New York Times: China Arrests at Least 3 Workers’ Rights Leaders Amid Rising Unrest

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher


DEC. 5, 2015

HONG KONG — The police in southern China have arrested at least three workers’ rights leaders in recent days, labor groups and activists said on Saturday. The detentions come amid rising labor unrest in southern China, one of the world’s most important manufacturing centers, and are prompting concern that the Communist Party is extending its latest crackdown on civil society to a new arena.

Zeng Feiyang, director of the Panyu Workers’ Center in the city of Guangzhou, was put under criminal detention on Friday on charges of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order,” said the Hong Kong-based nonprofit group China Labour Bulletin and several labor activists. Zhu Xiaomei, a labor organizer, was also detained, as was He Xiaobo, who runs a group in Foshan that helps injured workers.

Mr. Zeng, a lawyer, is one of the most prominent labor organizers in China, and his nongovernmental organization helps workers win management concessions on pay and benefits. Although China, like many Communist countries, restricts the formation of independent labor unions, thousands of workers have nevertheless organized, and often gone on strike.Get news and analysis from Asia and around the world delivered to your inbox every day in the Asian morning.

When the economy in Guangdong, China’s richest and most populous province, was booming, the authorities apparently did not see labor activism as a threat. Afterstrikes by workers at Honda auto parts plants in the province in 2010, for example, many workers won higher wages and benefits.

But now, with many factories moving to regions where lower wages prevail — or to other countries, like Vietnam — labor unrest is rising, said Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for the China Labour Bulletin, which promotes independent labor unions in China and tracks strikes and other labor protests nationwide. Local governments in Guangdong are often the focus of workers’ demands after factory bosses leave town, sometimes with wages and pension benefits in arrears, he said.

According to figures from the group, the number of strikes and protests in Guangdong has more than doubled in recent months, rising to 56 in November from 23 in July.

“Clearly the rise in the number of protests and increase in labor activism has got the authorities worried,” Mr. Crothall said in a telephone interview. “They don’t know how to respond. And the only solution they can come up with is by cracking down on the people who are actually trying to help.”

One Chinese researcher on labor issues, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the arrests, said that at least 16 activists had been detained or questioned and released in the crackdown on the Panyu Workers’ Center, or had disappeared with no information about their whereabouts. He said the detention of Mr. Zeng might have been a signal to workers not to get involved in labor movements outside the Communist Party-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions.

“They want to make an example of them for worker rights’ defense in the future — don’t get involved with these labor organizations,” the researcher said. “They realize that the economic slowdown and decline of industry is creating widespread bankruptcies and unemployment, and labor incidents will increase.”

Chinese rights activists are concerned that the focus on labor organizers is a new front in a crackdown on independent voices undertaken by President Xi Jinping. This year, the police detained more than 200 human rights lawyers and their associates to suppress their defense of clients being tried by the state, including Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur academic, who wassentenced to life in prison last year on charges of separatism. Labor activists describe the latest crackdown as intense.

“There have been arrests and crackdowns before on grass-roots labor organizations here,” one activist, He Shan, said in a telephone interview from Shenzhen, a mainland city that abuts Hong Kong. “But this is the most concentrated, the most serious. For us, this is unprecedented.”

What is also notable is that Guangdong’s top official, Hu Chunhua, the provincial party secretary, is a member of the party Politburo and a rising star who has been mentioned as a possible top leader.

Activists have appealed to the police to release Ms. Zhu, the organizer, who has been separated from her 13-month-old daughter, whom she is breast-feeding. Her cause has been taken up by Zeng Jinyan, a prominent human rights activist, who raised her own newborn daughter while under house arrest in Beijing. She now lives in Hong Kong.

“We are quite worried because if her detention lasts too long it is a big challenge for her family and her kid,” Ms. Zeng said in a telephone interview.

A call to the Public Security Bureau in Foshan went unanswered on Saturday. A man answering the phone at the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau referred a reporter to the police department’s propaganda office, where a call made after working hours went unanswered.

Michael Forsythe reported from Hong Kong, and Chris Buckley from Beijing. Kiki Zhao contributed research from Beijing.

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