Making Sense of the 2015 Crackdown on Labor NGOs in China

In December 2015, Guangzhou police raided five labor NGOs, centered on the Panyu Workers Service Center (打工族文书处理服务部)—better known as Dagongzu. They took away at least twenty-five employees for questioning, placing Dagongzu director Zeng Feiyang and several others under long-term detention as suspects for criminal charges. Prior to that, starting in 2013, the Chinese state had conducted a series of arrests and trials of figures representative of China’s political opposition, including journalists, lawyers, writers and activists who organized street demonstrations. Some observers have lumped Dagongzu together with these other groups as part of a general crackdown on “civil society,” but in fact these were two different types of persecution, with different goals and rationales behind them. The latter are better understood as adversaries within the same bourgeois ruling class, elements calling for minor adjustments of the political order, whereas the repression of Dagongzu was ultimately aimed at the working class in the Pearl River Delta (PRD).

Soon after the raid of Dagongzu and its affiliates, the state produced several widely publicized reports attacking Dagongzu and Zeng himself for “receiving support from overseas organizations for many years, sticking their noses into labor disputes on Chinese soil, seriously disrupting social order, and trampling on workers’ rights.”[1] These reports nevertheless acknowledged that “At first Zeng and his followers appeared to be looking out for the workers, providing guidance in negotiations with their employers, and helping them to bring some reasonable demands to fruition.”[2] In response, overseas organizations such as Amnesty International praised Zeng as “one of the most influential labor rights leaders in Guangdong.”[3] For a time, Zeng and the others were thrust into the media’s spotlight both in China and internationally.

Why did Zeng and his organization intervene in labor disputes? Were they merely cannon fodder hired by overseas intelligence agencies? Or were they zealous individuals motivated purely by sympathy for the plight of Chinese workers? Or ambitious social activists striving to achieve “a system of collective bargaining that would benefit both labor and capital?”[4] Why did the Chinese government allow them to operate openly for years and then suddenly decide to throw them in jail? Multiple theories have been proposed to explain this. Indeed, the crackdown is still something of a riddle. In order to unravel this riddle, we must first look back at the history of this NGO.

A Brief History of Dagongzu

After nearly two decades of marketization, by the late 1990s the PRD was already teeming with factories owned by bosses from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. In these factories, wages were low and workers suffered all kinds of hardship: long hours, no days off, a bad work environment, terrible food and housing, wanton verbal and physical abuse from managers, the withholding of wages and, outside the factory, the threat of being seized and beaten or sent back to the countryside by state enforcers of the hukou (household registration) system, which in those days required migrants to obtain a temporary residence permit. Especially scary was the frequency of serious workplace injuries and occupational diseases. For many years in the PRD, bosses ran roughshod over workers while the state turned a blind eye, at best.[5] Often the workers thrown into this situation had no idea what to do and longed for practical guidance, determining that eventually someone would come and fulfill the role of “advisor.” Starting in the late 1990s, a slew of labor NGOs began to fill this void, initiated first by Hong Kong “social movement” figures and later by mainlanders. Dagongzu, founded in 1998, is generally considered the first successful example of the latter type of labor NGOs, initiated by mainlanders.

Dagongzu’s earliest work was providing advice and scrivener services to workers involved in legal cases against their employers, especially in cases of workplace injuries, for which services the workers paid a small fee. Zeng, the organization’s director and legal owner, was a Guangdong local who had studied law in university, served as a civil servant, and briefly worked at a law firm. In contrast with the complicated procedures of the state’s legal support and the perfunctory or even racketeering nature of many other private legal services at the time, Dagongzu was simpler and more trustworthy. Years later, when Dagongzu began receiving money from abroad, it started providing its services for free.

Not only did Dagongzu help workers to resolve industrial disputes, it also provided “teahouse” events for workers to meet each other, rare opportunities to socialize outside of work without having to spend money. Over time, the scope of Dagongzu’s activities expanded to include visits to workers recovering in hospital, lectures on occupational safety and health, cultural activities and performances, publications, visits to workers in nearby neighborhoods, the training of volunteers, participation in international programs for “corporate social responsibility,” worker inquiries and trainings in various skills.

Due to PRD workers’ lack of reliable channels for solving problems (especially free channels), any labor NGO with a little bit of money, a legitimate legal status, and one or two staff members familiar with the relevant laws and inside workings of industrial relations in the region could easily attract clients. You could say that the demand for such services was so high that as long as an NGO was in operation, there would always be workers knocking on the door asking for help or participating in cultural activities.

Over the years, Dagongzu served hundreds of workers, helping many of them to solve their problems, even achieving commendation from local branches of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the Communist Youth League (CYL). After a few years, Dagongzu fostered a team of experienced personnel, some of whom eventually left to found their own labor NGOs in the greater Guangzhou area, all continuing to work with their former boss.

