China’s state media is lying about a detained labor activist, some workers say

Zeng Feiyang in Guangzhou.
Zeng Feiyang in Guangzhou.
Image: Reuters/Alexandra Harney
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Hundreds of millions of Chinese laborers recently took to trains, planes, and automobiles to visit loved ones for the Lunar New Year holiday. Zeng Feiyang, who has worked for years to make sure these workers are treated fairly, languished in a Guangzhou detention center.

His crime? Organizing China’s workers. Zeng leads the Panyu Migrant Workers Center. The NGO, funded by foreign NGOs including the Asia Foundation, focuses on the Guangdong province, often called the “factory of the world.” Zeng helps laborers organize so they can more effectively demand better working conditions, fairer treatment, and higher (or overdue) wages and benefits.

In China, that makes him a marked man. The economy is faltering, and the nation’s position as the premier source for cheap labor has been eroded by steadily rising wages and lower-cost alternatives, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. One reason wages have been rising in China is the effectiveness of labor activists like Zeng, one of the nation’s leaders in the field.

What exactly does Zeng do that’s so offensive to Chinese authorities? To get a better sense of that, Quartz looked back at one of his key victories and interviews with workers he’s helped along the way.

Know your rights

In 2014, workers from the Lide shoe factory in Guangzhou (the capital of the Guangdong province) approached Zeng for assistance in negotiating with management. The company had announced plans to relocate to a different district in the sprawling city, China’s third largest.

Workers were worried. The company, with an eye toward spending less on salaries, was asking employees to sign new contracts, and reducing their hours. It was also trying to avoid paying workers’ long-overdue social security payments.

Zeng, along with his colleagues at the center, explained to the workers their rights. He taught them how to organize and negotiate, and gave them positive reinforcement along the way.

One night in December of 2014 he joined them at a Guangzhou restaurant to spur along their efforts. “All the representatives have been very brave and strong,” he said in a pep talk (you can view a video of it here). “They did not back down when facing factory managers. Let’s applaud them!”

Over the years Zeng has joined hundreds of such meetings, helping thousands of workers along the way—and infuriating politically well-connected factory owners. China’s only legal trade union federation is government-controlled and often friendlier to employers than to workers. With competing unions forbidden, small NGOs like Zeng’s have emerged to fill the vacuum.

Authorities arrested Zeng and other labor activists—including workers at his center—in a sweep in early December 2015.  The Xinhua newswire, a state mouthpiece, reported that (link in Chinese) the activists were in trouble over embezzlement, inciting crowds to disrupt public order, and other crimes.

The charges against Zeng were particularly harsh. Chinese authorities have been using smear campaigns—sometimes involving charges of sexual misconduct—to take down those who displease them. Often it forces them to make “confessions” on national TV. In Zeng’s case, they charged him with fraud, adultery, embezzlement (including “witholding compensation for workers from the factory” and putting it in his own bank account), and of sending “vulgar messages” and sex videos to women online.

Workers stand by Zeng

In interviews conducted last month by China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based watchdog, various workers familiar with Zeng vouched for him and expressed skepticism about the charges.

“I don’t think what Xinhua said is correct, as Zeng never took any of our money,” said a former employee of a jewelry factory in Foshan, about a 45-minute drive from Guangzhou. “I’ve met him once, and he told us we should have legitimate demands, which means we cannot do illegal things such as blocking roads. We cannot defend our justified rights till we workers unite together, he said.”

Song Jiahui, a worker representative in the Lide case, said, “He did not charge us any money; instead, he treated us with meals, and even paid for some minor expenses, such as printing.”

In any case, she added, she didn’t see how Zeng could have stolen money from the workers. “How can he get compensation from us as reported in that article? The factory owner transferred compensation to our bank cards directly. In what way can he get money from us?”

Song went on to describe how Zeng opened their eyes to how they were being mistreated, and what they could do about it:

“Before knowing Zeng, we knew nothing about the rights we deserve and how to get them. Zeng informed us of legal knowledge related to labor rights, and taught us the skills of negotiating with factories. It was not he who ‘incited’ us to strike, but ourselves who wanted to fight for our own rights. We united because of one common demand to get our compensation. Actually, Zeng was always telling us to defend our rights in a legal way, not by blocking roads or smashing machines.”

Other worker representatives from the Lide case also spoke glowingly to China Labor Bulletin of Zeng and his colleagues. “There is no way we could get back the compensation without Zeng and the center,” said Zhang Guihua. “They are all nice people, totally unlike the images depicted on Xinhua.”

Zeng and his colleagues, she added, informed the workers that they should have been receiving social security payments from the factory all along—something they’d been completely unaware of.

Zhu Xinhua, a worker representative at the jewelry factory in Foshan, told China Labour Bulletin that Zeng explained which of the employees’ rights had been undermined—and how to fix the problem. “He told us how to negotiate with factory managers in advance, and this gave us guidelines through the whole process. He never mentioned anything related to money, and we workers didn’t really care where his funding came from. What matters is who can help us for real.”

International appeals

In recent years that’s been local NGOs like Zeng’s. But such NGOs have grown nervous lately over a new law in the works that could limit the funding they can receive from foreign organizations.

Meanwhile Amnesty International made an appeal last month for Zeng’s release. And UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein issued a statement expressing concern over the continued detention of the labor rights activists.

That statement was endorsed by the International Trade Union Confederation, a Geneva-headquartered global workers’ rights group, whose general secretary Sharan Burrow said:

“China should release those who have been detained simply for standing up for the rights of Chinese workers, and allow legitimate non-governmental organizations seeking to help workers to do their work unhindered. China has responsibilities under international law, and it must acknowledge and respect those responsibilities. We welcome the support shown by the UN High Commissioner.”

But so far Zeng remains in custody, along with other labor activists arrested in the December sweep. It remains to be seen whether Chinese authorities will force Zeng—who is married with children—into “confessing” his crimes on national TV. Stay tuned.