Position and Analysis

I am not a hero, I just want to be a man

 

Li Wangyang, a man who lived up to his words, once said that for freedom and democracy, “I won’t retreat even if I am beheaded”.  For his belief, Li endured decades of hardship and finally was “suicided”. His suspicious death shocked many Hong Kongers and caused public uproar.

 

Li came from a very humble background with a very basic demand. In 1983, he was inspired by the Polish trade union Solidarity while working in a glass factory. Thus, he organized a “workers’ mutual help community” with his friends, hoping to follow the examples of workers in other countries, to enjoy freedom of association, learn and share their experience with other workers. In 1989, he founded Workers Autonomous Federation, to support the Tiananmen Square Protests led by students. Many Hong Kongers were moved by the same protests and still commemorate those who lost their lives in Beijing.


Li once defended himself at the court, declaring “Marches and protests, freedom of expression are constitutional rights, I did not commit any crime and I did nothing wrong.” For safeguarding his basic human rights, Li served twenty-one years in prison, very often in solitary confinement, on charges of counterrevolutionary propaganda, incitement and subversion.
Life is politics. Staying away from demanding the end of one-party rule nor an official reassessment of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square Protests, does not keep politics at bay. As long as you care about your dignity, you cannot stay away from politics. Do you know Zhao Lianhai? He was sentenced for “disturbing social order” when he fought for his son, who became ill from drinking tainted milk. Let say Ai Weiwei, a political artist who lives under house arrest and surveillance for his outspokenness. Look at the human rights lawyers, who use their expertise to help victims to claim their legal rights, yet they become victims of White Terror and detentions. Many people, who have no intention to get involved with politics, are forced to fight against the notorious autocratic regime, in order to preserve their dignity and live honestly.


We all know that the Velvet Revolution broke out in then Czechoslovakia in 1989 and overthrew the autocratic regime. But what triggered this revolution? It was not a grand master plan to seize political power, but by passionate fans of the band “The Plastic People of the Universe”, including Václav Havel, trying to rescue the band members from being detained and fight for artistic freedom. Their action developed and became the major force of “Charta 77” in overthrowing the regime. Havel once described, “… the regime unknowingly exposes its true intention: to make life become monotonous, whatever is slightly different, individual, outstanding, independent, or things which cannot be classified, should be removed with a scalpel."


Indeed, what makes the Chinese Government worried the most are not dissidents in the orthodox sense, but people going through diverse daily struggles. Issues such as food safety concerns, employment security, environmental issues, religious freedom, artistic freedom and etc., are raising people’s awareness. The regime is getting more worried and hopes to control more. Thus, it is tightening its grip on civil society and penetrating at all levels. The grip is not only suffocating China, but endangering Hong Kongers. Bookstore owners were abducted, private schools were forced to shut down, musicians were arrested as illegal workers and etc., these are not random cases, but a systematic monitoring scheme to deprive us from our freedom.


Chinese poet Bei Dao once wrote, “… I am not a hero / in an age without heroes / I just want to be a man.” Maybe, the most important insight of the fifth anniversary of Li Wangyang’s death is, even we do not intend to become martyrs or heroes, we should stand firm for our human dignity. We have no choice but to defend it.

 


 

Biography of Li Wangyang

Li Wangyang (1950-2012), a resident of Huashi New Village, Daxiang District, Shaoyang City of Hunan Province. He was known as a pioneer of independent labour movement in China. In 1983, he established a “Workers’ Mutual Help Community of Shaoyang City” and in 1989, he founded the Workers’ Autonomous Federation in Shaoyang City and served as its chairman, to organize workers to support the Tianan men Square Protests. After the June Fourth Massacre, he organized several memorial services to mourn the victims. He was sentenced to 13-year imprisonment for “crime of instigating counter-revolutionary propaganda”. In 2000, he was released for reasons of poor health. Yet, in 2001, he joined a hunger strike with other activists in Hunan Province, as a petition to hold authorities accountable for the torture he received and his disability they caused. He was given an additional 10-year sentence for "inciting subversion" and released in 2011. After 21 years of imprisonment and torture, he became deaf, blind, suffered from severe heart disease, hyperthyroidism and many other health problems. In 2012, he was interviewed by a Hong Kong television station, iCable TV. He said he never regret in supporting the democratic movement in China. The interview was broadcast on 2 June 2012, which attracted enormous social attention and the state security put him under surveillance again. On 6 June, Hospital of Daxiang District informed his younger sister Li Wangling that Li “had committed suicide”. His family and other dissidents doubted if the “suicide” was staged and accused authorities of forcing his family to cremate Li's body and sign the Certificate of the Cause of Death. 

 

Imprisoned labour activists:

13

Jun 2017

Photo Credit: Website of New Citizens Movement

 

Liu Shaoming –– Liu was a member of Beijing’s Workers Autonomous Federation during the Tiananmen Square Protests in 1989 and played an active role to support the students. After the June Fourth Massacre, he was sentenced to one-year imprisonment and deprivation of political rights for one year, and put under surveillance for one year, for “crime of instigating counter-revolutionary propaganda”. In recent years, Liu has participated in various labour actions and organized a team of volunteers to safeguard workers’ rights. They were involved in a dozen of labour actions, such as actions of cleaning workers in Higher Education Mega Centre in Guangzhou, Xinsheng Shoe Factory, Guangzhou Citizen Watch Co. Ltd. and etc. In April 2015, he published two articles to commemorate the victims of June Fourth Massacre and recollect his memories of the Tiananmen Square protests. These two articles and his WECHAT messages became materials for the authorities to charge him with “inciting subversion of state power”. In mid-April 2016, he was tried at the Guangzhou Intermediate Court. Over a year has passed since his trial and no verdict has been delivered. In other words, Liu Shaoming has been given an endless imprisonment in disguise.

 

Photo Credit: Website of New Citizens Movement

 

Meng Han –– Meng Han worked as a security guard at No.1 Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and took part in a labour action, which caused him to serve a sentence of 9-month imprisonment. After his release, he joined the Panyu Migrant Workers Services Centre to continue his fight for workers’ rights. On 3 December 2015, Guangdong Provincial Government launched a crackdown against labour activists and Meng was the only person which was sentenced without suspension. The verdict stated that Meng’s involvement with the labour disputes in Lide Shoe Factory was "gathering crowds to disrupt public order" and sentenced him to 21-month imprisonment. By now, Meng has been detained for 16 months and his family has never been allowed to visit him throughout his detention, By doing so, the authorities have bluntly violated the domestic and United Nations’ provisions on the rights of prisoners.
“Rule by Law” & “Television Trials”:

13

Jun 2017

a Double Strategy to Mute the Civil Society

 

In the past, the Chinese Government took a low-profile approach to conduct its political repression. Yet, the trend has changed. Extensive media coverage and television trials have been recently adopted to crack down human rights activists. Despite international community’s condemnations, repression grows in China. Between September 2016 and January 2017, China passed three laws, namely: Cyber Security Law, Charity Law and Law on the Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations within the Territory of China (hereafter: Foreign NGOs Law), using legislations as a weapon to further restrict the growth of civil society and freedom of expression.

