In defense of Zeng Feiyang: a critique of the smear campaign

zeng feiyang

On Dec. 22, Chinese state media launched a smear campaign against Zeng, one of the seven labor rights activists criminally detained in a sweep of four worker-support organizations and at least 40 affiliated individuals since Deccember 3. The state has yet to confirm Zeng's whereabouts or criminal charges, but he may be charged with "inciting the subversion of state power," which could result in 15 years in prison.

Translated by "Solidarity with Chinese Workers" from 好一桶脏水好一把谎言 ——评《揭开“工运之星”光环的背后--“番禺打工族文书处理服务部”主任曾飞洋等人涉嫌严重犯罪案件调查》by 吴枯荣, originally posted on December 23 on a WeChat account that is now blocked, reposted here.

For more on the smear campaign in English, see State media accuses detained labour activists of litany of offences (SCMP) and China Details Accusations Against Detained Labor Activists (WSJ). The article translated below addresses only the Xinhua News article published on December 22. On December 23, Central Chinese TV aired an even more sensational and slanderous report, and similar reports have been published since then. The fact that the state is launching this smear campaign and making a public spectacle of this crackdown, rather than quietly disappearing these activists, is something we will address in our own forthcoming statement.

For updates on the status of the Guangdong Seven and the campaign to free them, follow the Facebook page “Free Chinese labour activists now 馬上釋放中國勞權人士”, and sign the petition here (in multiple languages). For more information in English, see other translations and writings being compiled on Libcom under the tag “Solidarity with Chinese Workers”.


After labor activists Zeng Feiyang, He Xiaobo and others had been detained for three weeks, Xinhua News published an article titled “Revealing the truth behind ‘the star of labor movement’: investigation against the criminal suspects Zeng Feiyang, head of ‘Panyu migrant worker service group’, and others” . This article was immediately reposted on many major websites. As a former labor NGO staff who only recently left the job, I was deeply shocked by the vicious way of writing, the low means of smearing and the fallacious logic behind the article.

While the case of these labor NGO staff are still under investigation, the Xinhua news is already jumping out to reveal behind the scenes story of those involved, exposing scandals, and listing their crimes. Methods like these have been often used when repressing “public intellectuals” and “rights-defence lawyers”. This is of great importance. Of course, media has the right to speech. Putting the motive of this article aside, this article will focus on the specific content of this article.

Small problem, big article

First, we need to clarify the obvious facts: ever since December 3rd, the labor rights-defence people have been subpoenaed and arrested for various reasons by the local police, and finally seven have been arrested respectively under the charge of “assembling crowds to disrupt social order " and "embezzling." These seven are: Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei, Meng Han, and Tang Beiguo (supposedly the “Tang Huanxing” in the article, who left the job on May 30th, no longer the staff of Dagongzu) of “Panyu Dagongzu Service Center”, the volunteer Deng Xiaoming of “Haige Service Center”, He Xiaobo of “Foshan Nanfeiyang Social Work Service Center” and Peng Jiayong of “Labor Mutual-Aid Center”.

These 7 people come from four different institutions. I don’t know whether the rest of the three institutions have connections or not, but “Foshan Nanfeiyang social work service center” where He Xiaobo came from has no connection with “Panyu migrant workers service group” is out of the question.

After their arrests, the lawyers hired by the family of those arrested have been refused to meet them by the reason of “threatening national security”. Up to now, these 7 people have nothing to defend their rights, and outside have almost no knowledge of their situations after their arrests. Articles written by outsiders defending and advocating them have been deleted, and the wechat public accounts have been shut down. The family and workers familiar with these seven people have been threatened by the police not to speak out.

Yet the article written by Xinhua claimed that these seven people arrested all came from the organization named “Panyu migrant workers service group”. To make a mistake over a openly available fact by the supposedly rigorous Xinhuashe, makes one wonder whether this is an honest mistake or part of an intended effort to connect these institutions together, creating the effect of an interconnected and conspiring small group of criminals. This shall be left to you to judge. Although there were 7 arrests, yet the spear of the article was directedly solely at Zeng. The names of the other 6 and their alleged crime were almost left out.