In the eyes of the Chinese state, however, such autonomous organizations that interacted with workers and got involved in labor disputes must, if they were not to be shut down, at the very least be “separately registered,” controlled and occasionally harassed by the police. Despite allowing them to operate for many years, local branches of the Ministry of Civil Affairs consistently rejected all applications from labor NGOs to register as non-profits, forcing them into the awkward status of registering as businesses with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, which created yet another hurdle against winning the trust of workers. This became a long-term problem for Dagongzu. Although Zeng tried repeatedly to win the favor of the state[6] (in the hope of obtaining state funding, for example), he always failed to achieve recognition as an insider.

In short, as the owner of Dagongzu, as long as the funding was sufficient and the organization was not branded as oppositional, Zeng could enjoy a basic commercial stability and a decent life — not making enough money to live large, but enough to get by.

Intervention into the Collective Actions of Workers

After China joined the WTO in 2001, the PRD’s fledgling industrial districts blew up like enormous balloons, the number of factories and workers increasing exponentially, along with workers’ resistance. In 2010, China and the world were shaken by the combination of a string of worker suicides at Foxconn and the nationwide strike wave that began at the Honda plant in Nanhai, Guangdong. Dozens of strikes occurred in the PRD alone,[7] attracting the attention of even Chinese media, in addition to overseas discussions about the organizational prospects of Chinese workers.

Over the following years from 2011 to 2014, the government of Guangdong took an unusually permissive attitude toward NGO intervention in labor disputes, especially collective struggles. This temporary change may have derived from debates at a much higher level of the party-state, or it may have been an experiment in new ways of managing industrial relations. In any case, it appeared that the paths for workers’ resistance to their employers had expanded. The Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions (GZFTU) announced a pilot project for the promotion of collective bargaining in the automobile industry, and in response, many of the PRD’s labor NGOs took advantage of this opportunity to make a public appearance, cooperating more closely with the media, academics and lawyers in a bid to influence public opinion and promote the reform of state policy, and intervening in labor disputes more openly.

Zeng was carried along by this wave of unrest. In response to his funders’ request for a change of strategy, and to the success of Dagongzu’s first minor intervention into a collective case, the NGO gradually redirected its focus toward collective labor struggles, intervening in more and more incidents over the following years, from jewelry factories to footwear plants. Due to Dagongzu’s assistance, workers won gains in the back-payment of social insurance, housing funds, and compensation for plant relocation. In 2014, Meng Han and Zhu Xiaomei, both former workers experienced in struggle, became employees of Dagongzu, increasing the organization’s prestige among workers. From September 2014 until April 2015, in their fight for severance pay, social insurance and the state’s mandatory housing fund, the workers of Lide’s footwear plant in Panyu went on strike three times, and Dagongzu helped them to win considerable gains by providing guidance during the strikes and negotiation processes. At that time, the ACFTU’s official periodical Chinese Workers (中国工人) published an article praising the Lide struggle as “a successful case of collective bargaining in our new era of marketization,”[8] going so far as to call on “all levels of the ACFTU to do exactly what these labor NGOs are doing: training workers, guiding them, organizing them, and providing legal support.”[9] Dagongzu did not pass up the opportunity to arrange for several worker delegates from the Lide struggle to form a PR team, which visited friendly organizations throughout the PRD and shared their experiences with the workers there, winning many rounds of applause.

This didn’t last long, however. As an instrument of comprehensive rule, the state, which generally tolerates NGOs as long as it can make use of them while imposing limitations, now shifted in the direction of imposing limitations. Starting in 2014, dark clouds began to gather around the heads of Zeng, Dagongzu, and people close to them. In late 2014, Zeng was prohibited from leaving mainland China, receiving a threatening subpoena from the police. During the Lide struggle, unidentified men barged into Dagongzu’s office and physically assaulted Zeng. Meanwhile the Sunflower Women Workers Center (向阳花女工中心), a sister organization to Dagongzu founded by one of the latter’s former employees, was repeatedly threatened with eviction by their office’s landlord, apparently because of Sunflower’s intervention in several strikes around that time. Although Sunflower responded by distancing itself from labor disputes after that, in the summer of 2015 it was nevertheless forced to “voluntarily” withdraw its registration with the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Then on December 3, 2015, the police finally launched their attack on Dagongzu and its affiliates, detaining Zeng and at least ten other people, including Meng Han and Zhu Xiaomei—the two main advisors in the Lide struggle. Dagongzu’s office and dormitory were sealed off and searched, as was Zeng’s home. After several detainees were released on bail, in September 2016 the District Court of Panyu convicted Zeng, Zhu and Tang Huanxing (another Dagongzu employee, also known as “Beiguo”) for “gathering crowds to disrupt social order,” releasing them on probationary sentences. Two months later, the court convicted Meng Han of the same charge, sentencing him to 21 months in prison.

