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Dagongzhe Migrant Workers’ Centre fights on despite violent attack

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It has been two years since labor activist Huang Qingnan almost lost his leg to a machete attack on 20 November 2007. The founder and registered person of the Dagongzhe Migrant Worker Centre in Shenzhen was attacked in broad daylight for his work educating migrant workers about their legal rights and assisting them take their disputes to court. Chinese labor rights NGOs in Shenzhen are accustomed to administrative repression, but this violent attack was a frightening escalation of the threat to worker activists.

In CLNT’s 6 December 2007 issue we worried that the attack might be the start of escalating violence against labor NGOs https://clntranslations.org/article/26/shenzhen-labor-activist-attacked. We are pleased to report that the violence has not run rampant in the last two years. Thanks to the vast amount of support that poured in immediately after the violent incident, even local Chinese authorities and the official trade union had to demonstrate some official concern. However, open antagonism and suppression from the local authorities and capital has now been translated into legal manipulation in the courts.

In this issue of CLNT, we have translated a statement by the Dagongzhe Migrant Worker Centre on the second anniversary of the attack. From this statement, and discussions with Dagongzhe staff, we have learned that five people were arrested and found guilty of the attack. One of those arrested was the mastermind behind the violence – the owner of factory buildings in the local area, who blamed the Dagongzhe Centre for driving away his tenants. In the translated statement and this CLNT editorial, we share how Huang has spent the last two years engaged in a battle on three fronts: to bring his assailants to justice in court: to obtain official recognition of his acquired disability: and to have the damage to his leg recognized as an occupational injury. All on this, on top of his battle to regain his health, and ensure the survival of the Dagongzhe Migrant Worker Centre where he has worked for the last eight years.

Open support for Huang Qingnan
Immediately after the attack, Huang and the Dagongzhe centre were inundated with expressions of solidarity and support around the world. Particularly remarkable were the demonstrations of support from within China. When the assailants were due to appear for their first hearing on 24 December 2008, a group of 66 people from Hong Kong and mainland China protested openly outside the court, demanding a just sentence. The hearing was cancelled. 70 people gathered again on 16 January 2009 when the hearing was adjourned, and 30 were blocked from observing the sentencing hearing in May.

The attack and the trial were covered by several mainland newspapers. The Dagongzhe centre felt that all reports were sympathetic to Huang’s case, except for the final report on the sentencing hearing, when Shenzhen government authorities required the media to published a pre-prepared uniform article. Following his release from hospital, Huang was visited by the Deputy Chair of the Guangdong Federation of Trade Unions, and Deputy Chair of the Shenzhen Federation of Trade Unions – which donated 10,000 RMB (1,465 USD) toward his treatment. By March 2008, the Dagongzhe Centre had received a total of 52,976 RMB (7,758 USD) in donations from mainland China alone, including 9,000 RMB (1,318 USD) raised by teaching staff at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, and 4,000 RMB donated at a community bazaar put on by Dagongzhe Centre.

The struggle for a fair trial
The five behind the attack were arrested on 28 January 2008 – including the local factory owner who ordered the assault. They were found guilty on 18 May 2009 by the People’s Court in Shenzhen’s Longgang District, and sentenced to serve prison terms ranging from five years to eighteen months. The sentences were all later reduced by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court. The factory owner’s original sentence of four years was reduced to two. Word has it that he has already been released. Huang was awarded 96,869.89 RMB (14,186 USD) in compensation for medical and related expenses. Six months later, however, he is yet to receive even one cent of this compensation.

The Dagongzhe centre was appalled by the light sentences and applied to the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court for a retrial on 21 July 2009. But the application was rejected in August, and again in September. A spokesperson of the Dagongzhe centre said they are angry at the unjust sentence from the court, and disappointed at the conduct of local authorities.

The struggle for recognition of Huang’s injury
While fighting to make sure that his assailants did not get off the hook, Huang meanwhile struggles to obtain official recognition of the disability suffered to his leg, as well as recognition the disability be classed as an occupational injury.

The knife attack almost completely severed Huang’s left leg. Now he can only walk a short distance, and requires a car to get around. In April and June 2008, the Longgang District Public Security Bureau and the People’s Protectorate in Shenzhen both confirmed that Huang has acquired a “level 6” disability. But in December 2008, the People’s Protectorate added insult to injury by reversing the decision and denying him disability status. The court will not grant any compensation for disability, pay for equipment to aid his mobility or any psychological support.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Social Security is refusing to recognize Huang’s case as one of occupational injury, depriving him of workers’ compensation. In June 2008, Huang sued the Department of Labor and Social Security because of its decision, but on 10 December 2009 the People’s Court in Shenzhen’s Futian District upheld the Department’s decision. Huang’s claim for occupational injury was rejected again by the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court in February 2009.

What now for the Dagongzhe Migrant Worker Centre and labor activists in South China?
After several serious cases of inflammation in his injured leg, Huang Qingnan is currently recuperating in his home province of Fujian. He has been under heavy surveillance in Shenzhen, and for the time being it is unclear whether he will be able to work openly in that city again. He remains the register legal person of the Dagongzhe centre.

Huang and the Dagongzhe centre have continued to face intimidation. The tires on Huang’s car were slashed on 11 August 2009, and around the same time the Dagongzhe Centre received harassing phone calls and posters were torn down from outside their office. Nonetheless, the centre is resolved to continue its work in defense of workers’ rights, and their determined spirit is captured in the translated article. Readers may want to note that Dagongzhe Centre avails itself of a kind of language, passionate and uncompromising, that sets it apart from other labor NGOs.

The translated statement from the Dagongzhe Centre also highlights other violent attacks on rank and file worker activists, and the ongoing abuse and injustice, the ploys used by employers’ to extract the last drop of sweat from workers at a time of economic hardship in the Pearl River Delta.

Download the translated statement in English here:

In Memory of 20 November: supporting worker victims of violence

Download the original Chinese statement here:
11•20纪念 —— 为遭受暴力的工人而努力

As far as we are aware, there have been no further violent attacks on NGO staff in the Pearl River Delta. Violence against rank and file worker activists still seems more common than attacks on the relatively professionalized civil society organizations.

For NGOs, one of the main sources of pressure is intimidation from government authorities, which conspicuously monitor NGO activities, inspect offices and documents, and interrogate staff. It is still extremely difficult for NGOs in the Pearl River Delta to formally register their organizations, and thus they operate as quasi-commercial entities, ‘consultancies’ and the like. The translated article points out how this arrangement places centres like Dagongzhe in a vulnerable position. Assailants brazenly attacked Huang Qingnan, knowing that his centre exists more-or-less ‘illegally’, and that the local government authorities will not offer genuine support – even when a violent crime has been committed against it. NGOs’ struggle for political recognition is a crucial part of their struggle for protection from violent attacks.

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