A brief history of a workers’ rights group in China

On 27 July, the municipal government of Xi'an formally banned a local workers’ rights group that was seeking, but never obtained, official recognition of its status as an enterprise restructuring watchdog.

Just three months earlier, on 7 April, a group of more than 380 workers, predominately from local state-owned enterprises (SOEs), applied to the provincial Party committee and trade union federation to set up the Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress, a body tasked with overseeing and monitoring SOE restructuring, and reporting corruption and abuses of power. The workers were concerned that the official trade union was not doing its job properly and that workers’ congresses in local SOEs had been bypassed in the process of restructuring and privatization.

Party and local union officials initially dismissed the workers’ application as the work of troublemakers, not worthy of consideration. The workers however were only emboldened by this rebuff and demanded a meeting with senior union officials to discuss the application and other pressing issues affecting workers in local SOEs. The meeting took place on 15 April at the provincial union’s workers’ centre in Xi'an, and was attended by workers from the Xinhua Rubber Plant, Fenglei Watchband Plant and Hu County Paper Mill, plus local labour activist Zhao Dongmin, the director of the Shaanxi trade union federation’s office and the director of the workers’ centre, amongst others.

The trade union officials at the meeting refused to give a written reply to the workers’ application but did tentatively agree to send a team to investigate whether or not workers’ rights had been violated during the restructuring of the Xinhua Rubber Plant. According to minutes of the meeting taken by Zhao Dongmin’s associates, Zhao then pointed out that;

In view of the fact that many workers’ congresses had been sidelined during the process of SOE reform, there was now an urgent need for the Shaanxi union federation to establish a team to investigate and re-examine not only the Xinhua Rubber Plant but also SOE restructuring proceedings throughout the city of Xi'an and even the entire province. The union should focus, Zhao said, on performing its obligations to protect the lawful rights and interests of workers during enterprise restructuring and bankruptcy proceedings.

In response to Zhao’s demands, the union officials obfuscated and claimed there was limit to what they could do. This last admission essentially validated the workers’ demands to set up their own representative congress, which could oversee and assist the union in the execution of its duties. If the union was limited in its ability to protect workers’ rights and interests, then surely, the workers argued, it should welcome their offer of help. The union officials, needless to say, did not see it that way. They were far more concerned with trying to neutralize the organizing ability of the lawyer turned labour rights advocate, Zhao Dongmin. The union officials at the meeting all stressed that Zhao Dongmin should not be allowed to represent the workers or get directly involved in their struggles. Zhao’s role, they said, should be limited only to giving advice and guidance.

As CLB pointed out in its recent research report examining the development of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) over the last two decades, China’s official union has always been wary of, and often felt threatened by, workers’ attempts to set up their own representative organizations. Such organizations are seen as threats to social stability and the political authority of the ACFTU. At the height of the global economic crisis in February, for example, ACFTU vice-chair Sun Chunlan, said: “We need to keep a close lookout for foreign and domestic hostile forces using the difficulties encountered by some companies to infiltrate and undermine the ranks of migrant workers.” Her words were quickly echoed by officials in Shaanxi who claimed the workers’ representative congress was a “reactionary organization” (反动组织) that could harm China’s “Harmonious Society.” One local union official in Hu county, southwest of Xian, further accused Zhao Dongmin of acting in “collusion with a reactionary organization and outside forces.”

The official trade union feels threatened by workers’ rights groups precisely because it is now so weak and ineffective that it is incapable of performing what should be its fundamental role, namely representing and protecting the rights and interests of its members. Indeed, the union is now so powerless, it cannot even ban the organizations it feels threatened by, and has to rely on the government to do its dirty work for it. Rather than simply turn down the workers’ application, the union felt compelled to pass the matter on to the local civil affairs bureau, and it was that office that in the end responded to the workers’ demands in Document No. 180 (2009) (Appendix 1) issued by the bureau on 27 July.

As Zhao Dongmin pointed out in an open letter to central, provincial and municipal Party and government leaders, the civil affairs bureau’s banning order was a flagrant act of government interference in trade union affairs.

CLB has translated Zhao’s open letter here in full, not only because it clearly articulates the issues involved but also because of the political nature of the discourse. Zhao is the head of the Shaanxi Mao Zedong Thought Study Group, and his letter is deliberately couched in Maoist language, with references to the people’s democratic dictatorship (人民民主专政) and demands for the restoration of the leadership of the working class. Mao’s name is still widely invoked in China, especially by former state workers and farmers marginalized and left-behind during the last three decades of economic reform. Mao is seen as a totem of a more egalitarian and just society in which government officials served the people and not just their own selfish interests. Moreover, using Maoist rhetoric to bolster one’s demands can sometimes (although clearly not always) make it more difficult for government officials to suppress those demands. Using language imported from international human rights groups can be seen as collusion with hostile foreign forces, quoting the Great Helmsman less so.