Why Did the State Choose to Attack Dagongzu?

Why did the state ultimately abandon its longstanding practice of allowing such organizations to operate so long as they kept within certain bounds, instead choosing to make a big show of cracking down on this one? Moreover, what was the real impetus behind Dagongzu’s decision to refocus its energy on collective labor actions after 2010? Did this organization and its personnel really constitute a threat to the ruling order? To answer these questions, we must look at the changing mindset of workers in the PRD.

Once the millions of workers in the delta had gradually solved the problem of ensuring their basic subsistence, more sophisticated demands rose to prominence, involving an increased understanding of legal rights, concerns about quality of life, and changing social values. Yet mainstream society continued to overlook such demands. Over the past decade, not only did the tenor of their demands rise, their horizon also expanded, with many workers from the countryside now pursuing something approaching the way of life enjoyed by “respectable urbanites.” Labor struggles in the PRD thus changed accordingly. Their demands began to shift from a focus on unpaid wages, raises and year-end bonuses to more complicated issues such as social insurance and severance pay when factories relocated. As their demands became more complex, the disputes became more fiercely contested, including frequent bargaining between clearly opposed camps. In short, it became necessary for workers to organize themselves as a class. Yet among the many workers throwing themselves into such conflicts, regardless of their specific goals, few if any have touched on the question of how to carry out a protracted struggle – or even whether a protracted struggle should be waged.

The new employment opportunities generated by rapid industrialization, the decreased sense of desperation brought about by the improvement of living standards, and the pragmatism, cautiousness and endurance developed through years of factory life have all determined that workers in the PRD have a great deal of room to maneuver. In both thought and deed, they are still unable to acknowledge that they are caught in a dead end, and they needlessly retreat from more expansive demands, yet they nonetheless must persevere in fighting their immediate bosses.

Sometimes workers spontaneously shout slogans such as “Let’s elect new union leaders!” but usually this is merely as a means toward resolving an immediate dispute rather than a long-term act of collective self-defence. In short, the working class in the PRD has not yet encountered a qualitative turning point: a clear tendency from these struggles toward the formation of workers’ organizations that regularly clash with capital and substantiate workers’ interests on some level.

Meanwhile, some mainstream Western unions have long been hoping to enter the Chinese labor market and introduce their sophisticated mechanisms for setting the price of labor-power. Systems of collective bargaining between capital and labor aimed at market stability are an important component of “the rules of trade,” as well as a pillar of the ruling order. And in China, there is no shortage of people looking to benefit somehow from the institutionalization of labor-power’s price-setting mechanisms.

Thus far, the impact of organizations such as Dagongzu on workers in the PRD has been negligible, in every sphere of their intervention. This is mainly because the state has restricted their activities to support for individuals or at most small groups of workers, whether it comes to pursuing compensation for workplace injuries or the payment of social insurance. Compared to the tens of millions of workers—skilled and unskilled, blue collar and white—in the PRD, the number of those with whom labor NGOs have come into contact is like a drop of water in the ocean. To put it bluntly, such NGOs are essentially small-scale agencies for negotiating the price of labor-power, struggling to get by in an obscure corner of the market. If one day they managed to become participants in a system of collective bargaining, their influence would expand exponentially, as a matter of course obtaining a more secure material foundation from the combination of state grants and workers’ membership fees, and the heads of these organizations, such as Zeng, could achieve much more respectable salaries and social status.

But doing such business isn’t easy. Under the state’s explicit and implicit restrictions, even the relatively prestigious Dagongzu barely managed to generate income after nearly twenty years of operation. In the investigation after Zeng was detained in 2015, the police managed to uncover only one car and two residential properties.[10]

Starting in 2011, Zeng semi-openly accepted funding from China Labour Bulletin (CLB), up until the time of his arrest. This was an important turning point for Dagongzu, foreboding an ambush that would destroy the organization five years later. CLB is a Hong Kong-based organization founded in 1994 with support from the US government. A longtime favorite target of investigation by mainland police agencies, CLB’s mission has been to use its relatively copious funding to propagate the Western model of “cooperation between labor and capital” among Chinese workers.

Why would Zeng take the risk of accepting money from CLB? Did he misjudge Guangdong’s short-lived period of policy experimentation, hastily vying to acquire a front-row seat in the new era of collective bargaining?[11] Or had he just wearied of scrambling around for handouts and caved into the prospect of enjoying a stable American meal ticket? Did he deceive himself and his followers into believing that if he greased enough palms in the right branches of the state, he would be safe?

