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The Limits of ‘Defending Rights’

Posted by on 2009/09/01. Filed under Opinions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Sep 11, 2009 – 3:14:52 AM

Translation of a post on the main Chinese leftist website Utopia on the limitations of ‘rights defending‘ strategies at the sharp end of China’s class war – the case of Liu Hanhuang, a young worker who lost his right hand in an industrial accident and having failed to get the compensation due via legal channels, ended up killing two of his bosses.

Liu Hanhuang – what else could he have done bar kill them?

Hearing about the Liu Hanhuang affair was enough to make your heart ache and set you weeping. Whatever other people might say, we remain steadfast in the belief that Liu Hanhuang deserves not the slightest condemnation. All you hypocritical ‘gentlemen scholars’ with their ‘While we have every sympathy, he shouldn’t have killed people’, it’s obviously not entered your heads that aside from killing people, what could Liu have done?

Not so long back, as time and again instances of infringement on the rights of the socially marginalized occurred, these elite types and experts would get up on their hind legs and gazing down from their lofty height patiently explain in sincere and grandmotherly tones to the ‘ignorant’ socially excluded: You need a rights-defending consciousness, you have to know how to protect your rights and interests in law. You refined gentlemen, you elite types fat on the contributions of the people, how come you don’t go and educate the [the government]*. Otherwise why are the people spending their money to have a [government]? The [government] can’t protect people’s legitimate rights and interests but you want people to look out for themselves – well what are they bothering to support a [government] for then? But the Chinese people are too good-hearted, they haven’t turned around and asked you this but instead they’ve listened to you to the point that over the past few years ‘rights defending’ has become a phrase on everyone’s lips. It’s got to the point where people are acting like lawyers themselves, looking up this statute, studying the law…with no help and great difficulty taking up the weapon of the law to defend their rights, and then…and then, does it get them any results?

In an age where more than ever we’re aware of the law (for which we must thank those elite types and experts) Li Hanhuang placed his hopes for defending his rights in the lawyers. He hired a lawyer and took his case to court and the court gave a judgement, that the capitalist should pay him compensation of CNY170,000. But did getting this judgement make any odds? Was Liu with a copy of this judgement in hand going to pose any threat to the capitalists? Did they not stick to their own standards for compensation; did they not continue to refuse to pay out? Having the judgement did nothing to raise Liu’s confidence, he still had to beg the capitalist for his compensation like he was asking a favour of his grandparents. But are capitalists going to melt their hearts at a bit of pleading? Are they going to feel sorry for your loss of livelihood? All they’re going to say is ‘What gives you the right to talk to me?’ This is not a road that going to take you anywhere, seems like when the elite types were advising the workers they forgot to give the capitalists any advice on applying ‘universal values’. While they were advising the workers to use the law they forgot to advise the capitalists to learn how to respect the law. In the end all the advice from the elite was only any use talking to the poor, when it came to the elite it was as much use as a fart. And when Liu Hanhuang was left with no way to pursue his claim, the elite fell silent. Isn’t that always how things have been?…

As well as going down this elite-sanctioned route of legal process, Liu also tried that ‘home-made’ remedy of the helpless that has encompassed the blood and tears of so many workers – threatening to jump to his death if not paid what he was owed. At eight in the morning on the 13th of June the factory management sent security guards over to gather up Liu’s stuff and chuck it out the factory gate. Liu went to see management to argue his case but they ignored him. Pushed to the end of his tether Liu went up to the fifth floor of the dormitory preparing to jump off the building. He was pulled back by the fire brigade and so didn’t go through with it…Who’d do something like this unless they’d been driven to the very end of their tether? But even with things come to this pass, the capitalists didn’t budge an inch. (Liu Hanhuang, by contrast, gave ground time and again, ultimately asking for only CNY110,000 of the CNY170,000 the court had awarded him). Against the capitalists who’d seen it all before, this was another useless way of going about things.

At this point, Liu Hanhuang was a man all alone a long way from home and with his right arm crippled, no job and nowhere to stay. And as a man, having put up with the obstructionism and disdain of the Zhanming factory management as he tried to claim his compensation, what was he left with other than violence as a way of protecting his rights? Surely he shouldn’t have been expected to just weakly swallow it? If he had just put up with it we’d have felt sorrow on his behalf, but he didn’t just take it, he fought back, and we applaud him. Because what I see in this is that being a man in China hasn’t disappeared altogether, there are still those with a man’s courage and self-respect, still those who’ll fight and struggle despite the heavy oppression, albeit a hopeless struggle with no aid. The truth is that today when the system is more fully established than ever, people are more tame and obedient than ever…

Having written the above, I read a news item with the title: ‘Liu Hanhuang repents his crime; kneels four times in court and asks to be given the death penalty’. I could only feel a nameless sorrow that Liu Hanhuang has repented. Who really should be showing repentance here? As the case comes to its final act, we’re still left confused. Liu said, ‘I’d like the court to sentence me to death, it would be a release for me.’ In the end, our brother Liu Hanhuang could only look to death for release. And all those other people just like him, how are they going to find release?

* In the original this and the subsequent places I’ve translated as ‘the government’ were written as XX, a tactic to avoid triggering automatic Internet censoring software.

China-based Western blogger Husunzi touched on this case in his post ‘murder as weapon of the weak in postsocialist china‘, where he notes that the threat of violence has got the goods in at least one dispute:

Chen Fayuan, director of the Chengdu Municipal Supply & Marketing Cooperative [Office?], went behind the Guixi workers’ backs and sold the co-op’s store for over 220 million yuan (32 million USD).2 The workers wrote letters asking for help from various state organs, including the “National General Cooperative [Office?],” but no one was willing to help. So finally the workers decided on direct action. They put a padlock on the store so Chen or the new owners (?) couldn’t get in, and apparently they stood guard outside. The photo shows a sign they carried that reads “a blood-letting incident against corruption will soon take place”

Here the implied threat achieves the desired effect. The wider point Husunzi makes in his post as regards the lack of practical support yet being arranged online, as opposed to florid rhetoric, is the heart of the matter here.

Much-vaunted Web 2.0 networking has created space for organizing previously unavailable in China but still lags a long way behind the tried and tested bonds of shared community and work-place when it comes to generating effective action. It does however provide an outlet for popular opinion that is broadly sympathetic to workers driven to violent action like Liu – I didn’t translate parts of the article above that refer to Deng Yujiao, who received clemency on the back of widespread public sympathy, mostly expressed on the Internet.

The article translated here levels some pertinent criticisms at the sometimes mealy-mouthed nature and limited utility of the ‘rights defending’ movement but it would be unfair to tar it all with this brush. I’ve met activists down in Dongguan making the best use of the law as it stands to get compensation for injured and sacked workers and they were neither elitists nor under any illusions about the limits of what they could achieve. And clearly isolated acts of violence are only going to end up with more workers in prison or executed, despite the sympathy they often evoke.

With various of China’s Internet left expecting open class war from the workers in the year to come – having endured years of the same from capital and the state – it remains to be seen whether strong words and widespread sympathy expressed online will amount to much when push comes to shove.

And having just belittled Internet activism, there’s an online petition calling for a reduced sentence for Liu Hanhuang for those who care to sign.

Full Chinese report: http://www.wyzxsx.com/Article/Class22/200909/103382.html

Translation: http://meanwhileatthebar.org/blog/?p=286

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