Open letter to the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the State Council, the Shaanxi Provincial Party Committee and the Xi'an Municipal Party Committee

Dear Party and government leaders of all levels,

Shortly after 4 p.m. on 27 July 2009, two officials from the Xi'an Civil Affairs Bureau handed the bureau’s Document No. 180 (2009) (Appendix 1) to myself and two other workers’ representatives who had on 7 April of this year submitted to the Shaanxi trade union federation an “Application to establish a Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress” proposing to reform the workers’ congress system. Document No. 180 stated:

Concerning the decision to ban the “Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress.” In view of the fact that the “Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress” has not been legally registered, it is not authorized to carry out its activities. According to the Regulations on the Registration and Management of Social Organizations, the “Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress” is an illegal organization and it is hereby banned.

The fact that the Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau handed this document to me indicates that it considered me to be a representative of the Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress. On this basis, I have drafted this open letter to let Party and government leaders know my opinion of the Civil Affairs Bureau’s decision to ban the Union Rights Defence Representative Congress.

First of all, since the secretary-general and other leading cadres of the Shaanxi union federation received, on 7 April of this year, our “Application to establish a Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress,” neither the provincial Party committee nor the provincial union have officially approved or rejected our application, nor have they stated under what circumstances they would not be authorized to approve it. Consequently, we were baffled to be suddenly informed by the Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau that the Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress had “not been legally registered.” All matters pertaining to the reform of workers’ congresses legally fall under the purview of the trade union, and the “Application to establish a Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress” is no exception. Therefore, when a small number of Civil Affairs officials took it upon themselves to suddenly ban the union rights congress, wasn’t the government in effect flagrantly interfering in the union’s work?

Motivated by their need to defend their lawful rights and interests, the workers decided to draft an “Application to establish a Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress,” based on the fundamental principles of the PRC Constitution and the Trade Union Law, as well as on their interpretation of the core message of the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China… Since the Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau was unable to point out a single misunderstanding in the workers’ interpretation of the Constitution, the Trade Union Law and the 17th National Congress, wasn’t its hasty decision to issue a banning order for the Union Rights Defence Representative Congress tantamount to banning workers from studying and disseminating the Constitution, the Trade Union Law and the Party’s 17th National Congress pronouncements? Wasn’t it effectively abusing its political and legal authority to prevent workers and farmers from defending their rights and opposing corruption?

The “Application to establish a Shaanxi Union Rights Defence Representative Congress” is a strongly worded demand by the working class to the Party to strengthen its leadership over the working class and the peasant class, as well as a demand for the socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and farmers to thoroughly expose and punish corrupt officials in cahoots with factory directors and managers (known in political terms as the bureaucratic capitalist class), who are even more brutal and ruthless than capitalists. Isn’t the Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau’s arbitrary “ban” in effect weakening and even “banning” the Party’s leadership of workers and farmers, shielding corrupt officials in cahoots with factory directors and managers, and harming the socialist state under the people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and farmers?

The Xi'an Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau official who ignored the Shaanxi Party committee, interfered in the work of the provincial union federation and issued the baffling Document No. 180 (2009) could not have acted alone. He must have had the backing of corrupt officials in cahoots with factory directors or managers, and the running dogs in the union who turned a blind eye to this illegal intervention in union work. I cannot think of any other reason.

Historically, the labour movement under the leadership of the Party has been etched into the Communist revolutionary movement. And it has naturally therefore been regarded as an enemy by the exploiting classes. On at least two occasions in the past, fascist forces have interfered in and harmed China’s trade union movement: The first time was when the northern warlord Wu Peifu and his Beiyang Army clique created a trade union to obstruct the labour movement and murdered union leader and Communist Party member Lin Xiangqian. The second time was when Chiang Kai-shek, representing imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism, undermined and eventually dissolved the Shanghai Federation of Trade Unions, which had earlier distinguished itself during the Northern Expedition. This episode was a harbinger of the KMT reactionaries’ later betrayal of the revolution.

Today, 60 years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, what does the Xi'an Municipal Civil Affairs Bureau’s disregard for the Shaanxi provincial Party committee and its flagrant interference in the work of the provincial union federation foreshadow? Shouldn’t historical experience serve as a warning to all of us, both inside and outside the Party, who are determined to defend the Party’s position and the socialist system?

I and all those like me who ardently love the Party and ardently love socialism hope that Party and government leaders at all levels will exercise wise judgment in this matter.

Zhao Dongmin 
1 August 2009
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