In any case, Zeng decided to take a gamble. Since CLB’s main assignment was to intervene in workers’ actions and promote industrial bargaining,[12] it was inevitable that Dagongzu would become caught up in the whirlpool of social conflict. CLB has called for guiding collective bargaining in order to “decrease labor conflict, prevent unnecessary strikes, mitigate antagonism between labor and capital, and achieve a triple-win situation among labor, capital and the state.”[13] But Dagongzu’s experience shows that bosses are willing to sit down and negotiate only after workers have taken action in some way that threatens the company’s profit. CLB hopes to decrease the number of strikes, but its activities through Dagongzu have objectively helped workers to “cause problems” or “disrupt public order” (as the state’s criminal charges put it). Once workers have begun to rebel, they often become less concerned about potential risks, harder to control and disruptive of the workplace’s managerial order, and the antagonism between capital and labor becomes more complex and protracted. All these unintended effects eventually got on the rulers’ nerves and forced them to take action.

Dagongzu’s Experiences with Collective Bargaining, 2011-2014

 From 2011 to 2014, Guangzhou’s authorities adopted a more tolerant approach toward collective labor actions than those of other cities in Guangdong. Perhaps the province’s pilot project for “adjusting industrial relations” was restricted to Guangzhou in order limit the spread of any unforeseen consequences. Or perhaps certain bureaucrats in Guangzhou hoped to obtain political credit by taking this sort of initiative. Chen Weiguang, then chair of the GZFTU, went so far as to proclaim that merely protecting workers’ legal rights was insufficient.[14] More importantly, most of the factories in Guangzhou were much smaller than those in Shenzhen, with their enormous workforces, so struggles were less likely to spiral out of control. It should come as no surprise, then, that Dagongzu became much more effective at completing the assignments of its patron than CLB’s similar clients in Shenzhen.

When Dagongzu intervened in labor disputes between 2011 and 2015, its usual formula was to get in touch with discontented workers, among them select “seedlings” who were relatively active or had more social experience, have them elect delegates, and then train the delegates in skills related to bargaining.[15] Once the workers’ demands had either achieved some degree of success or reached a deadlock, Dagongzu might then encourage the workers to set up a union or elect new leaders for an existing one, nominally as another means toward the immediate problem of collective bargaining, but more importantly as an accomplishment that Dagongzu could report back to its overseas funders that desired to increase their involvement in China’s union sphere. Worth noting is that, while this formula may appear to be sound, in practice it tended to become formalistic: once the skeleton of an organization had been set up according to the patron’s specifications, Dagongzu would declare “a union has been established,” even when it bore little relation to the workers’ own activity.

According to a workers’ delegate from a high-end jewelry factory in Panyu, Dagongzu’s chief value for workers in struggle lay in helping them muster the courage to “take the first step” by organizing meetings and leading discussions. Its secondary value was in setting up framework in which workers could face the company “as an organized team rather than as a disorderly mob.”[16]

A workers’ delegate from a low-end jewelry factory in Foshan said that an important contribution of Dagongzu lay in its conveyance of basic knowledge about collective labor resistance, so that workers did not act too “blindly.”[17] In the PRD, even many workers who are relatively experienced or well-read do not necessarily have the opportunity to learn much about collective action.

For many workers, the mere existence of organizations such as Dagongzu has been a source of encouragement, helping to dispel their sense of isolation. As another worker from the aforementioned Panyu factory put it, “If it weren’t for [Dagongzu], we would never have held out for so long.”[18] Likewise Zhu Xiaomei recalled that, during a fight for the back-payment of social insurance in which she participated as a worker (before joining Dagongzu), intervention by the Sunflower Women Workers Center played an important role “as a social element” in compelling the factory in question to finally make concessions.[19]

In any case, as soon as a strike breaks out, it tends to develop according to its own logic. In 2013, some of the workers at a mold factory in Guangzhou went on strike demanding a raise. Dagongzu’s advisors for the case warned them not to block the road, but the workers ignored them, also marching through the factory floors blowing whistles and preventing the remaining workers from working, until they had convinced the company to submit to their demand.

Without a doubt, industrial workers’ main source of power is their ability to interfere with production. If Dagongzu hoped to use workers to obtain a seat at the table in a future system of collective bargaining, it had to be prepared to unleash this power in an appropriate way — a power that would not necessarily do as it was told. The Lide struggle of 2014-2015 clearly revealed this logic, while also drawing the attention of the ruling class.

