Biography of Zeng Feiyang, one of the 21 Chinese labour activists detained on December 3 - the latest wave in the criminalisation of labour actions, and general repression of social resistance in China since 2012.
Translated by "Solidarity with Chinese Workers" from《曾飞洋：14年寻路劳工服务 带领劳工NGO转型》by Xing Xiaowen (邢晓雯) and Wang Yangyang (王洋漾), published in Southern Metropolis Daily (南方都市报) on December 10, 2012 - original taken down, apparently, but reposted here and below.
This old, brief biography is translated and published here as part of an effort to resist the Chinese state's escalating offensive against workers and independent social forces in general. For updates and solidarity actions, follow the Facebook page “Free Chinese labour activists now 馬上釋放中國勞權人士“. For background, see “Guangzhou labor activists arrested en masse”, "Sweeping the house clean of labor NGOs", and “The criminalization of strikes since 2012“.
Another brief bio of Zeng Feiyang was published in English on Red Balloon here.
Zeng Feiyang is a soldier ant, perhaps even a general. He bears the pain to which society is numb and redresses the unfairness where the law has repeatedly failed. In a multitude of deformities, he works tirelessly in pursuit of life's perfection. He is the bedrock of an era.
Zeng Feiyang's Panyu Dagongzu Service Center was founded in 1998. Like many of us, he had never heard of the word 'NGO'. Then, Zeng had only a simple desire to render legal services to migrant workers who were owed wages or sustained work-related injuries by helping them to recover some compensation, and eking out an existence with the centre in so doing. In 2000, a happenstance opened up the horizon of the passionate youth and he sought to remake the organisation. Thus was founded what others see as the first labour NGO in the country.
Zeng could have led a wholly different life. After graduating from university in 1996, he returned home to work at the Nanxiong municipal justice bureau and became a civil servant. But the carefree job made him anxious. “My heart hid a flame that had no place to burn” (he says). Less than a year at the bureau, he quit the job and came to Guangzhou to work in a community-run law firm.
At that time, Guangdong was a place that saw a great concentration of migrant labour. At the law firm, Zeng came into contact with many unfairly treated migrant workers. Sometimes, he was compelled to do the bidding of their agents and this made him extremely conflicted.
Later, Liao Xiaofeng, a worker from Sichuan changed his life. Hailed by the media as “Captain Justice”, Liao had taught himself law and often assisted migrant workers in recovering their wages. Not long after their meeting, Liao established the Dagongzu Service Centre in Panyu. In the July of 1998, Zeng resigned from the law firm and went to Panyu to support Liao. In the founding days of Dagongzu, the centre's main scope of activities were: providing a rights hotline, receiving letters and visits, and providing legal advice to migrant workers; working with relevant legal institutions on cases of rights violation, to provide legal aid and so on. The centre depended on low-cost service fees to sustain operations.
What Zeng could never have forseen was Liao's adamant departure from Dagongzu a month or two after establishment, leaving him alone to run the show. The latter had underestimated the difficulties of running an organisation. With commissions difficult to cash in, the centre was without a source of income; daily administrative expenses, staff wages and rent became serious problems. In the worst of times, the five full-time staffers had only 15 yuan a day for food. Zeng's girlfriend of three years left him in this period.
It was only until 2002 that Dagongzu had its funding in place, remade into an NGO and no longer having to ask the migrant workers they help for every legal or service expense.
And so, the then 28 year old Zeng, created Mainland China's first “labour NGO”, held up by people as the symbolic beginning of a worker mutual-aid movement.
In a fast developing China, establishing an NGO is not hard. The difficulty lies in sustaining one. It has been 14 years since Zeng Feiyang's entry into Dagongzu in 1998. Having led the development of a labour NGO, Zeng bore witness to the growth of civil society in the country.
Zeng has been a long-time observer of the development of capital-labour relations in the country. He finds that in three areas - wages, social security, the prevention and treatment of occupational hazards – things have remained out of kilter; not only does this state of affairs run up against the workings of a relatively developed market economy, it will accelerate the intensification of social contradictions and is becoming a great source of uncertainty for the future stability and sustainable development of China.
Now Zeng's NGO is paying more attention to the mass actions conducted by enterprise workers. Zeng thinks that only by improving the mechanisms for collective bargaining will workers be truly part of the factory workplace. “This is an important guarantor to realise China's sustained growth in the future," he says.
曾飞洋的“番禺打工族文书处理服务部”成立于1998年。彼时他跟大多国人一样，对N G O一词闻所未闻，心中仅有一份朴素情怀，为遭遇工伤、欠薪的农民工提供法律服务，收取微薄报酬，步履维艰地维持机构存续。直到2000年，一个偶然契机打开了热血青年的视野，他决意携“打工族”转型，不想一役成功，便在番禺造就了外界眼里第一个“国内劳工N G O”。