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Chinese Labor NGOs and Free Legal Services Always in a Precarious Situation

Click here to download this introduction in PDF format

This first CLNT 2010 issue does not bring very good tidings. Fortunately the situation may not be as dire as it looks. CLNT has in possession two Chinese government documents related to the so-called “professional citizens’ agents”. The first one is a long investigative report issued a year ago in January 2009 by the Guangdong Provincial Committee on Politics and Law of the Communist Party of China. The second is a circular on the same topic issue by the website of the Baiying Municipal Government in Gansu Province in Northwest China in April 2009 instructing local government departments to put into operation the Guangdong document.

The term “citizen agents” refers to legal advocates, usually without formal legal qualifications, who offer free or discounted legal advice and representation to clients who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Legal aid has become a common strategy for labor NGOs in the Pearl River Delta, which assist workers to take their claims to court in pursuit of unpaid or underpaid wages, compensation for occupational injury etc. In CLNT January 2008 issue we reported on the situation of such labor NGOs in Guangdong province http://www.clntranslations.org/article/27/labor-ngos-in-guangdong-province. Our reading of the situation from two articles posted at that time was:
“The two articles here show that the local government bureaucracies are in disagreement about what to do. Pro-business sectors of the bureaucracies have begun curtailing the legal activities of the NGOs, whereas, according to the Liaowang article, the Guangdong Provincial General Federation of Trade Unions disapproves of these suppressive measures for fear this will only exacerbate antagonistic labor relations. Instead it is in the midst of trying to incorporate the labor NGOs under its wing.”

We concluded then that the situation was fragile.

Indeed a year later a province-wide investigation was launched by the Guangdong Provincial Committee on Politics and Law of the Communist Party, one of the most powerful branches of the party state in charge of providing leadership and control to the police, the prosecutor and the judiciary (gongjianfa), i.e.,. The Guangdong report uses extremely hostile language (what in today’s China called “Cultural Revolution language”) for the labor NGOs and legal services organizations and individuals that are not formally registered, labeling them “professional citizens’ agents”. While these groups are generally known as “citizens’ agents,” meaning they are good people who help the ordinary and the down-trodden masses, pre-fixing it with the word “professional” has the pejorative implication that they are only “acting” like citizens’ agents. It is a deliberate attempt to discredit these NGOs as good citizen helpers. The investigation was quite thorough, naming names. Many who are familiar with the labor circle in Guangdong province will recognize those names.

CLNT agrees that it is reasonable to regulate this matter of legal representation, to avoid clients being cheated out of high fees for poor-quality legal services. Such regulation exists in various forms throughout the world. But the report’s key concern is the political consequences of the not-for-profit legal aid provided by NGOs – especially those with foreign funding and connections. The suggestion in the translated document was to eliminate them or control them.

CLNT argues, rather, that these labor NGOs provide a crucial service in the absence of accessible legal aid and an effective accountable court system in China. Indeed there is already a provision in China’s Civil Procedural Law for citizen agents to play a role in civil lawsuits, provided they gain approval from the court. (1) The report, however, contains recommendations as to how government authorities could begin to address the gaps in legal system. NGOs and other philanthropic groups are in an awkward position unable to provide this crucial legal aid as registered or licensed organizations, because the government makes it very difficult for civil society organizations to be established.

The report seems schizophrenic. It also blames the local labor, trade union and judiciary organs for not doing their job in helping workers. The report does not blame them for failing their responsibilities in rights protection, but for not guarding social stability. Strengthening of these organs and actions is urgent.

The document originated from Guangdong province but was disseminated widely all over China from top to bottom, as seen by the second translation issued by a city trade bureau all the way in Gansu province in Northwest China, a remote province not known for industrial development and unlikely to have a vibrant labor NGO presence. It is likely the Guangdong report was picked up as a serious issue by a central government authority and it was from there that the order emanated all the way to China’s every bureaucratic corner.

Oddly, as far as we know, despite the damning and hostile language used in the Guangdong report, there was no anti-labor NGO and legal services campaign in 2009 in Guangdong province. The reason mostly likely was what CLNT observed in the January 2008 posting — that there was disagreement among the various bureaucracies in how to handle the NGOs. While some officials and bureaucracies called for a crackdown, some others did not see them as a threat. The latter seemed to have held the ferocity of the former in check. The only possible compromise seems to be that a new regulation restricting citizen agents from representing more than three people at one time, and not more than three times in one year. (2)

To conclude, the labor NGOs in China, and those in Guangdong in particular, so long as they continue to struggle on the side of the workers, their situation remains extremely vulnerable.

Follow the link below to download the two translated items together in English:

Investigative Report of Guangdong Province on the Question of “Professional Citizen’ Legal Agents” &
Notice No. 56 [2009], issued by the Baiyin Municipality Industrial and Commercial Administration Bureau


Follow the link below to view the original report and attachment in Chinese:


CLNT_NGOs_threat CHI.pdf

Originally posted at:
(this link has expired since initial download)

(1) For the full Chinese text of the Chinese Civil Procedural Law, see http://www.dffy.com/faguixiazai/ssf/200311/20031109201543-3.htm
(2) “For Industrial Dispute Cases Involving More Than Three People, Don’t go to ‘Citizens’ Agents”, Southern Labor News (Nanfang Gongbao), 7 September 2009 http://www.lgzgh.org/newsDetail.aspx?Newsid=2311

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