 

Photo Credits: BBC’s Chinese Website

 

In 2016, many human rights lawyers, labour activists, environmentalists, religious rights activists were arrested or sentenced. Quite some trials were “put under the spotlight” of China Central Television or Xinhua Net, the state media channels. In recent years, activists are often forced to make video confessions, including Zhou Shifeng and Zhai Yanmin from Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books, labour activist Zeng Feiyang, Wukan Village’s elected village leader Lin Zulian; Christian activist and lawyer Zhang Kai and Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin. These media confessions are used as an example to silent other civil rights activists and dissidents. Lam Wing-kee, one of the victims of these media confessions, described his video confession as “well-staged with scripts and a director” in a press conference after he returned to Hong Kong, “Offenders” were told to read out their confessions in front of the camera, according to Lam. Such confessions are not only a severe violation of the detainees’ fundamental human rights, but jeopardising the independence of the judiciary. By forcing them to confess, the Chinese Government hopes to turn the “offenders’ own words” against themselves, to rationalize the illegitimacy of its repression and arrests.


At the same time, in order to weaken the civil society and the call for reform, Chinese authorities have been busy in revising laws to tighten its control. Foreign NGOs Law and Charity Law are implemented to control the finance of NGOs, restricting their independence and their ability to organize. Cyber Security Law tightens constraints on freedom of expression of netizens. These three laws could be interpreted as the Xi Jinping administration's determination to build a system of “rule by law”, namely, to restrict civil rights through legislations and maintain stability.


The recent crackdowns show that the Chinese Government no longer constrained by foreign governments’ and media’s criticisms. The growing international status of China means that the Chinese Government could ignore pressure from the international community and openly punish activists. It is foreseeable that in future, the Chinese authorities would continue to silent the civil society through “rule by law” and “television confessions”, to adopt new laws to enhance the creditability of its forced confessions, and to discredit the image of civil society through “television confessions”.

June 2016 – May 2017

13

Jun 2017

Major Human Rights Violations in China

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 2 August 2016,

activist Zhai Yanmin, who had been detained in connection with the Fengrui Law Firm, was convicted of “subversion of state power” and sentenced to 3 years with 4 years suspended.

 

On 4 August 2016,

Zhou Shifeng, director of Fengrui Law Firm was convicted of “subversion of state power” and sentenced to 7 years.

 

On 8 September 2016,

Li Zulian, an elected village leader of Wukan Village, in Lufeng City of Shanwei, Guangdong Province, was arrested on graft charges and received 37 months of imprisonment.

 

On 26 September 2016,

Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei and Tang Huanxing, labour activists in Guangdong Province, were convicted of “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order”. Zeng was sentenced to 3 years with 4 years suspended, Zhu and Tang were sentenced to 1.5 year and 2 yeas suspended.

 

On 10 October 2016,

Liu Shu, head of the NGO Shuguang Environment was accused of “releasing state secrets related to counterespionage work” and given an administrative detention.

 

On 3 November 2016,

labour activist Meng Han was sentenced to 21 months for “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order”.

 

On 28 November 2016,

Huang Qi, founder of 64 Tianwang Human Rights Centre was detained

 

In November 2016,

prominent human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who had represented Chen Guangcheng, went missing. His disappearance took place after his meeting with Lawyer Xie Yang and his family, who had been detained in connection with the “709 Crackdown” on human rights lawyers.

 

On 31 March 2017,

Su Changlan and Chen Qitang, two Guangzhou citizens who expressed their support for the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, were sentenced to 3 years and 4.5 years respectively, for “inciting subversion of state power”.

Workers Made Scapegoats of “Economic Downturn”:

01

Jun 2017

Guangdong Minimum Wage Frozen for Three Years

 

 

In 1993, China issued its first national regulations on enterprises’ statutory minimum wages and in 2004, it issued “Provisions on Statutory Minimum Wages” to further regulate it, requiring it to be reviewed once every two years, if not shorter. Except in 2009, when China was hit by the 2008 Financial Crisis and statutory minimum wage froze nationwide, all provinces have been in line with the legal requirement, i.e. adjusting statutory minimum wages once every two years. On 24 February 2017, the Guangdong Provincial Government issued a “Working Scheme on Reducing Costs for Real Economy Enterprises” (hereafter: the Scheme), stating that in order to reduce labour costs for enterprises, the statutory minimum wage would be reviewed once every three years and the statutory minimum wage for 2017 would be kept at the level of 2015. This is the first case in China, that minimum wage in a province remains unchanged for three years.

 

The Scheme announces that in order to follow and execute the future development strategy drafted by the Central Government, the Guangdong Provincial Government would conduct reforms in enterprises and policies. Its goal is to cut operating costs for enterprises and push for “supply-side structural reform”. Thus, it plans to reduce the tax rates for all industries, cut labour costs, and other operating costs, and hence, promote competitiveness and ensure economic stability or even growth in Guangdong, under the background of the ongoing economic downturn in China. Back in 2016, the Guangdong Provincial Government declared that it would freeze minimum wage between 2016 and 2017, gradually reduced the employers’ contribution to employees’ pension insurance and housing provident funds to 14 % and not higher than 12% respectively. At the same time, consumer price index in Guangdong Province has increased by 1.5% and 2.3% in 2015 and 2016 respectively, according to National Bureau of Statistics. In other words, though the statutory minimum wage remain frozen due to the so-called economic downturn, prices continue to hike.


A stable supply of jobs become an important rhetoric of the Central Government in recent years. Premier Li Keqiang delivered the annual government work report at the fifth session of the 12th National People's Congress recently, calling “employment creates wealth and is a main source of household income”. Stable employment does not only mean job opportunities, but also job quality, as the Central Government has been pushing for fair distribution of resources and narrowing the income gap in recent years. Statutory minimum wages, according to previous studies conducted by different civil society organizations, have been an important indicator for enterprises in setting frontline workers’ wages. To freeze minimum wage would inevitably affect their livelihood. The State Council promulgated an “Employment Promotion Plan (2011-2015)” in February 2012, aiming to promote an annual growth of wage at 13% all over China and “statutory minimum wage should reach 40% or above the local employees’ average wage”. However, Guangdong Province failed to meet these goals by the end of the fifth session of the 12th National People’s Congress. In 2015, statutory minimum wage level was only equivalent to 28% of the average local wage, falling far behind the expectation of the State Council’s Plan. The new Scheme to freeze the statutory minimum wage clearly violates the national policy directives and regulations. In future, it might be challenged and even face administrative litigation initiated by workers.

