Zhang Lijia

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By Zhang Lijia

The suicides among workers at Foxconn and the ongoing strikes at Honda and other foreign-owned factories are cries for help. Within its Shenzhen plant, Foxconn seems to provide everything its 400,000 workers can hope for: canteens, clinics, a library, entertainment and sports facilities.

It reminds me of the state-owned rocket factory I worked for in the 1980s which provided plenty of socialist welfare but also controlled our lives: no lipstick, no permed hair, and no dating within three years of entering the factory.

Have the work conditions improved over the years? Yes, probably, within the state-owned enterprises that still hold China’s key industries. The labor intensity in those, though much increased, isn’t nearly as bad as in some of the private sectors. Over the years, foreign and private investment have turned China’s coastal regions into the factories — and often the sweatshops — of the world.

Foxconn workers are allowed only a few minutes for toilet breaks and are barely permitted to talk to their colleagues. To keep the production line running, they have to work 12-hour shifts. All workers have to sign a statement, saying they “voluntarily” work over-time. The truth is: without the over-time payment, they can hardly survive on their basic salary of 900 yuan. No one at Foxconn has any time to use amenities at the plant.

The local government often tolerates certain violations of labor laws because of the revenue the factories bring in to the region — they “keep one eye open and one eye shut,” as the Chinese would say.

Compared with their predecessors, the new generation of workers are better educated, less financially desperate; they are more worldly, savvy with the Internet, and have higher expectations from life. Li Hai, a 19-year-old from central China’s Hunan province was the 11th worker who leapt to his death from a Foxconn building this year. In a suicide note to his family, he said the gap between reality and his expectations was too big and he had lost hope in life.

These workers, more aware of their rights, are no longer willing to be treated like machines. It was not entirely accidental that the Honda strikes took place when the spate of suicides at Foxconn sent shock waves across the factory floors in China. As discussed in chat rooms on the internet, some argued that it would be better to put up a fight than to take one’s life.

As someone who had endured the demoralizing existence at a factory, I know how these protesting workers feel. Their motivation may be economic, but in a broad sense, they are also demanding to be respected as human beings.

Zhang Lijia is author of Socialism is Great! A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. This post is an expanded version of an essay that appeared at the New York Times “Room for Debate” blog.


A much shorter version of this piece originally appeared in the New York Times, part of a series there on “Tiananmen Square, 20 Years Later,” which also features pieces by Ha Jin, Yu Hua and others.

By Zhang Lijia

Whenever “1989” is mentioned, people in the West instantly think about the protesting students in Tiananmen Square. In fact, although it started in Beijing and was led by the students there, the democratic movement was a nationwide event, drawing together people from all walks of life.

Twenty years on, I remember vividly every detail of that day when I organized a demonstration among the workers from my Nanjing factory in support of the movement. It was Sunday, May 28, a week before the crackdown in Beijing.

The death of Hu Yaobang had triggered the spontaneous democratic movement. The popular former Communist Party secretary-general had been ousted, in part for his sympathetic view towards students’ protests. When the government rejected their request for his rehabilitation, Beijing students marched towards Tiananmen, demanding greater freedom and democracy. Like a match thrown onto kindling, students from all over the country took to the streets. They were soon joined by ordinary citizens who were disgusted by widespread corruption, rising inflation, and lack of personal freedom.

By then I had been working for a factory, a missile producer, for nine years in Nanjing, my hometown. The factory was a mini-Communist state, housing us in identical block buildings, feeding us at dining halls, indoctrinating us at meeting rooms and controlling our lives with strict rules: no lipsticks; no high heel shoes or flared trousers; no dating for the first three years at the factory. Every month, all women had to go to the hygiene room to show blood to the so-called ‘period police’ to prove that we were not pregnant.

To escape, I decided to teach myself English in the hope of getting a job as an interpreter outside the factory with one of the foreign companies. What I learnt, of course, wasn’t just the ABCs but the whole cultural package. I dared to be different: wearing short skirts and having boyfriends. After I mastered enough English I became obsessed with listening to the BBC, which broadcast news very different from our propaganda. I attended politically-charged lectures at Nanjing University, debating if Western-style democracy was the answer for China.

On that Sunday in May, after watching televised images of workers in Guangzhou marching in the rain, I decided to organize a protest. I telephoned all my friends at the factory, and some of them informed their friends. We got the banners and placards ready in just a few hours.