Dagongzu’s Role in the Lide Footwear Struggle: Coordinating Workers’ Actions and Putting the State on Alert 

Lide was a Taiwan-invested footwear plant in Panyu with over 2,000 employees. Although it was highly profitable, Lide regularly deducted from overtime pay, mandatory high-temperature subsidies and annual paid vacation, and it failed to pay into most of the workers’ social insurance or housing funds. In early 2014, some workers heard that the factory might be preparing to relocate. The older workers worried that they might not be able to find another job, and even many of the younger ones were growing angry. A few months later, in August, several of Lide’s workers approached Dagongzu, inquiring about laws related to factory relocation. Eventually Dagongzu assigned several of its staff, including Meng Han and Zhu Xiaomei, to help the Lide workers launch a struggle not only for severance pay but also for unpaid social insurance and housing funds, and for compensation for many years of deducted wages.

Dagongzu’s regular personnel all received low salaries, regardless of whether their background was as ordinary workers or college graduates, so after some time at the organization, most developed a passive attitude toward their work, merely going through the motions. Meng and Zhu were quite different in this regard, being experienced, enthusiastic and thoughtful with regard to workers’ collective struggles — a rare type of person among labor NGOs in the PRD.

Meng had started out as transport worker for an SOE, where he was laid off in 1998. In 2010, he got a job as a security guard at a hospital in Guangzhou. He was observant, good at winning people’s favor and developing relationships by carefully managing his interactions, attentive to personal prestige,[20] and capable of winning the rapport of low-level managers and workers who were resourceful and experienced with the ways of the world.[21] In 2011, Meng tried forming a union at the hospital to fight for equal pay, and eventually the hospital was forced to improve its treatment of the security guards. In 2013, the hospital laid off a large number of nursing assistants, and Dagongzu intervened in their dispute with the hospital, asking Meng to help out. In May of that year, Meng lead a strike of security guards and nursing assistants demanding the formalization of labor relations and compensation for unpaid social insurance. For this, he was arrested and sentenced to nine months in prison. Upon his release the following year, Meng took a position at Dagongzu, participating in the guidance of workers’ collective struggles, including strikes.

Zhu Xiaomei had worked for many years as a low-level manager at a Japanese-invested factory in Panyu. She was good at public speaking and at navigating relations among different parties, and sometimes she instructed workers in how to avoid being bullied by the management. In April of 2013, she helped an injured worker to obtain remuneration, eventually coming into contact with Dagongzu’s sister organization Sunflower. Soon, through the combination of her own enthusiasm and the guidance of Sunflower, she began to organize some of the older workers in the factory to demand compensation for years of unpaid social insurance. (She, as a manager, had been receiving her own social insurance payments.) Due to her friendly relations with the management, she underestimated the risks involved in large-scale industrial conflict.[22] After some twists and turns, the company compensated over three hundred senior workers for their unpaid social insurance, but it also punished Zhu by revoking her permission to go to Japan for trainings, by demoting her, by prohibiting her from working overtime, and finally by firing her. Throughout all of this, under instructions from Sunflower, she repeatedly tried to get the workers to form a union, but nothing came of it. In 2014, she became an employee of Sunflower, where she likewise participated in the guidance of workers’ collective actions including strikes.

Back to the Lide incident: In August of 2014, after a period of training and mobilization by Meng Han and others (including meetings in the park with six or seven hundred participants), the workers of Lide elected a few dozen department delegates, setting up a “solidarity fund” and a QQ group. A rudimentary framework had been established.

Before long, the company started meting out all kinds of random fines, probably hoping people would resign, but this only stoked the workers’ discontent. In November, the company asked them to sign a new contract, but workers in the hand-stitching division noticed that the contract would hurt their interests, so they refused to sign and, on December 6th, launched a strike. Everyone joined in. Dagongzu arranged for the workers to elected delegates to negotiate with the boss and the local government, and when the company agreed to negotiate, everyone went back to work. A few days later, on the 15th, seeing that the company did not really intend to negotiate in good faith, several divisions of workers called to resume the strike, and most of the workers in the plant again joined in. After a second round of negotiation, all in one go the company reimbursed workers for overtime pay it had deducted in previous years, promising to make the payments for social insurance and the housing fund that it owed them.

But the company continued to postpone the latter two payments. Some of the workers’ delegates vacillated, apparently having been intimated by the combination of the company and the township government. On April 19th, 2015, Dagongzu called a meeting of over one hundred Lide workers to strategize about what to do next, but the police showed up to investigate. That evening, Meng decided that the group of delegates was unreliable and should be replaced, so he wrote up a list of new delegates to negotiate with the company. The next day, the entire factory went on strike for the third time and prevented the boss from removing products from the compound. Finally, the company conceded to the workers’ demands regarding social insurance, the housing fund and compensation for relocating the factory, fulfilling its promises by the end of May. During the third strike, workers in the hand-stitching division had been the main force guarding the factory and preventing the removal of products.