 

 

Though economic growth has slowed down, Guangdong Province’s GDP has been increased by 8% and 7.5% in 2015 and 2016 respectively. In 2016, its GDP reached almost 8 trillions Yuan, amounting to 10.7% of the national GDP. With such glamorous growth, the decision to freeze minimum wage is sending a message that the Guangdong Government has no intention to share prosperity with the workers. It also illustrates that the current minimum wage could not reflect workers’ real needs. To address workers’ real needs, the government should make its standards and calculation methods of statutory minimum wage public, develop a transparent assessment mechanism and invite workers to participate, rather than decisions made solely by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and participation from state-run trade union and business associations. Meanwhile, the provincial government should pursuit the goal of raising the statutory minimum wage to 40% of local employees’ average wage, instead of freezing them for 3 years. The revision of statutory minimum wage should not be lower than the growth of GDP, i.e. the basic guarantee to share economic prosperity with workers, to stabilize the society for sustainable development.

Interview with Dr Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang,

01

Jun 2017

an researcher of sex workers in China

 
China is estimated to have four to six million sex workers. However, the society still holds many misconceptions about this vast number of workers. In this issue of China Labour Quarterly, we are honoured to have Dr Eileen Tsang, assistant professor of Department of Applied Social Science of City University of Hong Kong to discuss the issue with. Dr. Tsang has conducted extensive research on sex workers in China in past years. Her research aims to understand sex workers from different perspectives and hopes to eliminate the prejudice the general public has developed against sex workers.

 

During the interview, Dr Tsang repeatedly emphasized “sex work is work” and the public should not have prejudice against sex workers. The traditional social role of sex workers and the social discourses used to describe sex workers as being forced into prostitution or caused by their self deprivation. However, among her interviewees, she does not identify anyone who was forced into prostitution. On the contrary, sex industry provides prospects of upward social mobility, self-recognition and independence for low skilled workers with lower educational attainment.


Dr Tsang’s research reveals that low-end sex workers are often migrant workers who used to work in low-skilled manufacturing jobs, such as in garment or electronics factories. Most of them have only attended primary or middle schools. In 2008, the global financial crisis left a vast number of workers unemployed and many of them joined the sex industry to make their ends meet. Dr Tsang also notices that manufacturing workers face enormous exploitation. Low income, long working hours, poor occupational safety standards and precarious working conditions are some of the everyday challenges of these workers. Furthermore, rigid workplace environment does not offer them self-affirmation, since they are not able to rest and live freely due to the strict regulations imposed by factory managements. Although as sex workers, they would face discrimination, be exploited and extorted by pimps, clients and police, but why would such a large number of workers still choose to join the sex workforce? Dr Tsang’s research shows that when compared to manufacturing jobs, sex industry provides workers with higher income and more freedom. Workers realize that they become more independent and hence, enjoy a higher degree of freedom. Occasionally they feel even appreciated and recognized by their clients, a positive feeling the factory jobs could not offer. Higher income and more freedom turns out to be an important source of social capital for migrant workers. As today’s Chinese society is heavily dominated by consumerism and the motto “cash is king”, extra income and more leisure time help migrants to integrate better into the urban lifestyle, move upward socially, and expand their social circle. Through their job, many sex workers are able to improve their social status and gain self recognition.


Dr Tsang’s study does not only offer an in-depth analysis of sex workers’ mentalities, but also reveals the hopelessness migrant workers face in their career development and the lack of opportunity in upward mobility. Grassroots workers can hardly improve their skill level due to long working hours and rigid workplace settings; low income keeps their socio-economic status immobile and the worst of it, their dignity as workers is deprived by the inhuman treatment of factory management. In short, workers could neither feel independent, nor recognized at their workplace. Thus, to look into the needs of grassroots workers in China, in terms of career and personal development, is an important aspect in promoting labour rights in China.

Finding the Culprit behind Sino-Hong Kong Clashes

01

Jun 2017

Class or Nationalist Conflicts?

In recent years, Chinese investment in Hong Kong has become a hot topic in the financial news. From McDonald's Corp. selling its controlling stake in its Hong Kong operations to CITIC Group, to China Telecom obtaining a MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) license in Hong Kong, all indicate that Chinese capital is taking up a sizeable share of the market in Hong Kong. According to Census and Statistics Department’s report released in December 2016, near half of Hong Kong’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in 2015 came from the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, the three major hot spots of offshore companies; FDI from China amounted to only 27%. It is believed that a large amount of Chinese FDI entered the Hong Kong market via offshore companies, to avoid being identified. The case of “the 88 Queensway Group” in 2015 illustrates how Chinese capital invests in foreign countries through offshore companies, its intertwined relationship between Chinese Government, state-owned enterprises and alleged corruptions.

 

Reported by Initium Media, Hong Kong businessman Sam Pa controlled 29 companies, which were known as “the 88 Queensway Group”, served as a middleman to arrange African crude oil trade to China and Chinese investment in African infrastructure. Among these 29 companies, 19 of them are partly or wholly owned by offshore companies registered in the British Virgin Islands. Offshore companies are not required to disclose its shareowners and directors, which attract politicians and business owners to transfer their capital overseas for unlawful deals or tax evasion. If the sources of FDI from offshore companies is considered, Chinese FDI in Hong Kong would be far beyond the statistics have shown.


In fact, Chinese capital has penetrated all sectors in Hong Kong, from large-scale infrastructure, building and engineering, retailing, catering, telecom and many other businesses, are openly or secretly operating by Chinese capital. For example, MINISO, a home product enterprise which has grown rapidly in Hong Kong, is a subsidiary of Guangdong Aiyaya Company, high-end retailers such as Suning Appliance Group and Zhou Liu Fu Jewellery are the successful examples of Chinese companies’ expansion to Hong Kong. In the telecom sector, as early as 1997, China Resources Co. Ltd. owned mobile phone services provider Peoples. It was later acquired by China Mobile. Its rival China Unicom is also active in Hong Kong. Apart from expanding their business to Hong Kong, some Chinese companies enter the Hong Kong market by means of acquisitions. Traditional newspapers such as Ming Pao Daily and South China Morning Post have been bought by companies with Chinese background. New media such as Initium Media and HK01 are also known to be mainly invested by Chinese capital. In catering, Pacific Coffee has been acquired by CR Enterprise (known as CR Beer now) in 2010, Epicurean & Co. Ltd. and Pokka HK have been bought by Chinese capital and now McDonald’s operations in Hong Kong would be sold to CITIC Group. Chinese capital has become a significant presence in the service sector in Hong Kong and is likely to have an impact on people’s everyday life. Yet, its most significant impact so far is on the real estate market.

 

 

Instead of teaming up with Hong Kong proprietors in joint-development projects, there is a trend in recent years that Chinese developers are now participating in government land auctions as sole proprietor or collaborate with other Chinese enterprises. For example, a consortium of Chinese developers won the bid of Wong Chuk Hang Station (Phase 1) project. According to Jones Lang LaSalle, Inc.’s “Hong Kong Residential Sales Market”, issued in February 2017, the seven major Hong Kong developers bid 45% of residential land on auctions in 2012. However by 2016, the figure dropped to 22%. On the contrary, Chinese developers tend to have a higher purchasing power and motivation than local developers. During the financial year of 2016/2017, the seven major local developers paid an average bidding price of HKD5,827 per square foot, small / medium-scale developers paid HKD8,602 and Chinese developers paid HKD13,382 at land auctions. This illustrates that Chinese developers are willing to pay astronomical price for “premium estate”. Thus, transaction price is far beyond market value in government land auctions recent years. For example, HNA Group, which has a close relationship with the Chinese Government, bid for 4 pieces of land in Kai Tat. With their “special” background. Chinese developers could afford a price higher than the market value and surpass the affordability of local developers.

