Interview with Ellen David Friedman
Ellen David Friedman, a long-time organizer with the National Education Association in Vermont, founding member of the state’s Progressive Party and member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee, has been working for the last decade with labor and union activists in Hong Kong and the mainland. When she was in China recently, she was briefly detained and interrogated by the government. She spoke with Ashley Smith of Socialist Worker about the crackdown, its causes and what activists can do to help the Chinese activists win freedom and justice.
During your recent trip, you were detained amid the crackdown on labor NGOs. Can you tell us what happened?
I’ve been working in China for about 10 years, teaching labor studies and participating in various parts of the labor movement. I’d received many warnings before, but they had always been indirect, and passed along through colleagues. This was the first time that police came to question me directly.
They came to my hotel and interrogated me for about two hours–quite politely–but warned me to stop “meeting people” or risk legal consequences. They said I was violating the terms of my visa.
It’s hard to know if I was detained as part of the crackdown on activists. It happened in the same period of time, but one never knows the reason that things happen in China. Certainly when I was detained, they didn’t give me any explanation for it. So I think at best we can guess.
The context for this is that, since the start of the Xi Jinping administration in China three years ago, the state has taken a very definitive turn away from tolerance of any kind of activism and organizing in civil society. In the previous administration of Hu Jintao, there seemed to be a good deal more space for the development of NGOs and critical discourse and research. All of this under the Xi Jinping government has been very severely curtailed.
Since Xi came to power, the state has harassed labor NGOs, criminalized labor resistance, and detained and charged worker activists. The government has also conducted an “anti-foreign influence” campaign. And so, since I’ve been active in the labor movement in China during this period of time, and since I’m a foreigner, we can only say it’s consistent with their policy.
What’s the scale of the crackdown? Who is being targeted?
The most recent event was a high-profile detention of about 20 activists on December 3, all in Guangzhou, which is one of the largest cities in China. It’s on the southeast coast across from Hong Kong. It’s the capital city of Guangdong province, which was the birthplace of capital and labor markets beginning in the 1980s.
Since then, it’s undergone a vast amount of development. Tens of millions of migrant workers have moved there to get jobs. The area has also experienced an explosion of labor resistance. Around a dozen or so labor NGOs have been operating amid this worker activism.
The government targeted the activists associated with four of these labor NGOs. Some of these NGOs are pretty benign service organizations that do things like assisting injured workers to file worker’s compensation claims. Some of them are more actively involved in helping workers to develop skills for leadership and collective bargaining among those who have taken the lead in strikes and so on.
Most of the people were questioned and released within a day, but seven people are still detained and facing criminal charges. The most prominent person who was caught in the sweep is named Zeng Feiyang. He’s the founder and director of the oldest and best-known labor NGO in China, Panyu Workers’ Center.
The government has accused most of the detainees of disrupting public order, which is the usual allegation made against labor activists. They have charged one person with embezzlement. Solidarity activists have arranged for them to have attorneys–in fact, there is a now a 60-member attorney team that has volunteered to represent them–but so far, they haven’t been able to contact the detained activists. So we still don’t know the specific charges against them.
Filed under: Global organizing, Low wage workers, Organizing, Solidarity, Uncategorized, Worker Centers | Tagged: China | Leave a comment »