Under the wary eyes of our factory leaders, about 300 of us set off, as if for battle, defending a noble cause. Walking at the very front, I held a red flag and felt a sense of liberation that I had never experienced before. Behind me two workers carried a cloth banner that read, “Here come the workers!” The little strips of bright red cloth tied to our arms and heads flamed in the wind.

We marched toward the Drum Tower, Nanjing’s version of Tiananmen. On the main street, our group melted into a flow of marchers. Before us walked students from a technical school; at our tail were several dozen workers from a glass-making factory. We chanted slogans like “Long live democracy!” “Down with the repressive government!” “Anyone who dares to crack down on the democracy movement will be condemned for 10,000 years!” Onlookers cheered us on. Along the way, hundreds more workers from our factory joined in, which made ours the largest demonstrations among workers in Nanjing during the movement.

During that time, my ear was glued to my shortwave radio, and I learned about the crackdown at Tiananmen from foreign broadcasts. The following year, I left for England, feeling defeated and pessimistic about my country’s future. In 1993, when I returned, I was surprise by China’s booming economy. Many commentators had predicted that the authoritarian regime would have collapsed, especially after the massacre. It lacked political legitimacy and had an over-centralized power structure.

Over the past twenty years, apart from short spells living abroad, I have been more or less based in Beijing. I’ve witnessed and reported, as a freelance journalist and writer, China’s remarkable transformation: the economy has charged ahead like a steed without a reign; foreign trade and investment have expanded greatly; and China, with its successful foreign policy, has become a more important player on the world stage.

One might argue that China still has no real democracy or it has not made fundamental improvements in civil or political rights. Many topics are off-limits, such as the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Of course, discussion of ‘June 4 Movement’ remains a taboo. But that doesn’t mean the Party has not learnt some lessons from those events two decades past.

Over the years, amid overwhelming economic and social changes, it has navigated its way forward, proving to be more flexible and adaptive than ever before and very resilient.
The leaders make it clear to citizens that that it is futile to pursue political reforms. Political debates that once buzzed at university campus in the 80s and excited me and my fellow idealistic youth are nowhere to be found.

The country’s paternalistic rulers consciously channel people’s energy into making money. The Chinese people have indeed embraced the consumer culture whole-heartedly.

The authority has been crushing hard on potential threats: Falungong was outlawed and dissidents were thrown in jail. On the other hand, it has loosened certain controls and granted people more personal freedom. We can now choose our own life styles. Lipsticks, high heel shoes, the width of trousers, and one’s period, dating and sex life all fall into a place called ‘privacy’ which didn’t really existed before.

These improvements shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. Personal freedoms and the emergence of an urban middle class can potentially lead to democratic processes, as seen in other Asian countries.

However, China seems to be different. The urban professionals and the business people have been absorbed by the Party as a new “elite” class. The entrepreneurs are welcomed into the realm of politics, and Party members have flowed to the private sectors. The mixture of power and business makes it hard to distinguish private from state-owned in today’s hybrid economy.

Back in 1989, the educated urban elites enthusiastically took part in the democratic movement not only because they felt that economic change required political relaxation but also because they were bitter about their low salaries, their poor living conditions and lack of opportunities while the children of the high-ranking leaders made easy and vast profits. In a TV interview, when asked what they wanted, Wu’er Kaixi, one of the leading students leaders at the Tiananmen replied, somehow flippantly: “Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone.”

And it is not just Nike shoes or other designer goods that Chinese have gained. Many urban professionals are now proud owners of cars as well as their own homes. They find themselves the beneficiaries of the government’s strategic generosity policy, enjoying higher salary and other perks. Academics now can travel abroad freely. And most choose to return after their study abroad.

My sworn sister, who works for Nanjing government, has an enviable lifestyle, living in a flat she bought at a knock-down price, enjoying medical care and being driven around everywhere. She was sympathetic to us protesters back in 1989. But why would she want to protest against the government now?

Ever since the “May 4 Movement” in 1919, intellectuals and students have always been the frontrunners of mass demonstrations. In recent years, public protests have occurred all over the country like mushrooms after a spring rain, mostly by victims of land seizure or laid-off workers. With the economic downturn, 2009 will probably see more protests. But without the participants of intellectuals, such outbursts of discontentment are unlikely to grow into a national movement or cause large scale social turmoil. The urban elites are too content with their lives to upset anything, though they’d describe themselves as liberal and pro-democracy if asked.