According to the statistics of Santander Bank, FDI in Hong Kong in 2015 was mainly placed in non-productive economic sectors, known as "hot money", such as stocks and real estate. The influx of Chinese funds into the housing market is perceived to be one of the reasons for the ongoing hikes in property prices, despite various policies, such as the Double Stamp Duty, were implemented to “cool down” the market. Yet, as Chinese Government continues to combat property market speculation in the mainland, coupling with the risk of RMB devaluation, Chinese capital continues to flee the domestic market as the property market in Hong Kong is deemed to be one of the best hedge investments for Chinese capital. Midlands Holdings’ statistics show that in the second quarter of 2016, first-hand and second-hand residential properties sold to Chinese buyers have been increased by 236% and 85% quarter on quarter respectively, and they increased by 35% and 18% respectively in the third quarter of the year as well. It shows that although the Chinese Government attempted to restrict capital outflow, it could not stop the trend. Previously, Chinese capital preferred investing in commercial properties, but now it extends its grasp on residential properties that instigates the housing price to peak. This does not only cause housing problems, but also inflation in other consumer goods in Hong Kong. In a way, it is becoming a new form of “real estate hegemony”.


Livelihood issues have always been the cause of conflicts between Hong Kong people and Chinese people. Children born in Hong Kong by non-local parents, shortage of baby milk powder in Hong Kong caused by Chinese shoppers, grey goods traders, to housing problems, it is very often that livelihood issues cause political conflicts between Hong Kong and China. However, many of us fail to see that these conflicts are triggered by Chinese capitalists exploiting common people in both China and Hong Kong. To resolve Hong Kong people’s livelihood problems, to join force with China’s working class in resisting the cross-border exploitation by Chinese capital, is indeed the resolution Hong Kong people should look into.

Right to Communicate Violated:

01

Jun 2017

Labour Activist Detained and Isolated for 16 Months

 

Chinese labour activist Meng Han was sentenced to a prison term of 21 months by Panyu District Court of Guangzhou City on 3 November 2016,  for "gathering crowds to disrupt public order" as he helped organize workers to defend their rights. He was then sent to serve his sentence in Shaoguan Prison of Guangdong Province and is expected to be released in September 2017. Together with the detention prior the sentence, Meng has been detained for over 16 months. Since his detention on 3 December 2015, his family has attempted to visit him over a dozen times but in vain. No matter it was the No.1 Detention Centre of Guangzhou or Shaoguan Prison, the authorities denied his family’s rights to see him. In late March 2017, Meng’s parents visited Shaoguan Prison again and was told that Meng had been going through education and therefore could not be visited. Frustrated, his family made various complaints at the Bureau of Public Security and never received any feedback. Now, they start to feel extremely worried about Meng’s conditions.

 

In fact, Meng’s freedom has been deprived by the Chinese Government through unjust means. By violating his rights to communicate with the outside world, the Chinese authority has further violated Meng’s fundamental human rights and even its own legislation. Article 48 of China’s Prison Law states, “A prisoner may, in accordance with the relevant regulations, meet with his relatives and guardians during the service of his sentence.”; UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners also guarantees prisoners’ rights to communicate with the outside world,  Rule 58 states, “Prisoners shall be allowed, under necessary supervision, to communicate with their family and friends at regular intervals:(a) By corresponding in writing and using, where available, telecommunication, electronic, digitals and other means; and (b) By receiving visits.” During his 16-month detention, Meng was not allowed to see his family and his trial last year was conducted secretly, without his parents’ presence. Meng’s father tried to remit money to Meng through China Post (for him to spend in the prison) but the remittances were returned. Without Meng’s news for such a long time and being constantly worried about his son’s situation, Meng’s father became ill and hospitalized.


To silent the victims of its arbitrary detentions and violent crackdown against labour activists, Chinese Government turns a blind eye to its own legislation, as well as the international minimum standard. It is disturbing that Meng Han’s personal safety and human rights conditions are not to be known to the outside world. In any case, Meng Han’s duty to defend labour rights as a staff in a labour NGO is, not the least bit, an act of crime. Thus, the Chinese Government is responsible to respect Meng Han’s basic rights and stop all suppression against labour rights activists and unconditionally release Meng with immediate effect.

Chinese Capital Capturing Overseas Energy Industry

22

Mar 2017

Due to the slowdown in China's economic growth and the growing domestic overcapacity in recent years, the Chinese Government and enterprises have participated in a number of overseas investment and construction projects. In December 2015, when Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the China-Africa Cooperation Forum, he promised to invest US $60 billion in Africa during the next three years and support local construction of roads and railways. Apart from Africa, Latin America is also the destination of China's production and capital. In this issue, we interviewed a German scholar Dr. Jörg Nowak (Assistant Professor (Visiting), Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong) who in recent years studied the process of strikes in India and Brazil, and witnessed Chinese enterprises attempting to invest or acquire Brazilian enterprises. 

 

 

Lately, the Brazilian government is actively preparing for a number of energy-related infrastructure projects. For instance, the current Brazilian government is studying the possibility of building dozens of hydroelectric power stations in the Amazon Forest, in order to solve the problem of hydropower generation in recent years. Leaving aside the impact of the plan on the environment, this plan is a good opportunity for Brazilian construction companies. However, due to the Brazilian political and business corruption scandal in 2014, a large number of Brazilian construction industry executives and bosses were exposed. Moreover, the Brazilian economy has been declining seriously since 2015. These Brazilian companies urgently need foreign investments to maintain business operations, so Chinese investments and acquisitions are welcomed by the Brazilian Government and businesses. "The ruling right-wing coalition has been questioning if the Rothschild government has worked too closely with the Chinese government to make Brazil a raw material supplier," Nowak said. "They think that Brazil should trade with the United States because the US deal was majority in industrial products, and I thought they were telling the truth, but after the right wing came to power, we did not hear them against the sound of Chinese capital coming into Brazil."

 


Chinese capital is currently investing in Brazilian energy companies or construction companies holding shares of energy companies. According to the International Energy Organization data, China's investments in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Uruguay's solar power generation is the largest in the region. "In 2016, China's total investment in Brazil's energy projects surpassed the US for the first time and there was a report published yesterday (January 25, 2017) that the State Grid Corporation had successfully acquired large-scale energy companies in Brazil." Nowak here refers to the central enterprises of the State Grid Corporation on January 24, successfully acquired more than half of the shares of CPFL company which was Brazil's largest private energy companies. The acquisition is also the largest foreign investment projects of the State Grid Corporation, making this corporation achieve a comprehensive coverage of investment in energy transmission, distribution, new energy power generation, electricity and other business areas in Brazil. In addition, there may be a new hydroelectric power projects launching in the near future. Chinese capital is expected to gradually increase its market share in energy industry locally.