In this most recent cycle of struggles in the PRD centered on the relocation of factories (2012-2016), from the workers’ perspective, there was nothing unique about the Lide struggle, with many of its features recurring time and again. Its internal motive force derived mainly from several hundred middle-aged female workers in certain divisions of the factory, such as hand-stitching. Their seniority in age increased their concern for social insurance, out of the need for something to fall back upon when they grew too old to work. The demand for compensation when factories prepared to relocate also strengthened many workers’ sense of settling scores with bosses they no longer had to fear because they were leaving anyway, and this supported a relatively unified condition of resistance.

The worker delegates at Lide never went beyond the usual situation of strikes in the PRD. Some delegates had some knowledge of the law, were good at expressing themselves, yet were easily duped by the company. Some delegates were unwavering yet lacked the ability to defeat the boss. The delegates’ relationship with the other workers was loose: on the eve of the third strike, when Meng Han took it upon himself to appoint a new slate of delegates, most of the workers simply acquiesced.

What Are the Rulers Worried About?

Looking back at the Lide struggle, multiple factors objectively came together in favor of the workers. What made the state uneasy was Dagongzu’s role in promoting this coming-together of factors.

As mentioned above, from 2011 to 2014, the authorities of Guangzhou adopted a tolerant approach toward workers’ activities, giving Dagongzu the opportunity to intervene in a series of industrial disputes. In these incidents, a few individual activists such as Meng Han and Zhu Xiaomei emerged, pushing somewhat beyond the case-by-case norm of PRD labor struggles by introducing a degree of passion and inspiration into the struggles of new workers, as opposed to their usual limitation to bread-and-butter demands. And Dagongzu provided a space for such interactions to occur.

In the Lide struggle, although the local government did help the company to sow discord among the workers’ delegates and to put pressure on Dagongzu (especially Meng Han), ultimately it did not go so far as to openly attack the organization, instead using a combination of carrot and stick tactics centered on deception. And deception is not very effective when workers refuse to break ranks. This restraint on the part of the local government may have been a holdover from the preceding period of tolerance, or it may have displayed a hesitation to shake things up in their own jurisdiction. Or maybe it was because the workers were actually rather restrained in their actions, refraining from blocking roads,[23] smashing equipment or detaining managers. In any case their demands (for severance pay, the back-payment of social insurance, etc.) were entirely within the purview of the law.

In pushing for collective bargaining, CLB openly advocated that “as soon as the company makes reasonable concessions, labor NGO staff should immediately encourage the workers and their delegates to make appropriate compromises in a timely manner.”[24] During the three strikes at Lide, Dagongzu indeed urged the workers repeatedly to “calm down” and focus their energy on the bargaining table.[25] Yet Meng Han, as their advisor on the frontlines, was also aware that “workers have strength only with action, and only with strength can they put pressure on the boss, and only with pressure do we have a bargaining chip. These are all interconnected as the battle formation of collective bargaining.”[26] And actually, even if Meng and Zhu had tried to put on the brakes, their limited influence would have been incapable of controlling the Lide struggle’s real motor: the senior women workers of the hand-stitching division, who were unwilling to rest until they had achieved their goal.

At this point the full picture of the Lide incident should be a little clearer. The local government’s inability or unwillingness to suppress the workers gave them the opportunity to persevere until they had won. Dagongzu helped the workers set up an organizational framework for facing off with the company and a channel for publicizing information about the struggle. With regard to bargaining, Meng and Zhu played the roles of semi-advisors, semi-directors, calming people down and adjusting their strategy from the outside. The hand-stitching division possessed the determination to launch strike after strike, and the majority of workers followed their lead, refusing to give up. All these factors conspired to form an effective force, ultimately leading to the workers’ success.

Now Let’s Ask Again…

Why did the state decide to attack Dagongzu? Because in this struggle, the rulers saw the NGO’s potential to become a threat. Dagongzu had funding and a team of people sympathetic to workers built up over many years. It was making use of Guangdong’s official “tolerance” to obtain experience, prestige and personnel capable of guiding workers’ actions. It enabled Meng and Zhu to put their abilities into play and might give rise to even more Mengs and Zhus in coming struggles. It encouraged participants in workers’ actions to go around publicizing their experiences, both elevating Dagongzu’s market value in NGO circles and making it possible for relatively militant workers throughout the PRD to meet one another. Finally, its mutually supplementary relationships with former Dagongzu staff who had left to set up their own NGOs created a growing network of such organizations in the vicinity of Guangzhou.

Several decades of capitalist development in the PRD has created a vast working class capable of exerting a significant impact on global production. When the market’s laws compel bosses to make adjustments, and bosses repeatedly sacrifice their workers, the working class can only rely on its own power to take back part of what rightfully belongs to it. And Dagongzu’s various activities over the past few years objectively helped this power to achieve some degree of cohesion and expression. Of course, the portion of that power unleashed in the Lide incident was miniscule, probably no more than one percent of its potential. But what might happen next? Although Dagongzu was at most the mere seedling of a center for coordinating workers’ actions, the rulers had already furrowed their brows and decided to root out this potentially poisonous weed before it had a chance to grow and spread.

