Eli Friedman is assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University. Aaron Halegua is a research scholar of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law. Jerome A. Cohen is director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute and an adjunct senior fellow for Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.
They came for the feminists in the spring. In the summer, they came for the rights-defense lawyers. And on Dec. 3, the eve of China’s Constitution Day, Chinese authorities initiated a widespread crackdown on labor activists in the industrial powerhouse of Guangdong province.
Since they first appeared 20 years ago, China’s labor nongovernmental organizations have suffered regular rounds of repression and harassment, including tax audits, mafia violence and continual interrogation by security officials. But this most recent repression is more serious. It seems that the Communist Party is intent on stamping out labor activism in civil society once and for all.
In this campaign, dozens of individuals have been intimidated through police interrogations, and seven, including Zeng Feiyang, the well-known leader of a Guangzhou labor group, have been detained on criminal charges. Their lawyers’ requests to meet with them have been denied. These activists are reportedly being held for “assembling crowds to disrupt social order,” allegedly encouraging or even tricking workers into making unreasonable demands and taking extreme actions.
These unjust police measures completely miss the point. Labor conflict in China has indeed been growing rapidly in recent years, with wildcat strikes, road blockades and even riots becoming regular occurrences. But workers are striking because labor laws are not enforced and there are no effective means for legally resolving collective disputes — not because workers are being duped by NGOs with unspecified ulterior motives. For instance, in the Lide Footwear Factory strike, which state media has spotlighted as evidence of Zeng’s guilt, workers protested their employer’s long-term failure to make legally required social security and other payments after learning of plans to relocate the factory. NGOs did not provoke this conflict.
In fact, labor NGOs play a productive role in resolving such disputes. Chinese employers often “handle” strikes by ignoring workers’ demands and contacting the authorities, who increasingly send in police to rough up workers and detain strike leaders. By contrast, as in the Lide case, labor NGOs advise strikers on how to formulate their demands, elect representatives and engage in collective negotiations with employers to resolve the underlying violations, and sometimes even assist in reaching agreements governing future relations.
Indeed, Lide’s owners eventually agreed to make overdue social security contributions, relocate some workers, pay severance to others and continue talking with workers. Such organized collective negotiations between employers and employees are far more likely to achieve the “harmonious labor relations” China seeks than a continuous cycle of worker protest and police repression.
Unfortunately, the current criminal detentions are more about government insistence on exclusive control than good labor- relations policy. NGOs are viewed as threatening state power as well as the interests of employers. The government claims it wants to promote the rights and interests of workers, but it is simply unwilling to allow civil society to play any role in this process.
This is why it has even gone beyond mass interrogations and criminal detentions for allegedly inciting workers. State television has been broadcasting an intense smear campaign — including claims of marital infidelity and embezzling organizational funds for personal use — to publicly discredit Zeng. Moreover, labor activists nationwide report heightened harassment of not only themselves but also family members.
Part of the problem is that the state-controlled All-China Federation of Trade Unions claims an absolute monopoly on representing and advocating for China’s workers, but in reality does little of either. Unlike the labor NGOs, it seldom assists exploited workers or pushes employers to comply with the law. This stems largely from the Communist Party’s conception of the trade union as a “harmonizing” force between employers and workers. What’s more, employers typically exert undue control over unions at the company level. Workers therefore do not trust trade unions, creating a vacuum for someone to actually promote their interests — which labor NGOs began to fill.
But recognition of civil- society actors’ positive contributions is not in Chinese authorities’ current playbook. Civil- society groups are generally seen as threats. Receiving foreign funds is especially deemed to imply sinister motives. This remains true regardless of how innocuous, or even helpful, NGO activities may be in promoting the stability and legitimacy of the regime.
If the government were serious about improving labor relations, it would require trade unions to learn from these NGO leaders. Instead, it has decided on a campaign to harass, shame and imprison people who are striving to make Chinese workplaces and society more lawful and just. The result will be greater lawlessness, conflict and repression.