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.”
While Wu’s supporters agitated for due process, a dozen hospital security guards were on trial for similar transgressions—daring to demand fair treatment from their bosses. After staging a protest on the roof of the Guangzhou Chinese Medicine University Hospital, they were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and detained for about fifty days, and then remained imprisoned. The workers say they sought the compensation the management owed after it had repeatedly failed to pay insurance payments and backwages, and that they took direct action only after their efforts to petition through their official union had been stonewalled for months. This week, all were convicted, with most sentenced to eight- or nine-month jail terms (including time served); several plan to appeal.
CLB described the trial as a political overreaction and “an exercise in damage control,” which aimed to “serve as a warning to others that those who escalate labour disputes into public protest could face jail time.”
Western media outlets have lately focused on the crackdown on liberal, educated reformers and human rights activists. The New Citizens movement, a loose network of high-profile anti-corruption activists, have made global headlines in recent weeks, as several leading activists have faced public-disorder charges for staging nonviolent demonstrations in 2012 and 2013. The gritty labor struggles at play in the trials of Wu and the security guards are less sexy for Western media, but nonetheless represent a social movement that resonates with an arguably much greater swath of the populace. They reflect rising tensions across China’s workforce as people grow more conscious of their collective rights, anxious about China’s economic volatility and the rising cost of living and aware that the legal system is structured to systematically disenfranchise the public and protect the elite. Disillusioned by endemic official corruption, many see no path to change other than direct action from the ground up.
This week, workers pushed the outer edge of that radicalism in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan. Tens of thousands have gone on strike at the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen Industrial shoe manufacturer, protesting the company’s alleged underpayments to the social insurance scheme and the workers’ housing fund. According to the US-based NGO China Labor Watch (CLW), the industrial action involved about 30,000 employees, despite a fierce crackdown on protests by riot police and several arrests.
Social insurance is a raw nerve for China’s factory workers. Along with China’s aggressive economic liberalization, the government recently consolidated social welfare programs such as pensions and healthcare. Employers, however, routinely fail to keep up with their financial obligations under this emergent social contract, while low-wage workers’ social needs have intensified.
In turn, Kevin Slaten of CLW noted via e-mail, while mass uprisings over insurance like the the Yue Yuen strike were rare a few years ago, “in the past year, we’ve seen an uptick in strikes in which workers are demanding arrears.” The trend, he adds, reflects not only “workers realizing their rights under the law,” but also a new policy enabling workers to transfer insurance payments to their home communities when they leave a job. This effectively decoupled workers’ entitlements from their workplace, giving them more autonomy as well as a greater stake in making sure their bosses pay their dues—which for Yue Yuen’s workforce, could total millions of dollars in arrears.
The failed promise of social insurance may be feeding into growing militancy among Chinese workers, with industrial actions nationwide reaching a three-year high in March, according to CLB’s real-time strike tracker.
But if labor unrest is approaching a critical mass, how might that energy be channeled in the absence of an independent labor movement or electoral democracy? Beyond street demonstrations—which generally end with violence, arrest or firing—some activists are trying to carve out a space for dissent within the legal system by strengthening safeguards for labor rights.
For example, last month a group of labor scholars and legal advocates published a proposal for a major overhaul of China’s trade union law. Ideally, the law would strengthen protections against retaliatory firings of union organizers based on their collective bargaining and organizing activities. The bill would essentially expand the law’s protections for individuals to a broader principle of defending the right to organize and agitate collectively.
So will the legal system continue to be an instrument for enforcing silence, or will the activism in the streets begin filtering into China’s legal infrastructure? Though they had run afoul of authority in different ways, Wu Gujin, the security guards and the New Citizens movement have all been pulled into the courts because they wanted their own government to follow the law. That they have all been criminalized for seeking justice attests to the critical link between economic justice and political justice.
Workers are increasingly willing to fight out their labor battles in the streets, but victory will ultimately be measured by whether they can reclaim the edifice of the state—and force the justice system to work for, instead of against them.