However, Nowak believes that China will not copy their investment model in Africa to make a large-scale investment in Latin America. Instead it will selectively invest in projects based in areas that can gain bank financing nationally and internationally. For example, the above-mentioned two-phase railway, the hydroelectric power plant plans and energy companies, which are currently in the research stage. He believes that the cost of labour in Latin America is still higher than in Africa and South-East Asia. Therefore, the Chinese government will have more interest in investing in agricultural products, raw materials and some special projects rather than industrial investment projects.

Chinese Workers Become the First Victim

22

Mar 2017

of Continuous Foreign Investment Withdrawal

 
In mid-November 2016, Coca-Cola announced to sell its bottling assets in China to Swire Pacific Ltd and China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation (COFCO). Under the realignment, Coca-Cola will cease to run bottling operations in mainland China. Workers in its plants in Jilin, Chongqing and Chengdu became worried about if the new employers would alter their labour conditions after the acquisition. Thus, they demand a buy-out offer with full severance payments from Coca-Cola and a guarantee from the new employees to reemploy them with the same terms and conditions (known as retrenchment before reinstatement). Yet, Coca-Cola’s silence angered workers leading to a strike on 21 November 2016. Police stepped in and seized the Chongqing plant. Numerous workers were assaulted and seven workers, including an expectant mother, were detained.

 

 

As China’s economic slowdown deepens and local governments are pushing for industrial upgrade, foreign-invested low-end manufacturers are gradually leaving China and thus, labour conflicts surface. When foreign-owned plants are sold to Chinese enterprises, workers often demand a buy-out offer. Hong Kong workers might find it confusing, as they tend to prioritize job security and would be satisfied if they would be employed by the original terms and conditions and be allowed to keep their seniority under the new ownership. In contrast to that, the “China’s Labour Contract Law” guarantees that the change of investors would not affect the implementation of the original labour contracts. In other words, Chinese workers seem to have more job security even a new employer comes in. Why do they have to take it to the street and demand retrenchment before reinstatement?


The Coca-Cola case illustrates the fate of many workers in foreign enterprises in recent years. Change of ownership makes workers anxious, due to many previous examples of new owners forcing workers to resign or cutting the workforce down, making the “Labour Contract Law” a toothless tiger and costing workers to lose the seniority-based severance payments. Moreover, foreign enterprises are often better monitored and employees receive better wages and welfares when compared with their counterparts in Chinese-owned enterprises. When a foreign enterprise employs an employee, it is required to follow the OECD Guidelines and thus, the working hours and occupational safety policies provide better protection to workers. As they invest globally, their corporate conducts are monitored by consumers’ campaigns, NGOs and trade unions in the western world. Chinese-invested enterprises are not subjected to OECD Guidelines, which includes guidelines on labour conditions. For example, China Foods Ltd., a subsidiary of COFCO transferred the ownership of Leconte Chocolate to another COFCO’s subsidiary COFCO Property (Group) Co. Ltd. in March 2016. After the ownership transfer, the new employer closed plants, downsized the workforce significantly and sold all assets, except properties. An industrial action broke out in August 2016, but for a state-owned enterprise like COFCO, it can easily commission the local governments and labour authorities to take its side and launch repression against workers. The lack of protection of workers in Chinese-owned enterprises make workers come up with the “retrenchment before reinstatement” strategy, to first get the seniority-based severance payments before they become worth nothing after the ownership transfer.


Labour actions triggered by factory closures, relocations or redundancies have increased continuously in recent years. It is getting more difficult for workers to claim their missing wages and social insurance back and reemployment remains a challenge. At the same time, Chinese Government adopts heavy-handed measures to crack down civil society, increasing workers’ risks to fight for their rights; the Chinese trade unions fails to safeguard workers’ rights; all these make the future grim for Chinese workers.

International Labour Organization Urged the Chinese Government

22

Mar 2017

to Stop Suppression on Freedom of Association

 
In December 2015, the Guangdong Provincial Government launched a mass crackdown against labour activists, detaining over 25 volunteers and employees of labour NGOs. Some of them were released after interrogation, but six of them, Meng Han, Zhu Xiaomei, Tang Huanxing, Zeng Feiyang, Peng Jiayong, and Deng Xiaoming have been charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order”. Another detainee, He Xiaobo was accused of “embezzlement”. In September 2016, Zeng Feiyang was sentenced to 3 years in prison and suspended for 4 years; while Zhu Xiaomei and Tang Huanxing were sentenced to 1.5 years and suspended for 2 years.  Meng Han was later sentenced to 21 months in prison on November 2016.

 

HKCTU's press conference on introducing the details of the ILO Interim Report

 

In response, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) wrote to International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in January 2016, calling for them to file a formal complaint at the ILO’s Committee of Freedom of Association (CFA) demanding the Chinese Government to stop its repression on freedom of association, which the ITUC did in February, 2016. Subsequently, the CFA released an interim report in November, 2016 and stating their regrets that Zeng Feiyang, Zhu Xiaomei, Meng Han, Deng Xiaoming, Peng Jiayong and Tang Jian were detained for their involvement in the Lide Factory’s collective labour action between December 2014 and April 2015. Meanwhile, the CFA urged the Chinese Government to take the necessary steps to ensure that freedom of association is protected and labour activists are allowed to continue to provide advisory services to workers without hindrance. It demands the Chinese Government to conclude the pending investigations and provide court judgements of labour activists once they are completed. The report also reiterated that the CFA had repeatedly criticized the Chinese Government in previous cases of labour rights violations, but have yet to see any measure taken by the authorities to improve the situation.


HKCTU welcomes the judgements made by CFA and urges the Chinese Government to positively respond to CFA’s recommendations, namely to stop obstructing labour activists in safeguarding labour rights, respect workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining.

Torn Between Authoritarian Rule and Right-Wing Populism:

22

Mar 2017

The New Challenge of Hong Kong's Democratic Labour Movement

 

 

The democratic labour movement in Hong Kong encountered numerous challenges in 2016. At the eve of May Day 2016, the major student unions from nine universities, which had previously been on friendly terms with the HKCTU, released a joint statement, declaring their withdrawal from the Solidarity March hosted by the HKCTU. In their eyes, union struggles are “simply a matter of rituals”, “claiming to safeguard workers’ rights and interests, pleading the communist-run Hong Kong Government to pity and improve Hong Kong people’s situation, yet no improvement on labour rights has been achieved in Hong Kong.” Since its establishment in 1990, the HKCTU has always practiced social movement unionism. HKCTU is not only a crucial team-player in fighting for democratic movements, but also in student movements. Of the two major strikes of the last decade, namely the bar-benders strike of 2007 and dockers strike of 2013, student organizations also worked closely with the HKCTU to support workers’ struggles.

