Human Rights for Workers Bulletin

Vol. II, No. 10: June 21, 1997

Indicting China for Torturing Worker Activists

In its extremely harsh treatment of worker activists--and their relatives--China repeatedly violates a United Nations treaty that it has ratified: the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment. So says the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) in a detailed complaint filed June 4 with a United Nations agency, the International Labor Organization.

Beatings, torture by electric shocks, deprivation of water, withholding of medical care for the sick, forced labor, and solitary confinement in cramped quarters are among the punishments inflicted on worker activists incarcerated in China's prisons and psychiatric institutions. That China practices such cruelties is nothing new, but the 90-page ICFTU complaint is the most exhaustive exposition yet of the depths to which Beijing sinks in its repression of any sign of independent activity by workers.

Nor are their family members spared. "Torture of relatives appears to be the worst form of dissuasion meted out to trade unionists," the ICFTU points out.

Among the cases cited in the complaint are those of Zhou Guoqiang, a labor lawyer, and his wife. Zhou, already jailed eight months for supporting the fledgling Workers Autonomous Federation of Beijing in 1989, further angered the regime by serving as a legal advisor to WAF leader Han Dongfang during Han's 1989-1992 detention. In 1994 Zhou began a three-year sentence of "re-education through labor" for owning an unregistered fax machine (with which he kept in contact with Han, exiled in Hong Kong) and for designing a T-shirt with an "inciteful" slogan about collective bargaining as a worker right. From his forced labor farm, Zhou Guoqiang filed a lawsuit charging unlawful detention. He also would not sign a statement acknowledging his "mistakes." In reprisal for his attitude and behavior, prison farm authorities have:

For protesting her husband's prolonged detention, Zhou's wife, Wang Hui, was twice detained by security police, once for 17 days, and beaten up at least twice, once by a guard and also by a prison doctor who kicked Wang after she had fallen to the floor. Bruised and scarred, she was forced by police to return to her native province, far from her home in Beijing, and prevented for months from notifying friends and relatives of her whereabouts.

Another worker activist cited in the complaint, Li Wenming, 29, serving three and a half years in prison for "subversion," suffers acute kidney damage because of mistreatment while in Shenzhen municipal prison, but has been refused medical attention. Li's subversive activities were to inform migrant workers in Shenzhen of their rights under Chinese law and to join with colleagues in plans to form an Association of Migrant Workers.

Naming 66 Activists Known to Be Imprisoned

The ICFTU complaint lists the names of 66 persons locked up in Chinese prisons and forced labor camps because of their worker activism. Of these, 37 were arrested in crushing the 1989 democracy movement. The cumulative sentences of the 37 represent over 500 years' imprisonment and forced labor, the ICFTU states. In addition, 29 others are known to have been arrested for worker activism, "many...condemned by administrative bodies to up to three years re-education-through-labor sentences against which no appeal is allowed."

The 66 do not comprise a complete list of all who are similarly victimized. The ICFTU complaint flatly accuses the Chinese government of "denial and dissimulation" about the fate of some worker activists. Time after time, Chinese authorities have provided "incomplete or outright false information" on cases about which the ICFTU already knew the facts from its own sources.

Authorities are increasingly relying on re-education-through-labor punishment "because it avoids the need for a trial and allows local police to hand out sentences of up to three years in a forced labor camp, which in practice may be further increased at will by the authorities." It also allows officials to maintain a cloak of secrecy over the punishments they impose.

Government officials are particularly fearful of any "instability" because of two 1997 events: the July 1 hand-over of Hong Kong to China and the 15th Congress of the Communist Party in the fall. The ICFTU document quotes this recent statement by the head of China's Public Security Bureau, Tao Siju: "All disturbances, no matter what the cause, are to be handled firmly, and there could be no compromise with people who organize or lead any form of collective protest."

Worker-Rights Linkages around the Globe

Many are the efforts to end all talk about worker rights in the global economy. Squelching it isn't easy, however. One reason is the growth of worker rights activism all around the world-- even in the countries designated as "emerging markets."

Nearly two years ago more than 100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from 28 countries were represented at a conference on "New Alliances for Dignity in Labor" held in Pisa, Italy. They traded information on "mechanisms to force multinationals to respect certain basic standards which safeguard the human, social, union, and economic rights of workers."

Proceedings of the conference have been published in a 176-page booklet by the Center for a New Development (Centro Nuovo Modello di Sviluppo) in Pisa. The booklet is available in French, Spanish, German, and Italian, as well as in English. Price: only the cost of mailing, $5. The center can be reached by writing it at Via della Barra 32, 56019 Vercchiano (Pisa), Italy. Email:

The booklet has a list of the conference's 150 participants (and their addresses). The list is a Who's Who of leaders engaged in front-line struggles for worker rights in Bangladesh, Honduras, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Thailand, and elsewhere.

Exposing Nike's Violations of Worker Rights

They and countless others, including labor activists in the West, have established an unprecedented network of mutual support, aided by the neighborliness opened up by fax and the Internet. Although the network's effectiveness is still limited, it has already drawn "the concentric circles of a target" around Nike's famed Swoosh trademark (in the words of Jeff Manning, a business reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Oregon). Nike has become vulnerable not just because its contractors and subcontractors commit labor abuses but also because NGOs on the scene in Indonesia and elsewhere collect the evidence and report it to Western NGOs, sometimes with pay-slips that contradict wage information released by PR departments.

In Vietnam even the official press and the official trade unions are disputing Nike's claims that its four contractors observe the labor law in their treatment of over 30,000 workers, mostly women under 25. More on that in the next Bulletin.

Robert A. Senser
Editor, Human Rights for Workers
(Send e-mail to

Bulletin No. II-10: June 21, 1997

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