December 3, 2015, over 20 Guangzhou and Foshan labor activists were apprehended by police, launching a crackdown that has as of the latest updates put 4 activists under arrest and closed down several prominent labor organizations in the Pearl River Delta. This piece by labor activist 工弩 is one of the first critiques the limits of the labor movement response thus far to the crackdown and demands a more thoughtful, organized response by worker activists, beginning with the voicing of a clear labor movement position in the current fight.
Translated by Solidarity with Chinese Workers from 不许抹黑工人运动！理直气壮捍卫尊严！ by 工弩 on ilabour.net. For more on the December 3 crackdown and solidarity efforts, see “Solidarity with Chinese Workers”, and the Facebook page “Free Chinese labour activists now 馬上釋放中國勞權人士”.
I don’t know how many of us still remember, exactly one year ago, when ten or more Henan construction workers were fighting for wage arrears and against the police’s random arrests. A worker mother defending herself was brutally killed by the police, who stamped on her hair and broke her neck by twisting her head. It wasn’t until half a month later that this event was exposed to the public, which shocked the entire nation. An appeal letter from labor activists collected 2000 signatures in one month, and rights-defense lawyers also stepped in. What’s worth noticing is these efforts neither won any justice in the courtroom nor won the support of mainstream public opinion. Instead, what ensued was the darkest “court hearing”, the increasingly large scale public smearing in public discourse from the Wumao Party 1 lapdogs between February and May this year, and a group of people turning the truth upside down (they even pulled out the “rights-defense” card to mobilize police nationwide to sign a petition demanding the release of the murdering cops). The female worker Zhou Xiuyun beaten to death by the police was slandered as a “shrew” who “assaulted the officers”! The violence of public opinion is even more brutal than the act of killing.
Yet only a year after the brutal killing of woman worker Zhou, another unprecedented repression and smearing of worker protest is gaining momentum in public opinion nationwide. Since December 3rd, more than 20 staff members and workers from labor NGOs in Guangdong province have been secretly taken away by the police. According to the latest news, five labor NGO staff (He Xiaobo, Zhu Xiaomei, Zeng Feiyang, Deng Xiaoming, Peng Jiayong) are now under criminal detention, and two others have lost all contact (Meng Han and Tang Jian, former labor NGO staff)2 . Under the “national condition” of constant tyrannical rule maintaining the capitalist sweatshop, in the last five or six years a labor movement has hatched among the millions of migrant workers clustered in Guangdong. Although the Guangdong workers’ movement is the only relatively organized workers’ movement in the country, it is still in its initial phases. The labor NGO’s that have been around for 10 plus years and were actually all along very cautious in playing the role of the Guangdong newborn labor movement’s frontline force, are now unexpectedly suffering the most severe repression in their history, repression that is for the first time threatening their basic right to exist.
But what is deeply worrying is that three out of four activists (Zhu, Zeng, Deng) are being charged on the suspicion of “inciting crowds to disrupt social order”, when all they have done in the last few years is to provide guidance to numerous collective actions by workers—from jewelry factory workers to hospital nurses and security guards, from university campus cleaners to shoe factory workers; they helped innumerable workers obtain collective bargaining and their rightful dues. Regardless of whether it was a strike, workers’ assembly, collective petition or any other kind of collective workers’ action, or whether they put in efforts to allow these actions to become organized, this clearly does not amount to “inciting crowds to disrupt social order”. The only purpose of this kind of criminal charge is to scare people by exaggerating, the most base and shameful form of smearing and slander! It is like the workers who showed their support have said, if the government has the guts, then let them try and arrest all the workers who go on strike in this country, and we’ll see if they can arrest everyone! No worker who has any fighting consciousness will stand for this kind of repression. No slandering of the workers’ movement will be permitted!
If the sinister tendency in the Shanxi February to May case of the cops’ murder of Zhou Xiuyun, the woman worker demanding her wage arrears, indicated the trampling upon of the legitimacy of individual labor rights defense; and the noxious attack on the Shenzhen Qingsheng factory collective labor rights defense in July suggested the vilification of the legitimacy of collective rights defense; then the suppression and smearing of organizations that have a long history of supporting workers’ since December 3rd indicates the authorities’ fundamental rejection and slandering of the workers movement, the beginning of a major political offensive. In other words, the real heavy defamation and repression are yet to come.
When dark clouds press down and a storm is imminent, what are we as a part of a nascent workers’ movement to do? What are the future prospects? Frankly speaking, we have no way of preventing painstaking conflict, even if we stay silent and never mention those comrades who have on so many occasions helped workers in struggle, we will still hardly avoid liquidations, arrests or imprisonment. We are in no way unfamiliar with the violence and repression against striking workers, the smearing and slandering. In other words, we cannot avoid some people running into greater trouble, and suffering sacrifices like being jailed. In order to resist repression, to resist the mean and shameless accusations thrown at workers collection actions, and to defend the most basic decencies of workers’ rights to collective action and organization, we (including the author of this text) must stay calm and mentally prepared.
But recognizing that sacrifices are unavoidable is different from saying we have to actively seek the risk of becoming martyrs. We mustn’t doggedly rush, be reckless and act blindly. What is urgently needed at the moment is to begin clearly thinking things over, to use a workers’ movement discourse to motivate solidarity among the working masses, to boldly use the Communist party’s glorious worker movement tradition to fight back against smearing and slander, and above all to let workers communities all over the country know that we all belong to the same class, that our struggle to protect our rights must be united, and that we must all in one voice demand the release or the arrested worker activists and protect the survival of labor organizations.
