China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher
Tom Phillips in Beijing
10 December 2015
Chinese campaigners have called on Beijing to free five prominent labour activists after police launched an “unprecedented” crackdown designed to neuter their movement at a time of growing worker unrest.
At least 18 Guangdong-based campaigners have been detained or interrogated since last Thursday when police began their roundup in China’s factory heartlands.
Those who remain in custody include Zeng Feiyang, director of the Panyu Workers’ Centre in the provincial capital Guangzhou; He Xiaobo, who runs a support group for injured workers in the nearby city of Foshan; and Zhu Xiaomei, a female activist from the same organisation who is also the mother of a one-year-old baby.
Also being held are Deng Xiaoming, from the Haige Workers’ Services Centre, and Peng Jiayong, who runs the Panyu Labourer Mutual Aid Group. Chen Huihai, a sixth activist, is understood to be under house arrest.
William Nee, a Hong Kong-based activist for Amnesty International, said “a coordinated attack” on Guangdong’s labour movement was under way.
“We always had problems, groups would always be temporarily shut down or harassed or sometimes temporarily detained … [but] this is definitely unprecedented,” Nee said.
“This is the only time that I can remember in recent years in which many labour activists and organisations – without any kind of incident pre-empting it – have all of a sudden been taken in one fell swoop.”
In an open letter published on Thursday morning, activists urged the Communist party’s senior leadership to end the “terrible crackdown” and return the arrested activists to their loved ones.
“In Guangdong there have been cases where staff from workers’ rights groups were slashed, beaten, put under administrative or criminal detention or where these organisations were forced to move, were harassed or had their licences cancelled,” the letter said. “But this is the first time in Guangdong or indeed the whole country that there has been such a severe crackdown on a such scale from the government.”
One close friend of the detained activists, who declined to be named because of the risk of arrest, said she had been stunned by the severity of the police operation.
“I felt shocked. Before [the activists] would be summoned for a chat … but this time they came to their houses to detain them, put handcuffs on their wrists and took them away. I couldn’t believe it when I heard. I felt afraid.”
The detentions come at a time of rising worker unrest in what is one of the world’s most important manufacturing hubs.
There were 301 strikes in November – including a record 56 in Guangdong – according to advocacy group China Labour Bulletin.
Experts blame the spike in discontent on factories that are closing or relocating to south-east Asia as a result of the spluttering economy and rising wages.
Tim Pringle, an expert in China’s labour movement from the School of Oriental and African Studies, said he believed the decision to detain some of Guangdong’s most experienced activists was linked to the region’s economic transformation.
“As the economic climate changes … the government probably feels there is less room to manoeuvre in the coming 12 to 18 months. 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’.
“When you are dealing with factory closures and people losing their jobs and their livelihoods … you are dealing with a situation that is less predictable. And I think that makes the government very nervous.”
Nee said it was not yet clear whether the crackdown had been instigated by provincial authorities in Guangdong or was part of a wider Beijing-led crackdown related to President Xi Jinping’s sweeping offensive against potential Communist party foes.
Since Xi took power three years ago security forces have targeted a wide range of civil society groups including human rights lawyers, journalists, NGOs and religious leaders.
“It’s a very short-sighted move. It is not going to stem the tide of labour unrest and strikes,” Nee said of the latest crackdown. “There will continue to be strikes. Workers will continue to be angry.
“What organisations like [these] were doing was taking workers and trying to provide ways that they could organise and not cause destruction to society – preventing them from blocking roads and taking other extreme actions like kidnapping bosses and instead trying to work out their solutions through dialogue, with both the employers and with local government.
“If there aren’t people like that providing these types of services there is a greater risk of social instability spilling over in ways that the government doesn’t want to see.”
Pringle said he believed the wave of detentions was an attempt to “constrain and control” Guangdong’s labour movement.
“These guys always act under risky circumstances but this is certainly an upping of the level of repression and constriction,” he said.
“The Chinese state is very happy with a civil society that provides services … but they are much less happy when civil society groups become activists and try to organise people to protect their lawful rights and interests.”
The Guangdong activist insisted her friends and colleagues had been engaged in a peaceful fight for workers’ legitimate rights. “They did not encourage workers to jump from rooftops or to block the traffic in order to protect their rights,” she said.
“I thought they played a positive role. [But] the government seems to think differently.”
Additional reporting by Christy Yao