 

 

Dr. Chan King Chin Chris
(Associate Professor,
Department of Applied Social Sciences,
City University of Hong Kong)

 

However, after the Umbrella Movement in 2014, a structural change took place in the Hong Kong society. Disappointed by the “fruitless” Occupy Central Movement with some 200,000 participants and angered by China’s brutal repression against civil society in Hong Kong, people started to turn to right-wing populism. Thus, the call of “Hongkongers first”, local organizations and political parties with a pro-independence agenda come into existence and are supported by the youth, causing the traditional college student unions to change their stance on labour support. In discussing most of the social policies, the HKCTU upholds the principles of internationalism and criticizes the narrow-minded localism. For instances, the HKCTU fought with migrant workers for the right to abode in Hong Kong and it also supports new immigrants from China to be covered by social welfares. In the light of this background, HKCTU does not only fight for social and political reform in Hong Kong, but also cares and supports the development of labour and democratic movement in China. HKCTU’s general secretary Lee Cheuk-yan served as the second chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. The rise of right-wing populism is posing new political challenges to HKCTU’s internationalism and its perspective on China.


In the Legislative Council Election in September 2016, Labour Party, a political party established by HKCTU and other activists in 2011, suffered heavy losses and lost three seats with only one seat left after the election. One of the legislators who lost their seat was Lee Cheuk-yan, who has been in office since 1995. Replacing them were six young candidates who support “localism”, including three moderate-left localists and three extreme-right localists, who were all elected with high votes. Lee Cheuk-yan has been a well-respected leader in democratic movement and union movement. HKCTU and Lee played a major supporting role in the Umbrella Movement, despite they were not the leaders and founders of the movement. Yet, the pro-Beijing media keeps defaming them of receiving foreign fund to Occupy Central. Two years after the Umbrella Movement, Lee lost the election. This symbolizes the difficulties faced by the democratic labour movement, namely being suppressed by both the authoritarian regime in China and the local right-wing populism in Hong Kong.

 


After becoming a major economic power in the world, China is also changing its ruling policies, both internationally and domestically. Its policies on Hong Kong and Macau is a mix of both. Since he took office in 2012, President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and Chinese Dream rhetoric have made him popular domestically and his “One Belt One Road” and “Free Trade” plans gained him a positive image internationally. However, he also tightened his grip on civil society and labour movement. China does not only deprive Hong Kong people of their right to universal suffrage, but also increasingly interferes with domestic issues in Hong Kong, such as interference in election, cross-border law enforcement and etc., more and more people start to doubt the existence of “One Country Two Systems”. In terms of economic development and livelihood, China continues and even strengthens the neo-liberalist economic practices inherited from the Colonial Era. This leads to a decline in Hong Kong’s social development, leaving it a less socially developed place than its neighbours, such as the Four Little Dragons in Asia and mainland China. In recent years, HKCTU and its partner organizations have been advocating for reforms in social policies, such as the legislation of standard working hours, universal pension scheme and etc. When the current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was running for “election” five years ago, he promised to take these policies into serious consideration. Yet, with half a year left in his current term, these promises remain empty. Two major candidates of the upcoming Chief Executive election, who are both previous ministers, expressed their unwillingness to implement these two basic labour welfare policies. In short, this election has become a race between the vested interests of business sector and the Chinese Government, while labour rights fail to draw public attention as it did in the previous election.


Facing the enormous political repression and threat from China, supporters of the new localism and the traditional democrats are both exploring new strategies to survive and develop. Yet, none of them choose to combine democratic movement with labour movement, to push for social democratic reform. Instead, some opt to partner with local bourgeoisie. John Tsang, the former finance minister who runs for the upcoming Chief Executive election, successfully builds a “local Hongkonger” image while his policy programme reflects only the interests of Hong Kong entrepreneurs. A large number of Election Committee members, including from major democratic parties such as Democratic Party and Civic Party, and some independent members decided to endorse Tsang, despite their long term opposition to real estate hegemony. How the democratic labour movement would resist such an internal conflict and external repression, is a serious question to explore in future.

Foreign NGO Law

22

Mar 2017

A Spell over China’s Civil Society

“Law of the People’s Republic of China on Administration of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations Activities within China” (hereafter Foreign NGO Law) came into effect on January 1, 2017. Together with the “Charity Law” which became effective since 1 September 2016, these two laws were implemented within a few months to regulate activities of civil organizations. In line with Xi Jinping’s approach of “governing the country by law”, they restricted citizens’ rights by legal frameworks to achieve political stabilization. The laws provided a more grounded legal base for arresting and prosecuting dissidents, so that it would not be necessary to use “pocket laws” such as “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “illegal assembly and disturbance of public order” in prosecution.  The Foreign NGO Law is actually tightening up the space of civil society.  The purpose of its legislation and its potential impact could be considered from two aspects: 1) the set-up of monitoring system, and 2) regulations on business scope.

Dual-management by public security and administration department puts all NGO activities under surveillance

First of all, the law requires all foreign NGOs operating in China to register with the Public Security Department (Police) through relevant “professional supervisory units”. This requirement treats foreign NGOs as potential threats to social order and places the foreign NGOs under the management of the public security department.  At the same time, the foreign NGOs have to submit work reports and financial reports to “professional supervisory units” and declare their financial sources and transactions, and details of their funding plans (Article 19 and 20). In other words, all activities and financial information of the foreign NGOs are under close monitoring of government departments. Under this monitoring system, domestic NGOs receiving funding supporting from or cooperating with foreign NGOs are also under full surveillance. In a democratic and free country, an accountable NGO has the due diligence to disclose operations and financial details to public. However, in a totalitarian state ruled by persons, such as China, stringent monitoring systems are government’s tools to control domestic and foreign NGOs. Activities and projects operated by foreign NGOs in the country are under the regulation of Foreign NGO Law.

 

 

 

“Grey areas” disappeared as business scopes are regulated

According to Article 3 of the Foreign NGO Law, “foreign NGOs may carry out activities that will benefit the development of public welfare in such fields as economy, education, science and technology, culture, health, sports, environmental protection and in such aspects as poverty alleviating and disaster relief in accordance with this Law”. The Foreign NGO Law also states that foreign NGOs “shall not threaten China’s national unity and safety and the unity of all ethnic groups of China; shall not jeopardize China’s national interests”, and that “foreign NGOs shall not engage in or provide financial support to for-profit activities or political activities within China. They are also forbidden to illegally conduct or sponsor religious activities.” (Article 5) These clauses set limitations on activities of foreign NGOs and excluded political activities disapproved by Chinese Communist Party from legal framework. One can expect that besides socially high-risk organizations (such as human right or social advocacy groups), other foreign NGOs not working within the above business scope will also have difficulties in finding a “professional supervisory unit” and become legally registered for activities in China.