As for today’s university students, they grew up in an affluent society. China’s growing wealth and rising position in the world have made them assertive and nationalistic. The outburst of nationalism in the wake of ‘Tibetan Unrest’ last March was just an example. At least for the time being, if the students go out to demonstrate, it will more likely be against some foreign power rather than its own government.

There’s still a cage in China. But for many, my fellow marchers from Nanjing included, the cage has grown so big that they can’t feel its limitations. The movement in 1989 didn’t reach its final goal – to bring democracy to China. But I wouldn’t describe it as a total failure. Without the effort by the hot-blooded students and all those who participated, the rulers might not have expanded the cage.

Lijia Zhang is a Beijing-based writer and the author of “Socialism is Great!” A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, which came out in May in paperback.

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China is reducing death sentences but problems remain

By Zhang Lijia

On July 1 this year, a masked man named Yang Jia forced his way into the Zhabei police bureau in Shanghai, armed with a knife. In a killing rampage, he left six policemen dead and four injured. Last Wednesday, the 28-year-old unemployed man from Beijing was executed by lethal injection after the Supreme People’s Court decided to uphold the death sentence.

There was little surprise for the fate of a cop-murderer in a country where more people are thought to be killed by the capital punishment than the rest of the world combined. Yet the accused seems to have become an unlikely hero. At the second hearing hundreds gathered outside a Shanghai court, some holding signs that read “Long live the hero with a knife!”

In October 2007, Yang was questioned by a policeman in Zhabei district for riding an unregistered bike and was later detained for six hours. Claiming to have been beaten and mistreated by the police, he filed multiple complaints, demanding a formal apology and 10,000 yuan compensation for psychological damage.

Ever since the bloody July day, the Yang Jia saga has weighed on the Internet. Now his execution has sparked more discussions. One man wrote that the whole Yang Jia fiasco was an insult to the Chinese people. Another blogger urged people to mourn him for three days by not eating meat. Yang’s humiliation at the hands of policemen and his effort in seeking justice resonated with a public sick of the security force abusing its power and easily getting away with it.

The death penalty has always been used by the Chinese Communists as a harsh tool to maintain social security and political order and to curb crime. Partly because top Chinese leaders feel uncomfortable with the accusation that China applies capital punishment too readily, partly because the international community has pressured China persistently, reforming capital punishment has been made a priority within the Party-run judiciary system. There’s been heated debate among academics as to how to reform. One of the suggestions is precisely to restrict the power of police, to the displeasure of hard-liners.

“Ever since January 2007 when the Supreme Court took back the sole authority in reviewing the death penalty, I have noticed a substantial decrease in issuing death sentences, especially cases of immediate execution,” said professor Chen Weidong, a top expert on death penalty from Renmin University. “Killing fewer and killing with extreme caution is also the guidance from central government.”

The precise number of executions is a state secret in China. Amnesty International reported that last year 1,860 were given death sentences and at least 470 were executed, a remarkable reduction from 2006’s 1010, or 2005’s 1770, but still 80 percent of the world total, though the real numbers are believed much higher.

Despite progress, there’s still widespread fear that death sentences are passed without proper procedure and innocent people are convicted.

“There will always be problems when cases are handled with this behind-the-curtains judiciary style,” said human rights lawyer Li Jinsong in Beijing. Li, a tiny, soft-spoken man, explained that he became outraged as he followed the unfolding drama: Yang’s mother inexplicably “disappeared.” Yet Xie Youming, one of two lawyers appointed by the court as Yang’s defense lawyer and also a counsel for Zhabei district government, a potential conflict of interest, was able to contact her.

“Yang killed people, which should be condemned. But he deserved a fair trial,” Li said. A well-known lawyer and a winner of the French government’s “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” award, he managed to persuade Yang’s father to retain him. Li went to Shanghai several times but failed to meet Yang Jia on the ground that Yang had made statement that he would only accept lawyers appointed by his mother. In the company’s website, Li has written a detailed account of his involvement and raised many questions: Why did the court try to cover up Yang’s real motives of crime? Did Yang have adequate legal presentation?

