China: Yao Fuxin leader of 2002 workers’ protests

Released from prison in Liaoning province

On Monday, 16 March, workers’ leader Yao Fuxin was released from prison. In the Spring of 2002 he had been sentenced to seven years in jail for his part in massive workers’ protests in the northeastern industrial heartland of Liaoning province. These protests by so-called xiagang (laid-off) workers from former state-owned enterprises (SOEs), shook the ‘communist’ authorities and were met with massive repression, hundreds of arrests, and the imprisonment, following closed trials, of Yao and another independent trade union activist Xiao Yunliang, who received a four year sentence.

Yao and Xiao were initially charged with “gathering a crowd to disrupt social order,” but that was later changed to the more serious charge of “subversion of state power”. In Yao’s case this was based on his alleged involvement in the banned China Democracy Party.

Labour rights campaigners, including the Committee for a Workers’ International and, have protested about the inhuman treatment of both prisoners. On his release yesterday, Yao, who suffered beatings while in detention, had difficulty walking. Yao suffered two heart attacks and a stroke in prison. As the website Human Rights in China reports, “In the Liaoyang Detention Center, he and 19 other inmates were made to sleep on one bed. There, a guard named Lang arranged for two death-row prisoners to watch Yao. Every time Yao closed his eyes to sleep, the two prisoners would step on him.”

On his release yesterday, his daughter Yao Dan told reporters. “He is very happy to be out of prison. Right now he has no real plans other than recovering his health and treating his heart illness.”

“When he got out of prison, workers gave him a big banquet and thanked him for all the suffering he has gone through,” she said. Despite his release, Yao will still serve a three year deprivation of political rights, including the freedoms of speech, assembly and association. Given that these rights are non-existent in China, it means he will remain under continual surveillance and be prevented from speaking publicly about his case.

Gothenburg, Sweden 2004: Protest in support of Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang and for independent trade unions in China, on the occasion of Vice Premier Wu Yi’s state visit to Sweden arranged by Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden).]

2002: “Beginnings of an independent labour movement”

The spring of 2002 saw mass workers’ struggles break out in the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjang. This was the biggest mass movement in China since 1989, involving over 100,000 xiagang workers and their families in waves of demonstrations, sit-ins, road and rail blockades and mass meetings. As Human Rights Watch explained in a report, ‘Paying the Price: Workers’ Unrest in Northeast China’:

“It was the first time so many well-organised, laid-off workers and their sympathisers – in the tens of thousands – took to the streets simultaneously and sustained their protests for weeks rather than days… Instead of short-term, spontaneous protest limited to a group from one factory, one mine, or one school, worker leaders and representatives… through well thought out strategic goals and tactics, organised tens of thousands of protesters. Nor were the leaders – or the rank and file – reluctant to publicise that, yes, they had organised, and sufficiently so as to enable them to sustain their protests over weeks rather than hours”.

The most significant feature of these events was the appearance of unofficial – illegal – union committees or ‘provisional’ trade unions at the head of a mass movement. The Washington Post called this “the beginnings of an independent labour movement”.

The struggle in Liaoyang

In Liaoyang a movement led by Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang against the fraudulent closure of the state-owned Ferro-alloy Factory, spread to xiagang workers from at least 20 factories. This city of 1.8 million people experienced almost daily demonstrations over a ten-week period, starting on 11 March when an estimated 17,000 workers marched behind such slogans as: “The army of industrial workers wants to live!” and “It is a crime to embezzle pensions!”.

On that day, the city’s mayor enraged workers when he told the press: “There is no unemployment in Liaoyang”. According to the demonstrators, 80 per cent of the city’s workforce was either unemployed or xiagang.

Rather than a spontaneous outpouring, the protests of 2002 showed a degree of organisation and coordination. Underground committees were formed and representatives were elected. In Liaoyang organised links were established with xiagang workers from other industries. Worker activists undertook mass propaganda work using leaflets in some cases, but mainly posters, which were set up, illegally of course, in workers’ districts and at factory gates.

On 18 March, 30,000 Liaoyang workers demonstrated with placards declaring, “We have a government of hooligans”. This was following the arrest of Yao Fuxin, their union representative. This was also the beginning of a wave of repression with hundreds of arrests and detentions. From this, the Public Security Bureau selected two activists, Yao and Xiao, to make an example of. Their subsequent trials were a sham, with even their families denied access to the court sessions.