What we have seen emerge the last two days is a new kind of labor activism: going to construction sites and industrial areas to encourage workers to write a sentence or two demanding the release of arrested NGO workers, having them sign it, take a photo and mail it. This kind of petitioning inspires the fighting spirit. This form of struggling via petition attempts to surpass the feeble logic of “labor circle opinion statements”—the latter is still full of fears about the “development in a fierce and disorderly direction” that the labor movement is taking, while all these numerous workers did was to write on a piece of paper a simple and direct demand: “Release the detained labor activists”.
But we still have to shout out, and remind and warn active workers to take note: the nationwide petition by labor circles early this year was signed by nearly 2000 people but changed nothing! Yesterday we saw active workers make a call to collect 10,000 worker signatures nationwide, to let the government hear popular will. But considering the intensity of the life and death class struggle, we highly doubt that simple petitioning will be of much use!
So let’s consider what the working class’ resistance should look like? Is writing a few sentences and signing your name the thing to do? If workers have the determination and courage to collect 10,000 signatures across the country, why not demonstrate the voices of the thousands of workers shouting out against repression and smearing in a more confident and direct manner, encouraging workers to collectively call out, letting those in power know that workers’ power isn’t limited to letting them hear public opinion.
But making a step like that will take more than a few days. Workers will have to be cool-headed and realistic: many years of experience in the workers’ movement (including in the experience of Zeng Feiyang and Zhu Xiaomei, the worker activists currently under detention, and the experience of other worker activists who are currently waiting before taking action) have shown that every serious practical struggle starts with a small number of activists who must spend at least some time educating, uniting and organizing workers before they can mobilize and resist repression. When dealing with severe repression that includes secret arrests and labor activists being thrown into detention, we are in a completely defensive position, resisting repression and arbitrary arrests, resisting criminal charges and slander. What we need to do is to strive for collective answers. We need to practically (not merely in rhetoric) work together to push away this extremely unreasonable repression in order to defend the honor of every collective action by workers. We ought to be completely confident in our cause of winning over the masses.
We must be extremely careful: compared to smearing the murdered Zhou Xiuyun, or even compared to throwing a few labor NGO workers into jail, smearing the workers’ movement is even more insidious. Because even though Xiuyun died, there will still be workers who demand their wages; even though labor activists were locked up, there will still be strikes and other forms of collective rights defense; but smearing the workers’ movement and charging those directing and helping the movement with “inciting crowds to disrupt social order” implies that from now on whenever the workers movement in this country shows even the slightest hint of organization, people may be thrown into jail. Though in truth, the workers movement becoming organized is inevitable; there are many self-initiated workers’ organizations that are not the product of a small number of agitators and cannot be easily suppressed.
What is crucial is that we active workers raise the bright flag of a strong working class position in public discourse, firmly curbing repression and slandering, defending the right of labor organizations to exist and defending the dignity of the workers’ movement. We need first of all to stick closely to these topics, confidently voicing the collective aspirations of workers all over the country, in particular launching a series of a few hundred pieces of multi-level, multifaceted articles refuting repression and slandering, developing the workers’ movement discourse in order to supply educational resources and theoretical weapons to rapidly win over the masses’ support for this self-defensive struggle. The workers who are currently petitioning must decide: will they continue to one-by-one request every worker they meet write a few sentences demanding the activists’ release, or will they proceed by gathering the public opinion under a rational, powerful and orderly declaration, and with the support for this discourse win over the masses to reveal their collective opinion at the right time?
Our greatest fear is this: that in light of the unprecedented activity of the government’s Five Cent lapdogs online and offline as the party’s SS shock-troops, the inevitable advent of pervasive carpet-bomb style slander is likely to far surpass the slander campaign during Zhou Xiuyun’s homicide case (when even CCTV’s Focus Report and Xinhua news would participate in the misrepresentation and slandering of workers). We must resolutely mobilize the public opinion of the masses and energetically prepare to mobilize a self-defense counterattack, only then can we prevail in the face of this completely absurd and lunatic ultra-rightist public discourse shit-storm attempting to slander, defeat and subvert the workers’ movement.
This is an unprecedentedly vicious class struggle. We simply cannot sit and wait, leaving things to luck. Let’s stop fantasizing and get ready to fight. Worker friends who have the determination and courage to organize a nationwide petition for 10,000 workers’ signatures, change direction and try to get these workers to come together! If in the future workers’ actions and workers’ right to organize will be repressed, slandered, insulted and forced in to an intolerable condition, we workers will have no choice but to take action to protect our right to action.
We are now only at the beginning. Fellow workers and comrades, we must be more clearheaded, steadfast and calm to be ready for the real fight. To prepare for the real fight, we must first send out a call of resistance, arousing greater numbers of worker brothers and sisters:
Slandering of the Labor Movement Will Not Be Permitted!
We Defend Our Dignity with Righteous Confidence!
- 1The 5 Cent Party: internet commentators who are supposedly paid 5 cents per (malicious or otherwise) comment that follows the party line.
- 2Update: As of January 9, 4 of these activists– Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei, He Xiaobo, and Meng Han–have officially been put under arrest. Peng Jiayong and Deng Xiaoming have been released and escorted back to their homes, while Tang Jian remains out of contact.