 

Civil society disempowered upon as new law takes effect

The purpose of the Foreign NGO Law is to screen organizations acceptable to Chinese Communist Party through “professional supervisory units”, legalize their status through registration and “file documentation”, and drive unwelcomed organizations out of China. As the Foreign NGO Law came into effect, civil society in China can no longer work under the “grey area”. All organizations which do not have the blessings from “professional supervisory units” are considered illegal. However, the law only listed general screening criteria (such as “shall not jeopardize China’s national interests” or “involved in political activities”) without elaborations or objective standards of these actions. The definition of eligibility would be fully controlled by local “professional supervisory units” and public security department.  The law has granted local government departments the “flexibility” which put many foreign NGOs in ambiguous situation.  The person-in-charge of an organization with projects in various parts of China said, “Sometimes the registration depends on the relations between the organizations and related departments, and how much the local government relies on the projects. For example, provinces relatively poor in resources usually hold more open attitude to NGOs.” Definition of sensitive issues also varies according to local politics. Some provincial or prefectural governments are more tolerant to environmental organizations investigating private enterprises which violated environmental protection laws, as they can maintain relations with the enterprises while meeting the directives handed down by the Central Government. However, similar behaviors may not be acceptable in other provinces or prefectures. In the future, one organization may be registered in some provinces and prefectures while forbidden to operate in other provinces or prefectures.  The risk of “making mistakes” would be much higher for some organizations which have been operating along the borderlines. For self-protection, these organizations may stop operation of high risk projects in the future.


The impact of enactment of Foreign NGO Law on those organizations working along borderlines may mostly be change in strategy or creation of more administrative workload. However, for those civil rights-based organizations, the law means “China does not welcome you to work in the country”. By excluding these organizations from the legal framework, it also raises their risk levels as they are considered illegal organizations in the country. In the future, if the Chinese government wants to outlaw these organizations or arrest their staff, there’s no need to use the “pocket laws” which are weak in legal basis. The basis for “law enforcement” will be stronger and the political cost will be reduced. This is in line with Xi Jinping’s approach of “governing the country by law” by limiting spaces of civil society with draconian laws. It also posts threats to foreign NGOs which are operating in “grey areas” or “restricted areas”. Some international organizations are preparing to withdraw from China and relocate their resources to regions with lower risks. The implementation of Foreign NGO Law has immediately resulted in self-censorship or relocation by some foreign NGOs, which has somehow weakened the strength of Chinese civil society and social reform.  No matter how the new law will be implemented and executed in the future, it is already creating more difficulties to civil society and NGOs in China.

Hong Kong-listed companies cheat Chinese workers out of their hard-earned money

24

Dec 2016

while the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong Limited (the Exchange) turns a blind eye

The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) has set up a “Monitoring Database of Hong Kong Enterprises in China” three years ago, to acquire information through media, social media, and interviews with labour organizations and workers in China. This year, the “Monitoring Report on Collective Labour Disputes of Hong Kong Enterprises in China” (Monitoring Report) covers from May 2015 to June 2016.  It documents large-scale labour disputes in Hong Kong enterprises and their labour violations, and aims to monitor multinational brands and Hong Kong entrepreneurs. It also advocates the Hong Kong Government to better monitor Hong Kong-listed enterprises’ conducts in other countries / territories. Last year, the Monitoring Report (2015) disclosed that many Hong Kong enterprises failed to pay for workers’ social security contributions and consequently led to a wave of strikes. This year, the Monitoring Report tells us about how these Hong Kong enterprises use relocation, equity transfer, restructuring, and prolonged wages arrears to force workers into “voluntary resignation”, in order to avoid paying severance compensation as required by law. Almost 60% (59.3%) of the cases of collective labour disputes are related to missing severance compensation and some of them involve listed companies in Hong Kong. Likewise, wages arrears take place in 56.3% of all collective labour disputes cases.

 

Hong Kong-listed Royale Furniture Holdings Ltd. is suspected to send triad members to dispense workers and avoid paying severance compensation

Among the 32 cases of collective labour disputes in Hong Kong enterprises, almost 60% (19 cases) are caused by unpaid or missing severance compensation. Over 20% of them involved subsidiaries of Hong Kong-listed companies. Royale Furniture Holdings Limited (HKG: 1198) is one of them. During the National Day holidays in 2015, Signature Enterprise Company Limited (Guangzhou), a subsidiary of Royale Furniture Holdings Limited, moved machineries to another production site, about two hours drive from its Guangzhou plant, without informing its workers. Such a secret relocation is meant to avoid paying severance pay to workers.

 

 

Hiding plan of relocation from workers and accusing workers of “voluntary resignation”

According to an online platform which documents collective labour disputes, Signature Enterprise deployed triad members to threaten workers. Workers recalled that their employer offered them an extraordinary long holiday and when they returned to work (the morning of 8 October 2015), they found the factory gate had been locked and over 100 men were blocking their entrance. These men were all uniformly dressed in black T-shirts and camouflage pants. Workers were stopped when they walked forward to ask for a reason and three of them experienced minor injuries when a conflict broke out with these men.


Workers then came with a banner to protest. They reflected, “the employer never asked us about the relocation.” Then the enterprise posted a “Notice of Return to Work” some days later, which ordered workers to take a coach organized by the enterprise on 19 October, to travel to work in the new plant in Zengcheng, approximately two hours drive one way. Xiao Liu, a worker of Signature Enterprise, explained, “we are not willing to go there because our families are here, we can’t just go there and work.” He pointed to workers who guarded at the factory gate, “these workers have aging parents, babies and primary school aged children to take care of. It is unrealistic that the employer simply asks us to go over.” After Signature Enterprise’s relocation, Royale Furniture dismissed workers who did not go to work in the new plant, accusing them of “voluntary resignation” after five days of “failing to attend work”.

 

Lack of transparency, the Exchange’s neglect to monitor listed companies

Johnson Electrics (Guangdong) Limited is wholly owned by Hong Kong listed company Johnson Electrics (HKG: 0179). The plant ignores occupational safety, violates the local work safety regulations, fails to provide appropriate protective measures or training on working with chemicals. At least six workers contracted leukaemia, which may have been caused by prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals such as benzene and thinners. However, Johnson Electrics refused to pay for their medical expenses or their wages. When Zou Xiuhua, one of the six victims, demanded the employer to pay for his medical expenses he was told by the company: “we have so many workers with leukaemia in the enterprise, if I pay for your medical expenses, what should I do with other sick workers?”

 

Currently, at least four workers from Johnson Electrics have officially been diagnosed with occupational leukaemia, by the Hospital for Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment. Despite this, Johnson Electrics adopts delaying tactics and refuses to pay the related compensations. For example, Zeng Shumei, a female worker who entered the factory in 2009, was diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukaemia M2a in 2013. The Guangdong Provincial Hospital for Occupational Disease Prevention and Treatment also identified it as a case of occupational cancer. Yet, Johnson Electrics appealed and delayed the procedure in providing related information for an official diagnosis, which kept her case in limbo. Likewise, leukaemia victims were offered a meeting with Liang Yanfan, general manager of Johnson Electrics’ Human Resources Department in Shajing Plant in Shenzhen, but they were physically assaulted after the meeting. Workers came to protest in Hong Kong twice. Johnson Electrics “agreed” to meet again with workers but continued using delaying tactics once the media stopped following the case.


