One year ago today on, 9 May 2003, Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, two workers from Liaoyang were sentenced to heavy prison terms, after an unfair trial, for their involvement in the massive Ferro-Alloy Factory worker protests beginning in early 2002. They remain in prison and are in increasingly poor health.
Some two years after the first protests, 1,600 workers from the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy factory are still without retrenchment compensation despite years of promises by the local government.
On 11 March 2002, several thousand workers from the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy Factory in Liaoning Province marched in Democracy Road, the main street of Liaoyang City, to the headquarters of the city government. They were demanding government action to investigate the malpractice and misappropriation of funds that had led to the bankruptcy of their factory. Several thousand more workers from other factories who held similar grievances soon joined the Ferro-Alloy workers demonstration. The workers, many of whom were in their fifties and older, were protesting against retrenchment or long-standing arrears of wages, pensions and other basic living subsidies.
Six days into the daily street demonstrations, by then involving over 10,000 workers, the Liaoyang police detained several of the workers' representatives, including Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang. These arrests triggered more demonstrations by even greater numbers of workers, who now demanded the release of their representatives as well. On 18 March, 30,000 workers were reported to have marched in the streets of Liaoyang.
On the morning of 15 January 2003, ten months after the initial demonstrations, Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang went on trial on charges of subversion at the Liaoyang Intermediate People's Court. The principle charges against them were, first, their alleged membership of the outlawed China Democracy Party (CDP) and, second, their alleged contacts and communication with foreign journalists and hostile elements. In addition, they were charged with instigating unlawful assemblies and demonstrations among the Liaoyang Ferro-Alloy workers in February and March 2002 and thereby disturbing public order.
For more details on the trial of the two men please see Liaoyang Protests: First Anniversary of the Trial of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang
The court adjourned after four hours without delivering its verdict. Indeed it was to be another four months before the defendants and their families learned of the outcome of the trial.
On 9 May 2003, just weeks after the International Labour Organizations (ILO) appeal to the Chinese government for the release of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, the Liaoyang Intermediate Court announced that guilty verdicts had been reached on both men: Yao was sentenced to seven years imprisonment and Xiao to four years imprisonment. The four-month delay in announcing the verdict and sentences contravened Chinas own laws and regulations.
On 27 June 2003, it was announced that the appeals of both men had been rejected in a secret hearing lasting only 30 minutes at the Liaoyang City Detention Centre where both men were being held. Both families were denied access to the hearing and neither of the two mens lawyers was present.
Despite the many months of struggle and all the various promises wrested from local officials at different times, only a minority of the Liaoyang workers original demands have thus far been met. According to sources, as of May 2004, none of the 1,600 officially unemployed ex-workers from the Liaoning Ferro-Alloy Factory have received their promised payments of 5,000 Yuan retrenchment compensation whereas the majority of laid off workers from other Liaoning SOEs have received similar promised payments.
Despite the arrest and sentencing of several Ferro-Alloy Factory officials, the expulsion of the former governor of Liaoning Province from the Communist Party for corruption and the sentencing to life imprisonment of the former head of the Liaoning Provincial Peoples Court for corruption, the workers demands for a full investigation into the malpractice at the factory have never been satisfactorily answered and Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, two workers attempting to highlight corruption, remain imprisoned.
The Liaoyang workers were not asking for freedom of association, for the right to organize, or even for the right to engage in collective bargaining. They were asking merely for minimum guarantees of their families right to basic subsistence and livelihood the very things that the Chinese government proudly tells Western governments and the United Nations, when challenged over its poor human rights record, that it has basically solved for the Chinese people since its assumption of power five decades ago.
The lesson of the Liaoyang workers protest movement for the country as a whole is that unless the Chinese government begins to allow the workers some modicum of true independence, and the right to organize in defence of their own economic interests, it will inevitably face ten, twenty or a hundred Liaoyangs at some point in the probably not-too-distant future. Should that point be reached, no amount of hastily concocted subversion indictments would suffice to protect the government from the consequences of its own short-sightedness and folly.
In the meantime, the international community and especially the worldwide labour movement can play a vital role towards the goal of avoiding widespread social unrest in China, by expressing its solidarity with all peaceful and non-violent Chinese worker activists who have been unjustly persecuted and imprisoned. Every opportunity should be seized by the international community to try to persuade and pressure the Chinese government both into releasing these brave individuals, and at the same time into taking the more far-reaching and historic step of instituting genuine trade union rights for all Chinese workers.
Postcards available to appeal for the release of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang: CLB has produced several postcards, one of which is an appeal addressed to the Governor of Liaoning province appealing for the release of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang. The postcards are available for a nominal sum HK$60 for 30 postcards (US$7). Please send in donations for this amount or more to our Solidarity Fund (click here for details) and contact us with your order
8 May 2004