If so, the article by Xinhuashe revealed what? Let us look at the details:

According to the article, this organization of seven, “has been receiving foreign funding for a long time, severely disrupt social order, severely violate the rights of workers under the excuse of ‘free rights defence’ ”. when “foreign” is involved, things at once advance to the height of national security, and blame them of disrupting social order and violating the rights of workers, making them the enemy of working class and the masses. This line is so familiar, that I came to make the connection with the shocking speech that the party secretary of ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions) Li Yubin made when being interviewed: the antagonistic foreign forces has penetrated increasingly, hoping to use labor relations as the breach, using illegal labor “rights-defence” group, “rights defence” people to gain workers with the union, disrupting the solidarity of working class and the integrity of union organization”.

Back to this article, since this is a criminal case, I think insinuation, and blaming people based on motives should not be allowed. We should speak on the basis of facts and law. As to this accusation, ir starts with actions and ends with consequences. I would like to ask, which legal provision does “accepting funding from foreign groups” violates? When labor disputes erupt, which legal provision does the labor NGOs violate when they help the workers with collective negotiations? As to the accusation “getting involved in labor disputes within the country”, this is getting ridiculous. If labor NGOs in China do not deal with disputes within the country, are they supposed to deal with labor disputes in the U.S. and Europe? Are we supposed to judge whether something can be done on the basis the random standard of some individual instead of the law?

Groundless Accusations: What Exactly Happened with the Lide Workers

As for the accusation of severely disrupting social order and violating the rights of workers, the article used the Lide strike as its proof. According to the article, “(April 20th, 2015) At 8 AM, an incident of large-scale collectively disrupting social order happened in Lide shoe factory of Panyu district in Guangzhou. Hundreds of workers shut down the gate of the factory, keeping the transporting vehicles from coming in and out. They also prevented other workers from going to work by barricading the stairs and threatening and swearing at the workers. Workers were shouting slogans enthusiastically, the scene was very chaotic, verging on losing control.”

Here are a few important questions that the article fails to address: 1. why did the workers go on strike? 2. during the strike, what kind of struggle happened between workers, capital, government and the labor NGO?

{Section omitted in the interest of time - for background on the Lide Footwear Factory strikes in English, see Lide shoe workers beaten and arrested during assembly in Guangzhou and Another shoe strike in the Pearl River Delta: Lide, Guangzhou.}

In summary: the incident at Lide Footwear Factory happened because the factory failed to pay the legally stipulated workers’ social security and housing fund for a long time, and it failed to pay the overtime salary, vocation salary, high temperature compensations and maternity leave salary etc. What’s more, it intends to neglect the rights of the workers and force the workers when facing relocation, which incurred the strike of the workers to defend their rights. During their actions, the workers made the capital to agree to negotiate through orderly strike within the factory. Although the capital went back on its words several times, neglected the law and the rights of the workers, the solidarity of the workers eventually won them partial success despite of the pressure from the capital and the government.

Workers remained rational throughout their action (no extreme demands were made, all demands remained within the realm of law. Workers stick to contain their action within the factory and they didn’t disrupt social order) . They kept the communication channel open (they sent negotiation requests to the factory, and only went on strike when the above method proved useless). They kept to their words (they went back to work once agreements were made). They stuck together (although they were repressed, they kept on supporting each other), and they were democratic (electing representatives). Their opponents, the capital and the force maintaining social stability, had no respect for law, no honor and no regard for the dignity of the workers.

Although the information has been locked down about the Lide case, it has received tremendous attention from the public, won widespread support and got the attention of the scholars studying Chinese labor issues. A coupld articles are listed below, analyzing this case as a positive example:


Such a case of raising demands based on law, insisting on going on strike within the factory, sticking to the rules of collective negotiation, was turned into a case of “large scale collectively disrupting social order”! Such smearing is abominable.

A few cases of, shall we say, 'interesting' logic

1.the logic of a few witnesses. When revealing the “crimes” of Zeng, the proof held in highest regard by the author was the “deposition” of the expelled worker representative Gao and Li in the Lide strike.

These two were expelled out of the worker leadership due to the suspicion that they were bought off by the capital during the rights defence process. Whether this is the truth, or as they claimed to the reporters, that they were framed and thrown out of the picture by Zeng for not agreeing to his way of defending rights (and the other representatives and workers all bought the story!) is the truth. As outsiders, it is very difficult to judge which version is the true story. But the Xinhua news chose to believe the second version, and proved their case by claiming “to the dismay of Gao and Li, Zeng spared no effort in casting aspersions against them and successfully confused the workers” as if the author was omnipotent in perceiving the truth.