Li’s biggest question is Yang’s mental state. The lawyer was present at the second trial. (the first trial was closed) When asked if he regretted what he did, Yang replied flatly: “No!”

“See, Yang didn’t even try to rouse any sympathy,” Li said. “He struck me as mentally unsound.” But the evaluation of his mental competence was performed by a research institute under the Department of Justice, which lacks the judicial testimony qualifications required according to Chinese law.

There was another bizarre twist. Four months after her “disappearance,” Yang Jia’s mother Wang Jinmei was recently found at Ankang Mental Hospital in Beijing, Southern Metropolis News reported. No one seems to have any access to her. Li suspects that she was detained by Beijing authority in cooperation with Shanghai police because she is the only person who knows the whole story of Yang’s dealings with the police in the lead up to his brutal killing.

“The real problem with China’s legal system is that it’s under the Communist party’s control,” said Danny Gittings, an academic who specializes in the Chinese legal system at the University of Hong Kong. “The procuratorate, public security and judiciary are separate organizations but all under the control of the same arm of the Party – the political-legal committees which exist at every level of the state. And there’s still no sign of any willingness to address the fundamental problem – the lack of a legal system independent from the state.”

Yang Jia’s case also shows how little protecting mechanism there is for the convicted murderer in a legal system built for conviction.

Zhu Zhanping, a lawyer from Xian, strongly advocates for the abolishment of capital punishment altogether, and as soon as possible. “It’s too easy to convict an innocent person to death and too difficult to overturn once the verdict is passed,” he said.

In 2001, Zhu tried to defend another defendant facing death. Dong Wei was a young migrant who got into a fight at a cinema with a man who insulted his girlfriend. In his self-defense, Zhu believed, Dong accidentally killed that man. “Dong probably over-reacted a little but absolutely didn’t deserve to die.” Zhu discovered that the sole evidence the judge relied on was full of contradictions. Shortly before Dong’s scheduled execution, Zhu, in desperation, rushed to Beijing to turn to the Supreme Court’s for help – an unprecedented act. Having agreed there were too many unanswered questions, the Court ordered to halt the execution. But only for 130 days. In the end, the provincial Higher Court upheld the original verdict.

“Being a Chinese, I was brought up with the belief: to replace a teeth with a teeth and to repay blood with blood. After witnesssing the pain endured by Dong and his family, I changed my mind. No human should put another human to die. It won’t achieve anything.” Zhu has been writing articles advocating his belief. The vast majority of Chinese support capital punishment, not a surprising fact for a cultural tradition that places less importance on individual life than does the Western ‘humanist’ tradition.

In recent years, there have been a lot of reports of innocent people being sentenced to death. In one case, a farmer was given the death sentence for killing his mentally disturbed wife, who then after eleven years, returned home. Luckily, the farmer had not been executed yet.

Professor Chen Weidong doesn’t think it is the time to abolish capital punishment yet. “China is going through drastic social and economic changes, which has led to rising crimes, including violent and serious crimes. And there’s no religious or moral obligations. To abolish it now, the crime rate will soar and it may cause social instability.” What the experts are trying to do, Chen said, is to reduce the number of offences punishable by death, to reduce the number of death sentences, and to set up detailed and precise guidance for when a death sentence can be issued.

Currently China uses capital punishment for 68 crimes, including non-violent crimes such as tax evasion, drug trafficking and panda-poaching. Two days after Yang Jia’s execution, another high-profiled defendant, medical scientist Wo Weihan, was executed as well, triggering worldwide condemnation. Wo’s family wasn’t even given the opportunity to say goodbye.

Professor Chen, who has been following Yang Jia’s case, believes the overall handling was more or less fair.

The claim pains Yang Jia’s father, Yang Fusheng. “The trail wasn’t fair! I sort of expected this might happen but I still found it hard to accept,” he said in a telephone interview in Beijing. He doesn’t wish to meet any journalist, fearing being monitored. He described his son as quiet and law-abiding, living with his mother since the couple’s divorce. He said he will follow his son’s path – fighting for justice but without violence, and trying to bring every one of those who wronged his son to court. He previously tried to sue one of the court appointed lawyers.

“Now my only child is dead. I hope that people can learn lessons from it and improve the rule of law in China,” said Yang Fusheng.

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