The HKCTU lodged a complaint at the Exchange and provided evidence of workers’ official diagnosis of occupational disease, accusing Johnson Electrics of violating Chinese labour legislations and failing to pay workers their legal compensation. However, the Exchange refused to meet, not even with the severely ill victims who travelled to Hong Kong. The exchange wrote to the HKCTU, calling the complaint insignificant to Johnson Electrics and refused to further process it. In fact, the Exchange has never disclosed its investigation procedure or evaluation criteria. With such a lack of transparency, how can the Exchange be trusted that it would uphold public interests and monitor listed company impartially?

 

 

Listed Companies’ Disclosure of Information: a laughing stock

In July 2015, the Exchange amended its policies on listed companies’ disclosure of information and released a consultation paper “Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Reporting Guide” (Reporting Guide). Amendments would then be applicable to the Listing Rules. Labour standards are included in the social aspect in the Reporting Guide. The Reporting Guide upgraded the disclosure of some aspects from “recommended disclosure” to “comply or explain”. During the consultation period, the HKCTU wrote to the Exchange and recommended “a set of clear disclosure guidelines and criteria” of labour standards for listed companies to comply with. A listed company has a responsibility to clearly inform their investors, employees and public about its labour standards and the compliance of labour protection, for the stakeholders to make informed evaluation of the impact of the company’s labour violations on themselves. The Exchange eventually demands listed companies to disclose “related policies” on labour rights and their compliance with labour legislations, but without the detailed records of the frequency of labour violations and related labour actions. For example, in Hutchison Whampoa Limited’s Annual Report 2014, the impact of Hong Kong Dockers’ Strike on its turnover was not spelled out. Though stakeholders might be aware of the labour action, they are not informed about the loss such an industrial action could lead to. As a fact, the amendments neither encourage listed companies to implement policies to protect workers, nor promote better governance to the public. They even fail to protect investors’ interests, as they lack details from the disclosure of information, if those self-proclaimed policies by the listed companies have been implemented or proven effective.  


This year’s Monitoring Report illustrates that in the midst of Guangdong’s economic transformation and as economic slowdown deepens in China, even Hong Kong listed companies would sacrifice workers’ basic legal rights and exploit them mercilessly. Labour conditions in small or medium-scale enterprises can only be more appalling. The cases described above also show that the Exchange connive listed companies, in both aspects of policy making and implementation. The Exchange’s lack of transparency is unhelpful in monitoring the listed companies’ compliance of corporate social responsibility and protecting the public’s right to know. As a result, the Exchange fails to provide concrete protection to both Chinese workers and investors.

Unusual Features of China’s Walmart Workers’ Resistance

24

Dec 2016

China has experienced an increasing number of strikes in the last few years. Among them, the Walmart workers’ protest that is now in its third month marks a new stage in post-Mao labour history. The protest exhibits a number of special features. First, while all of the strikes so far have taken place at single workplaces, coordinated strikes erupted at the same time this year at four Walmart stores in different cities. Second, these strikes, as well as protests at many other Walmart stores, were initiated and organized by workers themselves without prior contact with any labour NGOs. Third, the protests have been coordinated through the internet, using an on-line platform set up by two Chinese Walmart workers in 2014, The founders gave it a low-key benign name “Walmart China Workers’ Association” (WCWA). The two men serve as coordinators of blogs and chat rooms, with the intention of providing a platform for workers to exchange information, particularly on legal knowledge. The internet discussions have given workers a sense of collective identity as Walmart workers. Though the network does not have any formal organizational structure, it is has become a powerful organizing tool.

 

 

A question has to be asked: why is it that since almost all Chinese workers now have mobile phones, other protests and strikes in China tend to take place at single workplaces. The difference is that Walmart workers have an unusual sense of common identity since the problems they face at Walmart stores are very similar to the minutest details. This identity is a product of Walmart’s unique corporate structure and management method and style. Walmart through the years has always tried to build up a personality cult around its founder, Sam Walton. All stores have the same organization structure, the same number of hierarchical levels, the same rules and regulations, all workers are given an English name, and they all have to scream the same Walmart Cheer in unison every day and have the same message drummed into them they are “Walmart persons.” (沃爾瑪人). Even though many of the workers harbour a host of grievances against the company’s authoritarian management practices and low wages, they do think of themselves as Walmart workers. Walmart’s socialization process works, though not in the way Walmart would like it. This Walmart identity is also found in the United States. The American Walmart workers who organize themselves in a protest group call their association “Our Walmart”. In China, WCWA members have all shared similar experiences and speak the same Walmart language.


What sparked the Walmart strikes is a new company policy. In mid-May Walmart announced that it was going to use a “generalized work hour system”, which is very similar to American Walmart’s “open work hour system.” This allows extreme work hour flexibility. The Chinese Walmart workers were mortified. This would mean regular work hours are thrown out of the window and workers have to come to work anytime on call. Suddenly WCWA’s membership jumped to 10,000.



WCWA is not the first effort to organize workers at China Walmart. In 2006, Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the biggest union in the US, was launching an international campaign against Walmart, and for its own reasons China’s official union, the ACFTU, was receptive. That year the ACFTU was under strong pressure from the Chinese government to deal with a rising number of strikes in the country. To gain influence among the workers, he ACFTU decided to do what it had not done since the 1950s: organize workers. The ACFTU experimented with organizing Walmart workers “underground”. In less than two months, without Walmart’s knowledge, the ACFTU was able to set up close to twenty democratically elected Walmart union branches. But afterthe ACFTU publicized what it had done and demanded that, under Chinese law, Walmart must accept the union branches, Walmart cut a deal with the ACFTU.  A memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed with Walmart to set up union branches in all of Walmart’s 100-plus stores with Walmart’s active participation. Since then, Walmart union branches have been staffed by Walmart human resource (HR) managers.


Nevertheless, the initial 2006 spate of democratic union-branch elections had unintended consequences. Workers who had participated in those elections and are still working in Walmart stores want to get back their union. Not surprisingly, the main labour activists today in the WCWA are in their mid-forties. Other Walmart workers know that their own stores have union branches and they have some idea about trade unionism, even if their branches are being chaired by Walmart’s managerial staff. As wages and work conditions declined at Walmart, a few of them have tried to run for union election. Walmart management, with the tacit support of the official local unions, put all types of obstacles in their way.


In its campaign WCWA is very insistent in pursuing the ACFTU at national, provincial and city levels to support them in the fight against Walmart, because ten years ago they had helped workers set up democratic workplace union branches.


Pressured by the WCWA, People’s Daily and the Guangdong Provincial Trade Union announced that retailers such as Walmart are not eligible to use the comprehensive working hour system. But district-level trade unions and labour inspection offices continue to ignore these announcements. This is because in the Chinese political structure, their real superior is the local government, which is interested in attracting foreign investments and thus colludes with factory owners. But the two announcements gave the Walmart workers’ struggle legitimacy. Right now the activist workers are bringing their cases to court. WCWA is calling on the international labour community to support them in fighting this battle.

 

Anita Chan, a specialist on Chinese labour issues, is editor of The China Journal and a visiting research fellow at the Australian National University. She has published nine books and more than a hundred academic articles about China. Her books include, as editor, Walmart in China, Cornell University Press, 2011. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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