Labour activist Meng Han goes to trial amidst intimidation and blatant procedural violations

Meng Han, a labour activist detained as part of a broader crackdown on Guangdong labour NGOs in December, will have his court hearing on November 3. After spending almost a year in custody and with limited access to his lawyer, Meng will stand trial in a Panyu District court for “gathering crowds to disrupt public order”.

During his detention, Meng was repeatedly denied access to legal representation, in violation of articles 33 and 37 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law. Article 33 stipulates that “defendants have the right to retain a defender at any time” and Article 37 guarantees “defense lawyers may meet and communicate with detained suspects or defendants”.

Meng was officially detained on January 8 and only had access to a defense attorney on February 19, then on April 7 was denied access to his lawyer. Meng’s detention without prosecution also exceeded the legally allowed time limit by almost two months, in violation of articles 155 and 157 of the Criminal Procedure Law.

Han Dongfang, director of Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, emphasises that these irregularities exposed how “law enforcement and the judiciary do not actually follow China's own legal procedures”, and warned that if they keep going down this path “they lose all credibility".

Meng's family faced continual pressure during his detention, to the point that his parents had to move out after unidentified thugs attacked their apartment door with an axe.

Through his lawyer, Meng expressed his refusal to cooperate with the investigation and incriminate Zeng Feiyang in exchange for a lighter sentence. It is unclear at this point if Meng will bow to pressure in court on November 3, but Han says that “even if he pleads guilty, I won’t believe he does so out of his own will”.

Meng’s three former colleagues from Panyu Workers’ Centre, Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei and Tang Huanxing, were given suspended prison sentences on September 26 after pleading guilty. Meng’s trial was delayed when prosecutors sent his case to the police for further investigation.

He could face up to seven years imprisonment because, unlike his former colleagues, he is not a “first time offender”. In 2014 Meng, a hospital security guard at the time, was accused of disrupting public order and sentenced to nine months in prison; he appealed the court’s decision immediately. After his release, he decided to dedicate himself full-time to help his fellow workers with their grievances: he then joined Panyu Workers’ Centre.

Prior to the December attack on labour organisations, the Centre organised workers in several high-profile collective bargaining cases, engaging in negotiations between aggrieved workers, employers and local government officials to solve serious disputes. In the Lide shoe factory case, Centre staff essentially played the role of the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China’s only officially recognised trade union, helping workers win over 100 million yuan in compensation, effectively defusing the possibility of more severe social unrest.

Data collected by CLB’s strike map reveal that labour unrest in Guangdong province in the first nine months of 2016 remains at a high level and show no signs of easing after the attack on labour organisations. Collective actions by sanitation workers have actually spiked and factory relocations and closures, in which workers are owed massive sums in wages and compensations, are increasing as China’s economy shifts away from export-oriented manufacturing.

"They can try to blame the firefighters, but if those who were helping put the fire out are not allowed to do their job, it can only get worse", warns Han.

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