Chinese Labor Activists Detained En Masse

Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei, and He Xiaobo (pictured from left to right) are still being held by police and are facing criminal charges. They're among at least 21 Chinese labor activists in Guangdong province who were apprehended in their homes and offices in a December 3 “sweep.” Photo: China Labour Bulletin.

At least 21 Chinese labor activists in Guangdong province were apprehended in their homes and offices December 3, in what their supporters are calling a “sweep.”

Activists’ offices and homes were searched and their belongings confiscated. Five activists are still being held by the police, and the whereabouts of two more are uncertain.

The apprehended activists are associated with four different labor NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, or nonprofit agencies). These small organizations have sprung up to help workers in disputes with employers, a task that has become increasingly necessary lately as the Chinese economy slumps and factories close down.

The NGOs help workers to navigate getting their legally required severance pay and other rights, in this province that is the heart of Chinese manufacturing.

As withheld wages and factory closures become more common, so do unofficial strikes. China Labor Bulletin says there were 56 strikes and protests in Guangdong last month, compared to 23 in July.

A worried government appears intent on eliminating sources of independent support for workers’ struggles. So the crackdown is not only on the four specific organizations, but also a preemptive crackdown on workers’ exercise of their labor rights.

Ironically, the attack took place the day before China’s Legal Governance Promotion Day, the official observance of the rule of law.

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You can sign a petition demanding the release of the activists here.

Supporters are reporting on the crisis daily on their Facebook page. You can read other updates translated by the network Solidarity with Chinese Workers here.

Charged with ‘Inciting Crowds to Disrupt Public Order’

Those still in custody are directors Zeng Feiyang of Panyu Dagongzu Service Center in Guangzhou, He Xiaobo of Nanfeiyan Social Work Service Organization in Foshan, and Peng Jiayong of the Laborer Mutual Aid Group in Panyu, and activists Zhu Xiaomei and Deng Xiaoming.

Chen Huihai of the Haige Labor Service Center in Guangzhou was released December 7, after being detained for five days. The whereabouts of activists Meng Han and Tang Jian, also associated with the Dagongzu Service Center, are uncertain. They have been out of contact since December 3.

Four of the five detained activists have received official notices of criminal detention. He Xiaobo was charged with “embezzlement” and is being held at the Foshan Nanhai Detention Center. Police entered He’s apartment and seized all his electronics, along with his accounting records and materials from various trainings he had attended.

Zeng, Zhu, and Deng, meanwhile, were charged with “inciting crowds to disrupt public order,” which can cover actions that cause any kind of public disturbance, including accompanying workers in a protest march. They are being held at the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Center. Activists in China are regularly assailed under broad and ill-defined charges such as “disrupting public order,” “disorderly behavior,” and “illegal business operation.”

It is unclear how long police plan to hold the remaining activists. Legally, criminal detention can last no longer than 30 days before police must apply for an arrest warrant. Detention can be extended seven days further while the warrant request is processed.

Between December 7 and 9, lawyers for all four detained activists tried to visit them in detention, only to be refused. Zhu’s lawyer was told to bring permission papers from the responsible Bureau of Public Security. Zeng’s lawyer was instructed to make a prior appointment. According to the lawyers, these refusals are illegal, and the excuses are legally invalid.

Zeng’s and He’s families were also denied visits. Zeng’s family had brought clothing and other necessities for him, including his much-needed glasses, but the detention center refused to take the items. His family is worried about his health, given his long-term stomach condition.

Pattern of Attacks on Activists

The attack on these labor activists is only the latest in a recent wave of government attacks on civil society that began this year with the March 7 arrest of the Feminist Five.

The five, vocal advocates of gender equality in China, were planning a campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation at the time of their arrest. They were held for over a month in inhumane conditions, forced to sleep on cold floors, and interrogated for hours on end. One activist was denied medicine for her chronic liver condition until she had to be sent to the detention center’s medical facility.

Other incidents of repression this year include the June arrests of activists Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing, who worked on rights for the disabled and for consumers, respectively. Both had previously worked for Beijing Yirenping, an organization that combated health care discrimination. This was followed by the arrest of more than 100 human rights lawyers in July.

Those arrested December 3 had all at one time or another been associated with the Panyu Dagongzu Service Center, which has been promoting workers’ rights since 2002. It is expected authorities will try to charge the four separate organizations as a single entity in order to strengthen charges against them.

This is not the government’s first move against labor activists in Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta. The Sunflower Women Workers’ Service Center and Nanfeiyan had their organizational registration retracted mid-year, and several organizations, including Sunflower, were forced out by their landlords in a classic indirect maneuver. The last major wave of repression of labor organizations in China took place in 2012.

The Chinese government is currently pursuing passage of a Foreign NGO Management Law, which would strictly regulate the operation of foreign NGOs and foreign foundations in China. The crackdown on civil-society organizations is closely linked with the attempt to eliminate all “external” influences from Chinese society. The government’s tactic is to brand labor NGOs as foreign-influenced.

See a video that shows arrested activist Zhu Xiaomei organizing here. “Facing the management should never frighten you,” she tells a group of sanitation workers.

Supporters are reporting on the crisis daily on their Facebook page.

You can sign a petition to help us demand the release of the activists here.

Solidarity with Chinese Workers is a network that formed to support activists in the recent wave of attacks. They are urgently transmitting information about the crackdown to the non-Chinese speaking world. Find the collection of other translations by Solidarity with Chinese Workers here.