Chinese state cracks down, but workers keep fighting

16 March 2015
Sid Zoichi

The International Center for Joint Labor Research (ICJLR) in Guangzhou, China, was closed down without notice last November.

The Center was established in 2010 by the University of California, Berkeley, and China’s Sun Yat-sen University. It was the first international research institution devoted to the study of labour issues in the country.

Not a single piece of news about the closure from Chinese sources can be found. The UC Berkeley Labour Center’s website says: “The ICJLR was closed by Chinese authorities … no specific reasons were given for this action.”

The closure was ominous. The government increasingly seems to be cracking down on even minor acts of dissent.

In early March, at least 10 women’s rights activists from a number of cities were arrested during midnight house raids. Five of those detained – Li Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wang Man and Wei Tingting – are members of China’s Women’s Rights Action Group. They have been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles”, which could result in a maximum three-year jail sentence.

According to the Workers’ Viewpoint, a Chinese labour blog, this could be the first large-scale political crackdown targeting women’s rights NGOs since the Communist Party took power.

Neither the ICJLR nor the women’s rights activists have radical agendas that threaten the rule of the regime.

The major interest of the ICJLR, for example, is to design and advocate for a collective bargaining system through which the current Labour conflicts in China could be made less fierce. The arrested women activists were campaigning against sexual harassment on public transports and planned to hand out leaflets in several major cities on 7 March, a day before International Women’s Day.

Nevertheless, they are deemed dangerous. There is a Chinese expression that says: “A frightened general takes every bush and tree for an enemy soldier.” The Chinese rulers fear that any resentment expressed in public may cause social unrest of unpredictable scale. Therefore, civil organisations that are capable of mobilising a crowd have to be contained or disbanded.

Although the ICJLR is only a research institution and has never been involved in strikes, its connections with the grassroots Labour NGOs in the Pearl River Delta – the biggest production and export zone in the country – and its partnership with an American university inevitably worried the authorities.

In the case of the women’s rights activists, according to the Workers’ Viewpoint they have a loose network across the country, consisting of about ten NGOs and hundreds of enthusiastic core members, mostly young women. Although they are few in numbers, their cause is supported by many.

Since Xi Jinping was elevated to the presidency in March 2013, scores of political activists have been arrested. However, China’s social unrest has not been contained.

The Labour movement is a good example. According to China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labour NGO, the total number of labour incidents, including strikes and other forms of workers’ protests, increased dramatically throughout 2014 and reached a recorded height of 272 cases in January this year.

On March 8, another major incident occurred at Stella Footwear, one of the world’s largest shoe manufacturers. Five thousand workers from two factories in the industrial city of Dongguan went on strike demanding the company pay compensation for unpaid housing fund payments. The local government responded with riot police and dogs, but couldn’t intimidate the strikers, who went back to work only after the company relented.

This was yet another example showing that the labour movement, even without a coordinated leadership, is the most powerful social force in the country. The tyrants and their ruffians can shut down NGOs and persecute individual activists, but have no way to eliminate the collective struggles of the workers.

The fate of the ICJLR and the crackdown on women’s rights NGOs once again shows that the Communist Party will become only more repressive, intolerant and authoritarian.

However, shutting down the most moderate voices of civil society will likely push more people to question the legitimacy of the current state.

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