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Labor lawyer imprisoned in Xi’an for organizing against corrupt privatization of state enterprises

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Against the backdrop of Liu Xiaobo being awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, this issue of CLNT highlights the case of Zhao Dongmin – a labor lawyer and Maoist who on 25 October 2010 was sentenced to three years in prison for applying to set up a workers’ organisation to monitor the privatization of state enterprises and alert the authorities about cases of corruption.

There are many worker activists and their advocates in prison in China who often go unnoticed in the Western mainstream media. A list of some of their names is available at the website of the Hong Kong liaison office of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). (1)

Details of Zhao’s Case
The basic details of Zhao Dongming’s case are already well documented in English (see notes below). Zhao was trained in law School by correspondence at the Central Community Party and worked for years as a lawyer and mediator in the courts. He is a Communist Party member, a self-declared Maoist, and was involved in founding a “Mao Zedong Study Group” in Xi’an.

In April 2009 Zhao Dongmin assisted hundreds of workers to apply to establish a “Union Rights Defence Representative Congress”, which would have monitored cases of corruption in the restructuring of state enterprises. Workers came together across multiple enterprises, and included current employees as well as laid-off workers and retirees. They were critical of the Chinese trade union’s failure to represent the interests of state sector employees in restructured and/or privatised enterprises. He was arrested on 19 August 2009.

On 25 October 2010 Zhao was sentenced to three years in prison for “mobilising the masses to disrupt social order”. One particularly cruel aspect to Zhao detention is that shortly after his arrest his wife fell ill, and Zhao was not permitted to see her even once before she died on 31 August 2010. She was only 36 years of age.

Significance of Zhao’s campaign and imprisonment
What is notable about Zhao’s imprisonment is the local Xi’an government’s hostility towards a lawyer, who has actively tried to channel workers’ frustration away from taking direct protest action towards using official channel, such as petitions and appeals to the local government and trade union. This heavy-handed government repression is not uncommon is provincial cities distanced from China’s economic and political centres, where local government bureaucrats tend to act more thuggishly towards the slightest organized opposition.

The Zhao Dongming case is significant for a number of reasons:

First, what sets Zhao Dongmin apart from some other imprisoned labour activists is that he works within the official Party structures, and is a committed Maoist. Many Maoist leftists and people concerned with social justice within the Party are outraged by his imprisonment, and see this as a case of the Party going after one of its own.

Second, Zhao’s ability to mobilize a large number workers across enterprises and even cities is impressive. Ironically, it is in the quotes extracted from the authority’s charges levelled on Zhao that gives us a much better picture of the scale of the movement that Zhao has been able to generate. Grassroots associations or organizations that can link up a large geographical area is what is seen as the most dangerous by the Chinese authorities. Sentencing Zhao for only three years in fact is quite a light. One can speculate that there could have been disagreement within the party over this case.

Third, the ambition of Zhao’s project shows up the difference between workers in the state sector in the interior of China and migrant workers in Guangdong province. For example, the several strikes instigated by the Honda transmission plant in Nanhai City, Guangdong province has not (or not yet) united workers as a collective organization or force. The language used is also totally different – even though both still try to use available legal tools to further their interests. Maoism as an ideology still has potential to fuel a sustainable workers’ organization, whereas migrant workers in Guangdong have yet to find their ideological direction.

Fourth, in addition to using the legal channel, Zhao has put a lot of emphasis on reforming the Staff and Workers Representative Congress of state enterprises, which is allowed by the law to be established in enterprises of all kinds of ownership. According to his lawyer in the translated document below, Zhao’s application to start a workers’ rights protection group included calls for:
“reform of enterprise and public sector enterprises’ Staff and Workers representative congresses to better monitor the work of trade unions, improve the present grassroots trade union organization, and undertake trade union functions of genuinely protecting the legal rights and interests of workers.”
The focus on this particular enterprise body is strategic because the congress, equivalent to the National People’s Congress at the national level, is the ultimate authority within an enterprise. It has extensive ownership and management rights and power, including supervisory power over the workplace trade union.

Fifth, the repression of Zhao Dongmin is doubtless because he exposes the tip of the iceberg of widespread corrupt behaviour by union cadre, government officials and state enterprise managers. In the 1990s and early 2000s there were many large-scale labour disputes caused by corruption in the process of privatising and down-sizing state enterprises, and clearly the problem still exists. Zhao’s work exposes the sections of the union’s complicity in the syphoning off of state assets to individual enterprise managers, and the union’s failure to do anything to protect workers’ wages, benefits or job security in the process. Thus far this is the most detailed description of trade union corruption that has come to light (see his lawyer’s open letter below).

Open support for Zhao Dongmin
In this edition of CLNT, we translate two open statements opposing Zhao’s trial (both were released shortly before he was sentenced to three years in jail). This first is an open letter written by Zhao’s lawyer, Li Jinsong to the Shaanxi Provincial Government, and posted online. Li himself is a prominent rights-defence lawyer from Beijing (who was profiled in the New York Times in 2007). (2) His letter first exposes how the Shaanxi Provincial Trade Union actively thwarted Zhao. Li’s letter makes public a report written by that union to the Xi’an Municipal Police, recommending that action be taken to prevent the establishment of Zhao’s “Shaanxi Workers’ Association”. Li’s letter then outlines the process by Zhao and others tried to set up the association, and the resistance they encountered from the authorities. Li then outlines very specific allegations of corruption and criminal behaviour by leading trade union officials, and the misuse of union funds to pay for cars, travel, events, gifts and the like. The letter is highly confrontational, and makes clear just why certain government and union officials are keen to repress Zhao’s activities. Li’s letter is couched in heavy political and legalistic language, and defends Zhao’s actions as manifestations of his commitment to the Communist Party, and the Socialist principals of the Chinese government.

Click below to read Li Jinsong’s open letter:

Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant and Antiseptic


The second translation is an open letter signed by 53 academics who argue that there is no legal basis for Zhao’s trial, and that Zhao’s actions are in line with the spirit of China’s law and constitution, the directives of China’s top leaders, and the Socialist ideals to which China aspires. They directly criticise the Public Security and government authorities in Xi’an saying they:
“… recklessly trample on the constitution and the law, disregard the correct directives of our leaders, disregard the voice and basic wishes of the vast mass of workers in Xi’an, and disregard the just calls of all the people around the country who care about this case.”

Like Li Jinsong’s letter, this document demonstrates how Zhao and his supporters position their campaign within the Maoist ideological framework, and borrow heavily from the official language of the Chinese Communist Party. Zhao has also received support from many bloggers, especially on Maoist forums such as Utopia (乌有之乡).

Click below to read the academics’ open letter:

Statement from academics at home and abroad: Zhao Dongmin is not guilty, but rather has performed a great service!



(1) IHLO list of imprisoned Chinese labour activists, http://www.ihlo.org/DLA/index.html
(2) New York Times, “Rivals on Legal Tightrope Seek to Expand Freedoms in China” 25 February 2007.

For more information about Zhao’s case see:

“Zhao Dongmin” http://chinastudygroup.net/2010/10/zhao-dongmin/

“Zhao Dongmin sentenced to three years” http://chinastudygroup.net/2010/10/zhao-dongming-sentenced-for-three-years/

Video footage of Zhao Dongmin’s wife’s funeral http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vb-WaHNGzrI

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