There are two parallel paths to justice that activists in China are pursuing right now: one in the streets, and one in the courts, and on both, workers are blazing a fresh trail of labor militancy.
China’s court system, famous for its show trials of rogue party operatives, may seem a bit too Kafkaesque as a venue for real civic change. But the trial of labor activist Wu Guijun offers a window into how the justice system is morphing from an instrument of the authoritarian state to a contested political terrain.
The government has charged him with “gathering a crowd and disturbing the order of public transportation” (a k a trouble-making) during a protest last May in the southern city of Shenzhen, led by hundreds of workers of the Hong Kong–owned furniture maker Diweixin.
Wu’s supporters argue that as the designated worker leader he actually tried to dissuade coworkers from engaging in more drastic actions. He had been facilitating negotiations with management over demands for compensation for the workers who would be affected by the planned closure of the plant (following the widespread trend of Chinese firms moving to poorer regions or countries to chase lower labor costs). In addition, advocates argue, the legal process has been marred by a biased investigation and dubious evidence.
Wu, who has been detained for about 300 days already, faces grim odds in the dock, like so many activists before him. But his case marks a different kind of turning point; his fellow activists see a chance to put the entire Chinese justice system on trial.
At an earlier hearing for the trial in February, CLB reported, Wu’s supporters made it clear that if the courts fail them, they would respond with direct action. When the judge, after a haphazard delay, insisted on only meeting with Wu's wife Zhou Yuzhi privately:
the crowd became furious and stormed into the court’s petitioning office. “It is a hoax! Why do they have to make us wait for more than one hour? We demand an explanation!” one worker shouted…. “We—the taxpayers—are paying their salaries to work, not to be absent!” another said.
A statement from his lawyer warned, “If there is any trace of justice then Wu Guijun cannot be found guilty.”