Wall Street Journal: China Details Accusations Against Detained Labor Activists

23 December 2015

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


Dec. 22, 2015

BEIJING—Authorities outlined allegations against seven labor activists detained earlier this month, claiming they used advocacy as a cover to disturb public order and violate workers’ rights, state media said.

In a lengthy report late Tuesday, the official Xinhua News Agency detailed police allegations against Zeng Feiyang and six others, who were detained in Guangdong province during what scholars and rights advocates have condemned as a crackdown on labor activism.

Mr. Zeng and his associates, according to Xinhua, have “long received financial assistance from overseas while intervening in domestic labor disputes, gravely disturbing public order and severely trampling upon workers’ interests.”

Xinhua said Mr. Zeng was also accused of fraud, adultery and embezzlement, saying the 41-year-old activist had used his labor nonprofit—the Guangzhou-based Panyu Migrant Workers Center—to enrich himself by funneling funds from foreign donors into his own bank account.

Xinhua didn’t name Mr. Zeng’s foreign donors. Activists say China Labour Bulletin—a Hong Kong-based watchdog—has been a source of funding for Mr. Zeng’s nonprofit, though the scale and timing of the donations weren’t clear. A spokesman for China Labour Bulletin declined to comment on the matter.

The Xinhua report cited interviews with police, workers and the detained activists themselves, though the agency quoted only one of the activists, Tang Huanxing, whom it said had offered a confession.

Xinhua said the seven activists—six men and a woman—have been placed under “criminal coercive measures,” which is a form of detention that typically precedes prosecution.

Mr. Zeng and a co-worker, Zhu Xiaomei, were accused of “assembling crowds to disturb public order” when they were detained early this month, according to their associates. He Xiaobo, a 40-year-old activist in the city of Foshan, was detained over alleged embezzlement, his wife said. It wasn’t clear what precise allegations have been made against the other four activists.

None of the seven could be reached for comment. Their lawyers and relatives say they haven’t been able to arrange meetings with the detained activists, despite several attempts over the past three weeks.

Scholars and rights advocates decried the allegations against Mr. Zeng and his associates, characterizing the Xinhua report as a smear campaign. They also criticized the detentions, saying it signals Beijing’s growing anxiety over a rise in worker unrest prompted by slowing economic growth.

The crackdown, scholars say, also dovetailed Beijing’s growing repression of civil-society groups, heightened monitoring of social media, and sharpened warnings against the spread of Western ideas and influences.

“The direction of Xi Jinping’s policy has been quite clear from the start: Push the [official trade unions] to become more capable of managing workers, while steadily reducing the space for grass roots NGOs, labor scholars and labor lawyers to operate,” said  Ellen Friedman, a retired American trade unionist who has collaborated on labor research with mainland academics and activists.

China Labour Bulletin counted more than 2,600 strikes and labor protests on the mainland so far this year, far surpassing the 1,379 incidents recorded in the whole of 2014. Many of these protests took place in Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta region, fueled by unpaid wages and factory closures in the sprawling industrial zone that produces more than a quarter of China’s exports.

Scholars say the crackdown appeared to target veteran advocates who focused on advising workers on how to negotiate collectively during workplace disputes. The practice is sensitive in China, where state-run unions are the only legal form of organized labor, though workers say official trade unions often don’t represent their interests and side with businesses during disputes.

Mr. Zeng’s NGO is among a number of Guangdong-based nonprofits that promoted collective bargaining. In its Tuesday report, Xinhua cited workers’ representatives in a recent shoe factory dispute as accusing Mr. Zeng and his associates of manipulating workers by encouraging them to go on strike and make “unrealistic demands” in negotiations with employers. These tactics, according to Xinhua, had put workers’ safety and financial interests at risk.

In its crackdown this month, Guangdong police also interrogated more than 20 other activists, according to those questioned. Many of them said they were asked about Mr. Zeng, his associates and their activities. Ms. Friedman, the retired American unionist, said police in Guangzhou interrogated her on Dec. 11 during a recent trip there, posing questions about her work in China, her relationship with local labor activists and academics, among other issues.

“The detentions have caused a climate of fear,” said Tim Pringle, a China labor scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “Removing people who know how to provide assistance to workers, and intimidating other NGOs as well as workers in the process, is more likely to increase the probability of social disorder rather than reduce it.”

Activists said Xinhua’s report marked the latest effort by Chinese authorities to shape public opinion on politically sensitive cases, by presenting what appeared to be a definitive conclusion on the cases before the completion of legal proceedings.

In July, state media reports portrayed a Beijing-based law firm as a criminal gang and featured what it said were confessions by the accused lawyers, who were detained amid a broad sweep against human-rights lawyers.

Write to Chun Han Wong at chunhan.wong@wsj.com

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