An important court case for working people everywhere is about to be heard in China.
Two days from now, organisers involved with massive labour-based protests in the countryâ€™s northeast last spring will go on trial, appearing on charges of â€œsubverting state powerâ€. Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang, who were arrested last March in the city of Liaoyang, played a leading role in organising workers of Chinaâ€™s collapsing state-run industries. Protesting unpaid and missing wages, official corruption, and factory closures, more than 50,000 former workers from 20 state-run industries took to the streets of Liaoyang, in some of the largest labour protests ever seen in the city. Among them were workers from the Ferroalloy Factory, where Yao and Xiao had been waging a four-year living wage and anti-corruption campaign.
After a week of intense demonstrations, members of the police and Public Security Bureau (PSB) started rounding up protesting workers. Yao and Xiao were arrested along with two other Liaoyang labour organisers, Pang Qingxiang and Wang Zhaoming.
Pang and Wang were subsequently released on bail in December 2002. However, after nine months spent in detention, originally for â€œorganising illegal protestsâ€, Yao and Xiao have recently had the more serious â€œsubversionâ€ charges filed against them by the Liaoyang Intermediate Peoplesâ€™ Court. The two could now face the death penalty if convicted.
The resorting to more serious charges on the part of the Chinese government is clearly aimed at intimidating and stunting the spirited, grassroots labour movement that has been developing in Chinaâ€™s northeast for a number of years. In what has been called the governmentâ€™s â€œsystematic approachâ€ to dealing with labour protests, minimal concessions to workers are used together with the arrest, intimidation, and cooption of organisers in an overall attempt to crush popular opposition.
As Yaoâ€™s daughter told the Hong Kong based periodical, China Labour Bulletin:
â€œThey are thinking that by sentencing my father and XiaoYunliang they can stop things getting out of hand generally. It’s like the saying they’re fond of — “wiping out a situation before it takes seed” — isn’t it?â€
However, the seed may have already sprouted, as grassroots labour protests have been occurring across Chinaâ€™s northeast for many years now. Once the site for huge state-run heavy and primary industries, rampant corruption and a shift away from state ownership to capitalist enterprise in China have led steadily to the crumbling of the northeastâ€™s mines and factories, and widespread discontent among workers. In 1994, a strike of 6000 miners at the Jinzhu Shan Coal Mine in May was followed by a similar action by Beijing miners in August. A note in the China Labour Bulletinâ€™s Index for December 1994 notes that a â€œrise in protests in State-owned Enterprises reflects the lack of respect for workersâ€™ rightsâ€. In subsequent years, large, labour-based actions have been documented in cities such as Zhejiang, and in Henan and Liaoning provinces. In September 2000, some 5000 workers from the Xiahuayuan mine blocked the Beijing-Baotou railway line for 24 hours to demand justice and payment of wages.
â€œIn my view this is not something they can destroy,â€ Yaoâ€™s daughter continues. â€œThese seeds could slowly grow into a large tree.â€
Indeed, protests in Liaoyang have also continued since the arrest of the four labour organisers. Most recently, on January 2, 2003, more than 1000 retired workers protested against the discontinuing of their pensions by stopping traffic on the Wuhan-Xiangfan railway line.
And after the formal announcement of subversion charges, the families of the organisers have only been further radicalised. As Xiaoâ€™s wife explained to China Labour Bulletin:
â€œNow the whole family will take a public stand for the workers. We will do whatever it takes, even sell the house and all our possessions, to fight for their caseâ€.
Despite such brave, dogged determination within China, wider, international support for Yao and Xiao, and cross-border solidarity with Chinaâ€™s independent labour struggles is important. The two organisers face an extremely dire future, and their families, like many workers, are subject to regular intimidation by the authorities. Tellingly, a method of harassment often used by the police and PSB is the cutting of phone lines to prevent the flow of information, showing that secrecy is a major tool of their repression.
Widespread scrutiny, pressure and solidarity from both inside and outside China could counter this secrecy, thus helping to change the future for Yao and Xiao, and boosting the labour movement in the country. And a culture of international solidarity would, of course, make it harder for the experience of the Liaoyang organisers to be repeated elsewhere.
January 15, the date of the trial, will be an important day for working people around the world.
For more information, contact:
China Labour Bulletin (Hong Kong): <firstname.lastname@example.org>