The words that this article cited of the two people deserve further analyzation. Gao described the start for the strike like this:”In the August of 2014, we had economic disputes with the factory due to social security and housing fund problems”. Refusing to pay the legally stipulated workers’ social security, housing fund, overtime salary, vocation salary, high temperature compensations and maternity leave salary are serious violation of the legal rights of workers. To turn this violation of law into “economic disputes” is trying to cover things up, following the same logic as describing workers’ strikes as collective incidents, describing violent beating into physical contact.

Gao continued saying that the representatives were repelled because they didn’t follow Zeng’s line of thinking. Was it these two representatives who didn’t agree with Zeng’s way of rights defence or did it went against most of the representatives? If all of the representatives didn’t agree with Zeng and Zeng can still control this rights-defence action, then this would be most bewildering.

Later, when listing all of the consequences of Zeng’s actions, Li (sobbing) said “but the real goal of the rights-defence was not reached and the workers’ long-term benefits were harmed”. This lost me. Allow me to ask, what is the supposed real goal of the rights defence and the long-term benefits of the workers? According to the logic of this article, these two former representatives were repelled for not agreeing with the way of rights-defence proposed by Zeng. Then why would Zeng activate another round of strike to protest against the capital for failing to keep its promise? Why would he then ask the capital to keep on negotiation and keep to its promise? Why then would the county government meet with them and promise to help assist solving part of their demands? I would like to know, if the Gao and Li told the truth, what’s wrong with the workers, Zeng and the county government for doing what they did?

The accusation made by these two former representatives were relatively weak. But the following accusation made by two “internal” staff was much more severe.

2. Lide Factory strike: the article claimed that “workers’ demands were not realized 100 percent, and the factory also suffered more than 40 million yuan of economic loss” as the proof of the harm that Zeng has done when participating workers’ rights defence. I would like to ask, if the workers’ demands were not satisfied 100 percent, does that mean that the rights defence was a failure? What’s the logic behind this? Instead of calculating how much the workers lost due to their long-time lost in salary and social welfare, the author was worried about the loss that the capital lost due to the rights-defence action of the workers. It is obvious whose side the author is on. THe fact that the capital do not realize the workers’ lawful demands fully is now the fault of labor activists instead of the shame of the capital and the shame of the law!

3.The article proceeded that “later, Zeng would further train the workers by playing strike videos of workers in Korea, Hong Kong, etc. explaining successful cases of rights-defence of the workers, and encourage the workers to protect their rights through strike”. One would feel that Zeng as “crave for world chaos”. But if one look deeper at the process of the workers’ rights-defence, then one can easily see that this is not true. Workers strike within the factory and thier demands are no more than negotiate with the capital about their long overdue legally stipulated rights like social security, housing fund, overtime salary, vocation salary, high temperature compensations and maternity leave salary. Is he protecting the rule of law and promoting social harmony or disrupting social order?

4. Seemingly severe charges:

According to the witness Tang Huanxing (also involved in the case), Zeng is an ambitious schemer. Since he once worked in the service group, his words were treated as the internal proof of the wrongdoing of the service group. Some of the details of Tang’s words, like the attitude of Zeng, will not be discussed here since we cannot prove it. But we will go into the details of some of the severe charges here.

These charges include: using foreign funds, reporting routine work to foreign organizations, charging money from the workers, carefully scheming and interrupting in workers’ rights-defence, paying no heed to the safety of the workers and encouraging workers to defend their rights with extreme methods, etc.

I have always believed that the way of using “foreign” is a quite sinister term. If you include Hong Kong as “foreign”, then anyone who has some knowledge of labor NGOs would be aware that to run a labor NGO in mainland, it is common for them to accept the so called “foreign funds”. The government does not welcome labor NGOs in mainland, therefore almost no foundation can support NGOs working on rights-defence due to the risks involved. Under such a condition, if NGOs don’t apply for foreign funds to support their daily operation, how can they survive?