Even while Zeng Feiyang was warning the government not to fall for the bosses’ machinations and attack workers on their behalf,[27] and begging the state to appreciate the value of his industrial mediation, an enormous net was already opening around him.


Nearly two years have passed since the crackdown. This iron fist not only destroyed Dagongzu but also delivered a blow to multiple related targets: dissidents within the party-state harboring the fantasy of making unions more autonomous,[28] militant workers with ties to Dagongzu, and other labor NGOs in the PRD.

Meanwhile, the state has carried out a multi-pronged strategy of buying out, threatening, prohibiting or weakening anything that might help workers to unite. Following the relocation of factories and the stagnation of the world market, strikes have declined in cities like Shenzhen,[29] along with the opportunities for labor NGOs to intervene. And for Chinese society as a whole, the wave of concern for workers and strikes in the PRD that emerged around 2010 has ebbed. How long must we wait until the workers’ power is unleashed again?

—Shannon Lee, 29 July 2017



[1] 新华社广州12月22日电,“揭开‘工运之星’光环的背后”.

[2] Ibid.


[4] Han Dongfang, head of China Labor Bulletin and Zeng’s main sponsor in recent years, describes his position thus:“如果有这样一个企业层面的谈判制度,让工人跟老板可以在问题出现之前,大家把问题提出来,然后把它搞定谈妥。这样的谈判制度,每年一次,需要的时候,两次之间还可以再谈,这就是劳资双赢的集体谈判制度。”(“韩东方:中国工人应当享有经济改革与发展的成果”,法国巴黎国际广播电台,播放日期 22-01-2014)

[5] “工伤致残的数字现在也不统计了。前两年还统计过一下,大家都反映说这个不行,那个不行,统计不下去了,从1998年开始就不再统计。”(“谁弄断了他们的手指”2006年11月《21世纪经济报道》)

[6] According to Zeng’s statement in 2010:“我们的出发点是化解社会矛盾、促进社会和谐发展。我们做的工作都是建设性的、是政府工作的有益补充。”他还表示“只要不完全剥夺NGO的独立性,我不介意工会来领导。”(“一个劳工NGO的夹缝生存:步履维艰”2010-11-30 《南风窗》)

[7] According to Chen Weiguang, former head of the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Unions:“仅2010年5-7月,广州受南海本田事件影响发生的大大小小停工怠工事件有近百起,从人数上看最少数十人最多过千人;从时间上看最短数小时最长为五天”(陈伟光著 《忧与思》第五章第一节 中国社会科学出版社 2012年版)

[8] ACFTU《中国工人》2015年第02期“市场化集体谈判成功案例——番禺利得鞋厂劳资集体谈判分析”,

[9] Ibid.

[10] “(曾飞洋)不但给自己买了汽车,而且购置两套位于市中心的房产;其中一套放在妻弟的名下,再高价租给‘服务部’” 新华社广州12月22日电“揭开‘工运之星’光环的背后”

[11] The labor lawyer Duan Yi, who worked closely with Dagongzu and similar NGOs in the PRD for many years, thus articulated his vision of the role of such organizations in collective bargaining: “在集体劳动争议的处理中,维稳系统找到不到工人头,解决不了问题。相比较而言,劳工NGO多少是有优势的。要想化解集体冲突,除了标准的谈判程序外,首先要找到工人头,要形成工人有序的组织。工人的‘维权’和‘维稳’其实并不冲突,是事情的两面,目标其实是一致的。”(段毅 “工运型劳工NGO的前景与挑战”)

[12] “2005年,‘中国劳工通讯’将工作重点调整为:一、通过提供法律援助服务,协助合法权益遭到各类雇主非法侵害的工人群体或个体争取经济权利;二、通过介入工人自发的集体行动,将“野猫式”罢工引导向劳资集体谈判;……六、推动建立企业集体谈判制度”(2016年1月8日“中国劳工通讯”领导人韩东方 “对《人民日报》关于“番禺打工族服务部”主任曾飞洋先生报道的回应”)

[13] Ibid.

