An Open Letter from China Labour Scholars

The Chinese government has expanded its crackdown on civil society. Since 2015, hundreds of human rights lawyers, feminists, and labour activists have been harassed, detained and sentenced to prison sentences. In 2018, workers’ demands to unionise at the Shenzhen Jasic Technology Company drew the backing of left-wing students from elite universities. According to media reports, 30 people, including the Jasic workers themselves, their student supporters, and others have been detained in a widening net. This case has rightly drawn international concern.

Less reported however has been the government’s policy of extending the repression to a significant number of labour non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in South China regardless of whether they were involved in the Jasic dispute. Following the arrest of two members of a Shenzhen group known as the Dagongzhe Workers Center, the official Xinhua News Agency issued an erroneous report on 24 August 2018, accusing Dagongzhe of instigating a strike at Jasic. In January 2019, a further round of detentions involved five staff members from the Shenzhen Xin Gongyi (Shenzhen New Justice), Shenzhen Chunfeng Labor Disputes Services Center, as well as a labour rights law firm. Three staff of an online workers’ rights advocacy website ‘I-labour’ were detained between January and March 2019. It is possible more will be pulled in by authorities soon.

As China and labour studies scholars, we have been researching civil society and labour relations in China for many years. Labour NGOs like the ones affected in this round of repression have been an important focus of our research. We have documented and debated the role that such organizations have played on China’s social development. These groups have operated within the law and striven to educate, serve, learn from, and defend workers’ legal rights. Indeed, their efforts have contributed significantly to improving the working and living conditions of migrant workers. More broadly, the programming of labour NGOs has supported key policy objectives such as eradicating poverty.

Rather than repression, we hold that the work of Chinese labour NGOs should command the utmost respect. Given their meagre resources, grassroots organisations can only provide a low level of pay to their employees. They do not act for their own material gain but to serve the underprivileged and wider society in general. Some of their leaders and staff are former workers themselves who joined NGOs to help others avoid the hardships they faced as frontline workers. Others are educated young people who have made the choice to sacrifice a potentially prosperous future in order to serve others and contribute to the just and equitable development of China. These are precisely the sort of people who offer hope for China’s future.

Since joining the World Trade Organisation in 2001, the Chinese government has reached out to civil society for advice and partnership on pressing problems. But this approach seems to have been largely abandoned especially regarding civil society organisations engaged in anything more than providing minimal service provision. This is a self-defeating change in policy. In the long run, the coercive measures currently being deployed will serve to deepen social conflict and hamper the balanced development that the government seeks to achieve.

In solidarity with the detainees and out of concern for the change of policy direction in China, we hereby advise the Chinese government:

  • Release the arrested Fu Changguo, Wu Guijun, Zhang Zhiru, He Yuancheng, Jian Hui, Song Jiahui, Yang Zhengjun (Baozi), Wei Zhili, Ke Chengbing, and other arrested labour NGOs staff.
  • While they remain in detention, allow family members and lawyers to visit as stipulated by the law.
  • Stop the repression of activists in different sectors and create conditions for a more democratic and open society.


Signees (In alphabetical order; to be updated, as of 2 April 2019):

Anita Chan, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University

Chris Chan, Department of Sociology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Jenny Chan, Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Manfred Elfstrom, School of International Relations, The University of Southern California

Ivan Franceschini, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University

Jude Howell, Department of International Development, London School of Economics

Elaine Hui, School of Labor & Employment Relations, Penn State University

Ching Kwan Lee, Department of Sociology, University of California, Los Angeles

Chun-Yi Lee, School of Politics and International Relations, The University of Nottingham

Nicholas Loubere, Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University

Tim Pringle, Department of Development Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies

Pun Ngai, Department of Sociology, The University of Hong Kong

Jack Qiu, School of Journalism and Communication, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Kaxton Siu, Department of Applied Social Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Christian Sorace, Department of Political Science, Colorado College

Jonathan Unger, Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University

Please click the link to sign the public letter:

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