Four-year struggle

The Liaoyang protests were the culmination of a four-year battle against the closure of Ferro-alloy plant. The CCP Congress of 1997 had marked a milestone, with the national leadership of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji signalling a dramatic speed-up of the privatisation programme (although this term was not used) by “grasping the large and letting go of the small [companies]”. In the ensuing years, hundreds of thousands of state-owned enterprises were sold-off or bankrupted for accounting purposes, with former SOE bosses stealing the assets. At least 60 million SOE employees were sacked or made xiagang in this process. The term xiagang held out the slim prospect that at least some laid-off workers would be re-employed again in future, once ‘restructuring’ had been completed. This proved to be an invaluable weapon for officials to delude workers and spread confusion, thus cutting across workers’ attempts to organise resistance to the wholesale plundering of public assets.

The Ferro-alloy workers in Liaoyang displayed a high degree of consciousness and collective strength. Among other demands at this time, workers had called for an investigation into malpractice by the factory management. Several Ferro-alloy officials had already been arrested and one convicted of corruption. The factory closed in November 2001 with the loss of more than 5,000 jobs, and with this the loss of workers’ pensions and medical insurance. In a manner reminiscent of the US energy conglomerate Enron, Ferro-alloy bosses had for years issued fake accounts to justify their own fat bonuses. Unlike the Enron affair, however, Ferro-alloy workers had been wise to the bosses’ antics from the start, trying repeatedly to get the city, provincial and even national authorities to intervene. This led nowhere. Perhaps today Yao and many of his former workmates regret wasting time and ink penning letters to former president Jiang Zemin, imploring him to intervene against the city officials on the workers’ behalf.

Mass closures and unemployment

China’s northeast, a stronghold of heavy industry that prospered during the era of central planning, suffered more than any other region as a result of capitalist ‘reforms’ and privatisation. Liaoning province (population 42m) has the highest proportion of xiagang of any province. Real unemployment in the city of Liaoning was around 20 per cent in 2002. In Fushun, a city based on coal mining, 43 per cent of the total labour force was xiagang in 2001. Nowhere are xiagang workers classified as unemployed – this explains Fushun’s official jobless rate of just 2.7 per cent at that time.

In compensation, xiagang workers are supposed to receive half their wages from the company or local government. The minimum allowance, “guaranteed” by city authorities in Liaoyang was at that time 180 yuan (22 dollars) per month, but even these payments are often means-tested: ownership of household pets, a television or telephone are grounds for loss of compensation.

Official trade unions exposed

The struggle in Liaoyang, and other northeastern cities threw a spotlight upon the rotten role of China’s official government-run unions. Workers in Liaoyang told China Labour Bulletin, “We have been to the ACFTU on a number of occasions, but they’ve never taken any real notice of us”. According to Human Rights Watch, the view that “there’s no difference between them [the ACFTU] and the boss”, was widespread among workers in northeastern China. A survey from the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions found that: “Workers unanimously dismiss the official trade union as unhelpful or ineffective at best. At local level, ACFTU officials either deny any legitimacy to independent workers’ action, by calling it illegal, or acknowledge that they are unable to defend workers’ interests in the face of massive restructuring operations”.

Following the 1949 revolution, in which the peasantry – not the working class – played the decisive role, the ACFTU was incorporated into the new state. Its role during the Stalinist-Maoist era was to police the working class at the point of production, prevent strikes and unrest, and periodically ‘mobilise’ the workforce behind management directives. To justify its existence, the union became a benevolent society: organising social activities (sports events, works’ outings and ‘model worker’ competitions) and administering some welfare benefits. In many state-owned enterprises, ACFTU officials were retired managers, underlining its subordinate role towards management. Nowadays, with the massive expansion of private companies, the ACFTU has gained access to these companies by bringing private bosses into its structures and according them an influential role. Almost universally, the chairman of a union branch at a privately-owned factory is put there by management, sometimes a relative of the owner, or the head of personnel. The union bureaucrats’ main claim is that they can help the company i.e. the bosses achieve ‘stability’ and avoid disruption.

International solidarity

The CWI took up Yao’s case, in common with many international labour rights groups. CWI supporters in Australia, Sweden, Holland and other countries staged vigils and made representations to China’s embassies (pictured) This pressure unfortunately had little direct effect on China’s one-party regime, who can claim the dubious distinction of putting more trade union activists behind bars than any other government in the world. Public campaigning over the fate of Yao and other imprisoned workers’ activists has however helped to increase global awareness over the Chinese regime’s appalling record of anti-unionism, and also highlighted the role of the hordes of multinational brand-name companies that have flocked to China to take advantage of this.

CWI members around the world will welcome the release of this fearless class fighter and send solidarity greetings to Yao and his family. Yao Fuxin was made to suffer by the authorities as a warning to other workers. But with their system now in deep crisis, the Chinese dictatorship cannot succeed indefinitely in its efforts to outlaw independent fighting trade unions. The lessons of the struggle in 2002 that led to the persecution of Yao Fuxin and his comrades, need to be absorbed by workers today.

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March 2009