[14] “工会不应仅停留在维护‘合法权益’这个层面,而应该代表中争取更大的公平。例如工资集体协商,就不能仅停留在最低工资标准之上”(《忧与思 》第一章第二节)

[15] “首先要在工人中间发现几个苗子,定期不定期的对他们多了解,沟通和培训,教他们不要只依赖于一裁二审,通过介绍我们之前成功的个案经验,让他们认定以集体谈判的方式来维权。接下来引导他们推选工人代表,再通过数次的工人培训,让工人知道如何行动支持代表,代表要如何发挥作用,如何承受来自相关部门的压力,培训和提高他们的维权技巧和谈判策略。”(海哥劳工服务部 · 集体谈判专访—陈辉海2015年7月2日)

[16] “工人还没有开始(行动)之前,我感觉最好的是给了工人一个聚集和开会的地方。他们有一个身份,好像一个工会的地方,感觉我们很神圣的,安排了老师分享,给了我们精神上的一个提升,这样子的作用还是蛮大的。然后组建工人队伍的时候,就是打基础的时候他们做得比较好,但到了一定程度,要行动了,他们就有点回避了。”(2015年自印小册子《工人代表访谈录》 第二篇 2010年番禺某珠宝厂追缴社保事件中的“首席工人代表”的采访)

[17] “如果工人维权想要成功的的话,还是离不开机构的帮助。它发挥了方向性的作用,就是它有很多策略,指明一个方向给你,起到了一个指路人的作用,你如果遇到什么问题,它会提供解决的办法。”(《工人代表访谈录》 第六篇 2014年佛山某首饰厂追缴社保公积金事件中“首席工人代表”的采访)

[18] Unpublished interview, 2011.

[19] “它(资方)后期也了解到有社会组织的支持,不明白他们有多大的后盾,对于它比较有钱的企业,它主要还是不想冒这个险”(2015年自印小册子《工人代表访谈录》第三篇 朱小梅采访)

[20] “工人拿到了工会的福利待遇,你不宣传,可能是昙花一现,钱拿到手,过段时间就忘了。我就在下面发展两到三个鼓动宣传人员,就是鼓动。他们不断跟人吹:这要没有老孟,你们能拿到旅游的500块钱,这要没有老孟,你能分到这袋米”(2015年自印小册子《工人代表访谈录》第四篇 孟晗采访)

[21] “在这上面我把原始的最社会上的本性发挥得淋漓尽致,江湖义气,兄弟情义,看上去像流氓”(Ibid.)

[22] “当时我想到的风险也没有那么严重,我当时就觉得厂里知道了又能怎么样,那工人问我了,我只是跟工人说一下,有这么一个地方(B机构)。如果真的只是这样子的话也确实不会有什么风险。因为凭我在公司和管理层的关系,这个事情是绝对处理的好的。当时最坏的感觉就是没有升迁的机会,永远就停留在现在的位置上”(2015年自印小册子《工人代表访谈录》第三篇 朱小梅采访,B机构即指“向阳花”)

[23] The Lide factory was located at an intersection, yet the workers repeatedly chose not to set up a blockade.

[24] 2016年1月8日“中国劳工通讯”领导人韩东方 “对《人民日报》关于“番禺打工族服务部”主任曾飞洋先生报道的回应”

[25] “对于(第三次罢工后)复工这个问题,机构工作人员每个人思想不太统一,但是曾飞洋发出了倡议,就是说我们全面地认同这个(谈判结果)公告内容,全面要求下面的工友去复工”(《2015年孟晗访谈》)

[26] Ibid.

[27] “轻易地动用警力压制工人,并将责任推给非政府组织,会将一个企业的劳资矛盾,变成工人与全总,与地方政府的冲突。这不但破坏了政府的信誉和形象,而且也加大了政府和全总处理问题的难度。它在降低了资方的违法成本的同时,迫使地方政府为资方违法行为“买单”,加重政府和工会的人员与财政负担”(2015-04-15 “关于广州番禺利得鞋厂劳资集体谈判最新进展的说明” 广东番禺打工族服务部)

[28] Shortly after retiring from his position as the head of GZFTU, Chen Weiguang wrote:“事实上,我们许多党政干部对工会的认识也是不清晰的,工会是党联系职工的桥梁纽带,但不能仅把工会看成是党委的附属机构或者派出机构,从而使党与工会的只能部分,使工会不能充分体现群众组织的特点,使工会严重脱离群众。工会与党政部门根本的区别在于他是一个职工群众的自治组织,在政治上,服从党的领导,但在具体工作中,有自己的独立性。”(陈伟光著 中国社会科学出版社2012年版《忧与思》第一章第二节)

[29] Over the past two years, strikes have continued to take place quietly throughout the PRD. I know of two strikes in Shenzhen alone just this month (July 2017), yet there seems to have been no mention of them on the internet. It is notable that both occurred at factories preparing to relocate and centered on demands for compensation or worker relocation packages. But overall it seems clear that the PRD has fewer strikes now than during most of the past 15 years or so. This is not only suggested by the significant fall in the number of posts about strikes online (which might also be explained by heightened censorship), but also confirmed by a variety of observers I have communicated with in the PRD.


6 thoughts on “Making Sense of the 2015 Crackdown on Labor NGOs in China”

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