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Who Is Helping the Victims of the "Reform" (1)?

26 October 2010

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On June 22, 2010, the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Workers’ Union of Shaanxi Province, Mr Zhang, the vice president of the Shaanxi Union, posted an article on union's official website, citing that his organization had been responded and would keep responding positively to the call by Chinese President Hu Jintao to “make sure all workers having the rights to take part in the union’s activities, access the union’s information, participate in the union’s decision-making process and monitor the union’s performance (使广大劳动者的参与权、知情权、管理权、监督权得到更充分、更有效的保障)”.

“Let it start from me and begin with a practical matter at hand, no matter how trivial that issue might be (要从我做起,从小事做起,从具体工作做起。),” declared Zhang, sounding rather sincere to anyone who reads his online post.

He was not boasting. At the time of writing his article, he was busying himself with a not really trivial but extremely practical matter at his hand that was to ensure Mr Zhao Dongming (赵东民) to be convicted of criminal offence and to be condemned to years in jail. By then his union had already successfully got Zhao detained for 10 months without charge, and by then he and his colleagues had already witnessed, probably with satisfaction, that Zhao had been repeatedly denied a right to visit his wife who was gravely ill.

What crime Zhao committed that earns him such strong hostility from the union officials and such harsh treatment by the police?

Let’s start from union boss Zhang and begin with a practical matter raised by a group of workers who demanded Zhang to take on at hand.

It was on June 15, 2009. In that morning the union office was visited by 150 retrenched workers who believed they were badly let down when they were laid off by their respective state-owned factories that were in the middle of the “reform”, which in recent China normally means only one thing – privatization of the public enterprises and organizations and institutions. They handed in an open letter with a list of urgent issues that they wanted the union to help them to address and asked the union chief to sign on an agreement that they would report back the progress of their negotiation with the related parties in ten days. The agreement was signed on a paper slip and the workers left the union building without drama.

Ten days later, the workers returned. This time, they invited a lawyer coming with them. The lawyer is Zhao Dongmin, a guy well-known for his passion to provide legal aid (often free of charge) to the weak and the poor, for which he received award from the authorities. But he could not have envisaged by then that this time his service would not earn him an acclaim but a total destruction of his professional career and his personal life.

According to the video clip that captured the event, the meeting was orderly and cordial in the beginning, and two union officials gave a short welcome speech to the re-visiting members. But when asked what the progress was regarding the issues they raised ten days earlier, the officials hinted that they didn’t believe they had to share the information with the members. It was by then the atmosphere in the meeting hall became tense, and union boss Zhang thus emerged in the scene.

Zhang tried to bring the situation under the control and asked the workers to elect a representative to speak to him. Zhao Dongmin was elected unanimously. The union boss wasn’t impressed as he didn’t seem to like to speak to a lawyer. In the sharp verbal exchange between the two men, the lawyer at one point reminded the union boss that by law the workers had rights to check how the job was done by the union, and the union boss was clearly very upset for being forced to take a legal lesson.

A month later, the lawyer was arrested and spent more than a year in detention without formal charge. During that time, his distraught wife got ill, but the pleas for him to see her were repeated turned down; he was not even allowed to visit her when she was dying, and was not even allowed to attend her funeral. His wife died in despair and poverty and his kids were virtually left orphaned.

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