Human Rights Watch
January 13, 2016
■ Authorities Should Engage With Workers’ Advocates, Not Jail Them
(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release four labor rights activists who were formally arrested in Guangdong province on apparent politically motivated grounds, Human Rights Watch said today.
“These formal arrests of labor activists signify a significant escalation in the Chinese government’s assault on civil society since President Xi Jinping came to power,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Under Xi, the authorities are showing increasing hostility toward those whose activism wasn’t considered a threat just a few years ago.”
On January 8, 2016, police in Guangdong province formally arrested Zeng Feiyang, director of the Panyu Migrant Workers Center, and two other staff members, Zhu Xiaomei and Meng Han, as well as He Xiaobo, director of Nan Fei Yan, another labor rights group.
The Chinese government is shooting itself in the foot by persecuting labor activists who have played an important mediating role between workers and companies. The authorities need to stop seeing anyone who disagrees with them as an enemy to be jailed and start working with these pioneering labor rights advocates who have done so much to maintain industrial calm in China’s factories.
The four were among over a dozen labor rights activists from four workers organizations taken into custody on December 3 by police in Guangdong province. Police also apprehended Tang Jian (also known as “Bei Guo”), a former employee of Panyu Migrant Workers Center, who was in Beijing, and Peng Jiayong, director of the Panyu-based Laborer Mutual Aid Group. Guangzhou police also took away staff members of Guangzhou Hai Ge Workers’ Services Center on December 3, though they were later released.
On December 4, police formally detained Zeng, Zhu, and Meng for “gathering crowds to disturb social order.” On the same date, police formally detained He on unspecified grounds for “embezzlement.” Peng’s lawyer believes that he has also been formally detained.
Under Chinese law, following formal detention, the police can hold criminal suspects for up to 37 days before the procuratorate, the state prosecution, makes a decision to either release or formally arrest them. Formal arrests signal another step in the criminal proceedings and in practice those formally arrested are very likely to proceed to trial and conviction.
The formal arrests of the four activists followed increased harassment of nongovernmental labor organizations in the past year, including beatings by unidentified individuals and threats by local Bureaus of Civil Affairs to cancel registration of some organizations. This harassment may be related to a reported record high number of labor disputes in 2015, which include strikes and protests by workers coming in the context of China’s economic slowdown. According to the Hong Kong-based worker’s rights group, China Labor Bulletin, most of the 2,774 incidents reported in 2015 concerned unpaid wages.
The targeting of labor rights groups appears to be part of the Chinese government’s broad assault on civil society, including such key pillars as the media, Internet users, lawyers, and academia. It also includes the government’s promulgation and drafting of laws in the name of state security to restrict civil society groups from engaging in advocacy. For example, the Chinese legislature has released a draft of the Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Management Law in May 2015 that, if passed, will give the police an expansive role in approving and monitoring the work of nongovernmental organizations and severely restrict their ability to seek resources from and cooperate with international organizations.
“The Chinese government is shooting itself in the foot by persecuting labor activists who have played an important mediating role between workers and companies,” said Adams. “The authorities need to stop seeing anyone who disagrees with them as an enemy to be jailed and start working with these pioneering labor rights advocates who have done so much to maintain industrial calm in China’s factories.”