in 2008. Six years later, Zhu was bedridden after numerous beatings and incarceration in black jails and labour camps; punishment for daring to demand redress.

In August 2014, Zhu talked to CLB Director Han Dongfang about how what should have been a straight-forward labour arbitration case became a long legal battle, followed by futile attempts to petition the authorities in Beijing and violent retribution by local officials. Zhu summarized her experience thus:

My case started out as a labour dispute. I was then beaten up…told to stop bringing my grievances to Beijing…and just be a good slave from then on. Even so, I just have to let my voice be heard, but there was no use doing that because the media would not report anything.

Prior to her teaching job, Zhu had worked, with her husband, as a human resources professional at a state-owned steel mill in Shaoxing. The couple were laid-off in 2002 when the steel mill was restructured and sold-off at rock-bottom prices. They found work as teachers in 2006 and 2007 at the Shaoxing Youth Activities Centre, a public institution that offered integrated education to primary schools in the vicinity. As Zhu’s origami class was popular among students, she was confident that she would be offered an employment contract with the centre after the stated one-month probation period.

That offer never came. Zhu and a dozen other teachers at the Centre were asked to wait, time and again, for two whole years until everyone was replaced by newly-hired university graduates in September 2008, the same year the new Labour Contract Law came into effect. At that point, Zhu and her husband, who repeatedly pressed management for employment contracts, were offered an opportunity to stay on but at a cost. They were told by one official that:

The practice was that you had to spend at least 60,000 yuan to sign a contract with a public institution. He left us his address and number, and asked us to visit him at night. We didn’t go…I didn’t take his words seriously. I believed in the law then.

Seeking legal redress

Zhu and her husband applied for labour arbitration. They sought to prove that despite not having a contract, they did in fact have a de facto employment relationship with the Centre. They asked for reinstatement, proper employment contracts, and other benefits. The labour authorities took a different view:

The labour authorities taught the Centre to forge evidence…fake employment contracts, fake pay slips, fake time sheets…They asked all the other teachers to sign the contracts, then alleged that it was us who refused to sign the contract. Why would we refuse to sign when we still wanted to work there? That was just absurd.

Zhu was able to point out flaws in the forged documents and turned the evidence against the Centre. The arbitrator reluctantly ruled in her favour but ensured that the monetary award would be negligible:

I won…My monthly salary of about 1,000 yuan, according to the forged payslips, was inclusive of my pension contributions of 500 yuan per month, and I was ordered to pay that 500 yuan back… As a result my salary fell to below even the minimum wage…Yes, I won in theory, but I lost out in terms of money gained.

Outraged at the arbitration decision, Zhu filed a civil lawsuit in the district court, but that only reduced the payment to 300 yuan. Further appeals proved to be of no avail. That was when Zhu decided to drop legal proceedings and resort to petitioning. She managed to speak with the deputy mayor of Shaoxing and the vice-president of the court on her first trip to the municipal petitioning office but nothing substantial was achieved, either on this trip or the many trips afterwards.

Tilting at windmills

In January 2011, Zhu decided to take her fight to Beijing after realising that there was no point searching justice at home. Zhu went to the national petitioning office, the National People’s Congress, and even the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, to complain about the inaction of the Shaoxing judges and the labour authorities. Her complaints, however, never got through. Zhu said:

The form they gave me was authentic, but it was put aside, in another pile…that never reached the petitioning officials. The Shaoxing officials bought off the fellows at the State Bureau…Only very few petitioners get to file their complaints at the Bureau. The figures they publish… they are all fake.

She finally managed to file a complaint after sending pleas of help to every single deputy attending the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress in March. Even so, all she got was a train ticket home. Not one official spoke to her. As family finances were straining and the couple could not get a job without first obtaining an official document indicating the termination of their employment relations with the Centre, Zhu and her husband set off for Beijing again, in June. This time, however, they had already been put on the blacklist.

On 4 June, the couple were abducted by hired thugs and thrown into black jail allegedly operated by Zhejiang provincial officials in Beijing. They were held for two days during which time Zhu said she was savagely beaten:

They just came upon me, grabbed a firm hold of my limbs and forced me to stand very still, while Dai XX threw heavy punches to my back and repeatedly banged my head against the wall…When I felt like I was almost dying, they threatened me to stop petitioning.

Fighting intense pain from three broken ribs, Zhu was sent back to Shaoxing by train overnight. When Zhu reported the assault to the Shaoxing police they ignored her, saying it fell outside their jurisdiction. Zhu went to Beijing again, attempting to file a complaint along with others who had also suffered inside the black jail.  The district court refused to accept the lawsuit and the police were called to intervene in the dispute between the judge and the petitioners.

Three days later, Zhu was shoved into an unmarked car by plainclothes officers from Shaoxing. She was escorted all the way back to a detention centre in Shaoxing:

They beat me up all the way from Beijing to Shaoxing…I went on a hunger strike, on the sixth or seventh day, when I couldn’t even muster the strength the speak, I was sent to the labour camp. They ordered other detainees to beat me up…they did, on the first day. Later on, even the detainees stopped and persuaded me to eat something…but the oppression never stopped.

Re-education through labour

Zhu was sentenced to re-education through labour, an administrative punishment system that was often used to get rid of those seen as trouble-makers. It has now been formally abolished although the authorities still have alternative methods of getting people off the streets. Zhu was accused of “petitioning with abnormal means in politically sensitive areas near Tiananmen Square…and showing no remorse for disrupting public order.” She was not given any opportunity to appeal the decision:

I had two lawyers during the internment and my family argued for my release. They submitted countless materials for administrative review; all to no use…The more often I asked for review, the worse they treated me in the labour camp.

Five months into the internment, Zhu was sent to a nearby hospital after she slipped and sustained serious injuries. She served the remaining seven months in internment confined to bed. She was never offered medical parole.

Following her release, Zhu’s case was taken up by the well-known social scientist and advocate, Yu Jianrong, and that brought her case to the attention of the Shaoxing government again. The government offered to help resolve the original labour dispute with the Youth Centre but cancelled talks when Zhu insisted on getting justice for her black jail detention and beatings.

Zhu’s family now survives on financial assistance from friends and family. Her only daughter has to look for jobs miles away from home. Zhu’s siblings, who work in the public sector, dare not keep in touch with her. Asked what she would have done if she had been given a second chance, Zhu sighed:

I was forced to go this far. It was never my choice…What else could I have done if I chose not to file the lawsuit? I have to work. I have to survive.

I am just an ordinary citizen, but real history is written by ordinary citizens like me. My story is a snapshot of China at this point in time. It is a very typical story; unemployment because of the economic reform, my later re-employment, labour litigation…finally brushes with the petitioning system. Isn’t all this part of history?


This interview with Zhu Xianghong was first broadcast on Radio Free Asia's 劳工通讯 in 12 episodes in August and September 2014.

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