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

by | 10 January 2011 | One Comment | Last modified: 18 Feb 4:45 am

Originally posted at http://www.clntranslations.org/article/60/zhao-dongmin

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 Jingsong’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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One comment on “Labor lawyer imprisoned in Xi’an for organizing against corrupt privatization of state enterprises

  1. Rishi Raj Baral on said:

    Mumia, Zhao and Binayak Sen : Voice of the Voiceless

    Dr. Rishi Raj Baral

    Mumia Abu Jamal, Zhao Dongmin and Binayek Sen are the citizens of USA , China and India respectively. These days, not only in their country, but also outside of their country, they are at the centre of public concern. They have got worldwide media coverage. Their state has treated them as criminals. That is why, they believe in reason, conscience and social consciousness. They support the decent and the oppressed people. In the name of rules and regulations and peace and democracy, their state has imprisoned them all.
    America claims itself as the greatest democratic country and a leading figure in the safe guard of the human rights. Due to economic crisis these days, its hegemonic activities are not accelerating, but there is no confusion that till now America is the commander of today’s imperialism. India, one of the powerful countries of South Asia, also claims itself as a big democratic country of this region. But those who have some political consciousness know that India is the hegemonic and expansionist country of this region. Indian is in fact, the number one enemy of its neighboring countries when it comes to their national sovereignty and their people’s class libration.

    In the sector of economic development and military power, China is the super power in this region. A tag of ‘Socialism’ is also pasted into its name. In the name of fast economic growth, there is massive exploitation of the workers and peasants by the Multinational companies. Everyday we get the news of suicide of the peasants and factory workers. Now, China is not an ideal country to learn from, for the oppressed nations and for the people who are in the class struggle. Outwardly there seems some difference between China, America and India. But in reality they are walking the same way, towards the same goal in their own style.
    The American rulers have always protested against the lack of democracy and human rights in the other countries. But America itself is the main country where there have been serious violations of the human rights. These days people who have dared to be free and express their opinions freely are facing the terror of the FBI. Since 1983, the writer and journalist Mumia Abu Jamal is on death row. Through his journalism, Mumia has continued to speak out for all those who are oppressed. He has published four books, and his weekly columns are published in newspapers throughout the world. His case is amongst one of the most important social justice fights of our time. People all over the world are raising voice for his release from death row. But the advocator for peace, democracy and human rights, the American government does not want to free him, because he is the man, who has always stood in favor of justice and equality. He is the man who voices for the voiceless.
    In papers and in constitution, China is a socialist country. But in practice, it is just the reverse. In recent years, faced with the massive gaps between the rich and the poor, rampant corruption as well as social disorder that has been brought about by the capitalist “opening up reforms”, the masses of China have already, for a long time, been filled with the sentiments of anger and indignation. Due to severe economic inequality and social disorder, among certain sections of the masses in China, especially among the workers of ex-state-owned enterprises, there is a growing skepticism against the current regime and a yearning sentiment for the old Maoist era.
    A collective voice is raising there. Intellectuals are working in favor of oppressed people–workers and peasants. They are all united under the banner of Mao Study Group. The lawyers have stood up in support of the peasants and workers. But those who stand in support of exploited people are declared criminals in the eyes of the government authorities. Zhao Dongming, who served the poor and the oppressed people, who helped the poor people and the workers in the legal field, is now sentenced in jail for three years. It is a matter of irony. This exposes the real face of socialist China and the comrades. This heavy-handed government repression is not uncommon is provincial cities distanced from China ’s economic and political centers, where local government bureaucrats tend to act more thuggishly towards the slightest organized opposition. The repression of Zhao Dongmin is doubtless, because he exposes the tip of the iceberg of widespread corrupt behavior by union cadre, government officials and state enterprise managers.
    It will always be less, whatever we talk about India’s political and economic hegemony upon neighboring countries. The displacement of the pillars marking the borders with Nepal and killing of the innocent people around the borders in Nepal is a daily routine of Indian expansionism. These days we are facing neocolonialist exploitation. Inside the country also there is a massive suppression and exploitation of people from Kashmir to Nagaland to Mizoram. ‘Operation Green Hunt’ is going on to suppress the Maoists and aadivasis (aboriginals). Mass genocide of the innocent people is going on. Those who raise voice against the government suppression and who are in favor of justice and equality are threatened by the government authorities. Not only this, they are considered criminals in the eyes of the government and then sentenced to jail. The lifelong imprisonment of Dr. Binayak Sen is its latest evidence. Binayak Sen is a popular pediatrician in India. Sen has dedicated his work to the rural poor. He is very popular in the remote and aadivasi area. Now he is imprisoned as a terrorist and criminal alleged of ‘Waging war against the Indian State ‘. What a joke, a man like Binayak Sen who worked amongst the poorest of the poor is a criminal and a terrorist. But it is not a new thing, it is common in India that anyone who is talking about justice, equality and liberty, is being called a Maoist.
    We all know that the reactionary regimes all over the world, have always suppressed those intellectuals who raise their voice of justice and social consciousness. For more than 20 years, Mumia Abu Jamal is in jail. In India every day, not everyday, but every minute, we hear the news of killings of the innocent people in the name of democracy and peace. China in the cover of socialism is in practice of state terror. One can raise the question, how can we blame China like we blame America and India? The case of Zhao is the proof of this blaming. ‘To Serve the People’ has become the excuse for violation of the Chinese rules and regulation and constitution. And until now there is written “Maotse Tung Thought” in the constitution of China .
    Mumia, Zhao, Binayak and Lynne Stewart too, who have strong faith in People and who believe in serving the People, they have all been sentenced to jail now.
    A broad international movement has started in support of Mumia Zhao and Binayek and others. We are the supporters of justice and equality. We are the followers of Marxism–Leninism–Maoism. We are internationalist. Whenever and wherever there has been suppression of the movement by state terror, we have always stood in favor of them. We stand up in strong solidarity with them. In this regard, we condemn the fascist behavior of American, Indian and Chinese government and we ask the immediate release of Mumiya, Zhao, Binayak and all others who voiced for the oppressed people. It is the need of time, for us work together to free all political prisoners.
    It is our duty and moral liability to stand up in the support of these public heroes.
    27 Jan, 2011

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