The popular way of framing an NGO is to blame you as “foreign” even though there is nothing concrete proof of wrongdoing. If you are foreign, it doesn’t matter if you are promoting public goods with good intentions, you are always considered as having ulterior motives. Of course, there are some that do bad things with the money. But shouldn’t the standard be what sort of action one conducted with the foreign funds? We shouldn’t forget that back in the years of the founding of CPC, the CPC got huge amount of support from foreign fund and personal. Why should we play double standard when it comes to the NGOs?

As to the accusation of taking money from the workers, I find this accusation to be rather boring. Collecting money from every worker as the collective fund for rights-defence is a common technique that the workers employ in rights-defence actions. It is also contradictory to accuse Zeng for appropriating this fund for his own use. That is to say that one the hand, he helps the workers to defend their rights free of charge, providing the workers with their daily accommodation and training. And on the other hand, he is trying to appropriate the fund that many workers are in charge of. Nobody in their right mind would do such things.

As to the accusation that Zeng carefully plans the rights-defence actions, I think this is bullshit. Any responsible NGO, when participating in and helping the workers with rights-defence actions would make the corresponding evaluations and make careful plans (otherwise, this would be irresponsible to the workers). This accusation, like the accusation of accepting “foreign” funds, cannot stand alone without the proof that he has done anything against the law.

As to having no regards for the safety of the workers, actually we can observe from the other incidents like the Lide case that unless workers were provoked by the capital or the force sustaining social stability, no harm would come to the workers. In fact, in the Lide strike, the workers faced violence from the police when the police beat them up and arrested workers when they were meeting up in the restaurant.

Also, the article inadvertently disclosed that workers are under the threat of being arrested when they go on strike and act as representative of the workers: “Worker representative Wang was afraid and didn’t want to be representative. Zeng encouraged Wang to be ‘brave, if you were to be arrested, service group and arrange lawyers to defend workers free of charge and organize workers to demand the police to release the representative’, ‘workers need to face the threat of being arrested by the police when they go on strike’”. So it is clear where the real threat to the workers lie!

5. The accusation of Zeng’s personal qualities

I have no interest about Zeng’s personal sexualities. It is his freedom to do as he like. It is as tasteless to report such things about a person as a tabloid.

As to using the foreign fund as his own to buy real estates and cars, these are internal affairs of his institution. I have no way of knowing the truth. But I support to go on looking into the problems of this part. If he is indeed proven guilty, I believe the public would be convinced.

It is not my intention to defend Zeng by writing this article. To tell the truth, I cannot be certain that he is not guilty. But I am certain that the accusation on collective negotiations cannot stand under scrutiny. The reason why I am writing this is because the entire situation reveals a rather frightening information.

As the workers of Lide said in the wechat group: “We workers need to stand up for the dignity of the workers” and remain solidarity and firm when facing the force maintaining social stability and a deceiving capital. In this process, the labor NGO played important positive role. But in the eyes of the police of Xinhua news, the rights-defence workers are almost foolish sheep that can be fooled by one person and one institution. Labor NGOs are the dark force that disrupt social stability and are the enemies of the country and the people.

Such slandering of the people and the employment of such force against the labor NGO is ridiculous but also quite sinister.

Posted By

Dec 25 2015 09:51


Attached files


Solidarity with Chinese Workers (not verified)
Dec 25 2015 15:49

Satirical news report going around on WeChat, comparing the smear campaign against the Guangdong Seven to that against some of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party in the 1920s. Rough translation (original Chinese in the jpg below):

Republican Daily (民国日报), September 14, 1922

The Police Department of Hunan Province announced that, responding to a report from the citizens of Pingxiang County, the Anyuan Mine authorities recently struck down an illegal organization that had agitated workers under the slogan “no more will we be beasts, humans we shall become” (从前是牛马、现在要做人), that had received funding from abroad for an extended period, that had inserted its hands into domestic industrial disputes, and that had seriously disrupted social order. [The police] caught seven suspects including Li [Li]san, Mao [Ze]dong, and Liu [Shao]qi. Li [Li]san incited workers to take strike actions, organized a so-called “workers club,” and caused serious harm to the peaceful operation and orderly development our nation’s model enterprise, Hanzhiping Company (汉治萍公司).

This refers to the Anyuan miners strike of 1922. For background on that see Anyuan: Mining China's Revolutionary Tradition by Elizabeth Perry.