Court Sentences Labor Lawyer and Advocate to Three Years' Imprisonment

March 31, 2011

A court in Xi'an city, Shaanxi province sentenced labor lawyer and advocate Zhao Dongmin to three years' imprisonment in October 2010 for "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order." Zhao had been detained since August 2009 prior to his sentencing. Authorities initially detained Zhao for his work in organizing and attempting to establish a labor organization that reportedly would monitor the restructuring of state-owned enterprises, seek to expose corruption, and advocate for fair compensation for workers.

The Xi'an Municipal New City District Court in Xi'an city, Shaanxi province, sentenced labor lawyer and advocate Zhao Dongmin to three years' imprisonment on October 19, 2010, for "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order," according to an October 27, 2010, statement released by Zhao's lawyer, Li Jinsong (see a February 25, 2007, New York Times profile on Li). Prior to his sentencing, Zhao had been in detention since August 19, 2009, when public security officers in Xi'an removed Zhao from his home and held him at the city's Xincheng district public security bureau (PSB) detention center for "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order," according to an August 27, 2009, Radio Free Asia article. The CECC Political Prisoner Database has more details on Zhao's case.

Background on Zhao's Case

In April 2009, Zhao organized workers at state-owned enterprises (SOE) in Xi'an to establish the Shaanxi Union Rights Defense Representative Congress (Congress), an organization that, according to the China Study Group, was "tasked with overseeing and monitoring SOE restructuring"; China Labor News Translations also described Zhao's organization as "critical of the Chinese [state-run] trade union's failure to represent the interests of state sector employees in restructured and/or privatized enterprises" (China Study Group, October 25, 2010; China Labor News Translations, January 10, 2011). For more information on these topics, see previous CECC analysis on (1) worker representation in China, as well as (2) a proposal in Guangdong province to grant workers the right to collective wage negotiations.

In his efforts to form the Congress, Zhao reportedly organized 20 labor activists to represent the interests of about 300 workers from SOEs in the area, according to a September 8, 2010 Radio Free Asia article. Authorities detained Zhao on August 19, 2009; earlier in the day, he reportedly had met with workers at three state-owned hotels in Xi'an that were in the process of being restructured―the Dongfang Grand Hotel, Xi'an Hotel, and Tangcheng Hotel―and offered the workers legal advice (, September 3, 2010). Based on the statement that Zhao's lawyer released, Zhao had "received an invitation to provide legal consultation to the staff" at the three hotels and had "received a warm welcome from everybody."

In August 2010, while Zhao was in detention, his wife, Deng Youxia, died after having suffered from Lupus, an autoimmune disease, according to the September 8, 2010 RFA report. According to both RFA and China Labor News Translations, authorities refused repeated requests by Zhao's relatives to permit him to visit his wife.

Reactions to Zhao's Detention and Sentencing

Fellow workers, academics, and labor advocates reacted to Zhao's detention and subsequent sentencing with skepticism and indignation. On October 21, 2010, 53 academics at universities in China and abroad signed a statement, titled "Statement From Academics at Home and Abroad: Zhao Dongmin is Not Guilty, but Rather Has Performed a Great Service!" calling Zhao's sentencing "a great mockery of the rule of law!" As Zhao was someone who reportedly "work[ed] within the official Party structures," the scholars stated that his arrest "aroused intense concern and extreme indignation from every society" (China Labor News Translations, January 10, 2011; Statement, October 21, 2010).

In the statement, the scholars also defended Zhao's actions by referencing China's Constitution and laws. They identified Zhao's work to defend the rights of workers, his "so-called crime," as something that was protected under Article 35 of the PRC Constitution, which guarantees the "freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." They also cited a legal textbook that pointed out that "if the masses are dissatisfied with a government department ... and they assemble together and go to demonstrate or present a petition at the relevant office ... these actions cannot be resolved by treating them as 'assembling a group to disrupt social order.'" The scholars stated that Zhao's action posed no harm to society, and that his "words and deeds protect the order of socialist society, and should be honored."

An October 20, 2010, China Worker article reported that a group of college and high school students had planned to join a "working class rally in support of Zhao Dongmin" on October 17, 2010, two days before Zhao's sentencing, but local authorities, reportedly "surprised" by the planned gathering, dispatched school officials to the rally location and brought the students back to their respective campuses.

Organization and Mobilization

Officials in Xi'an appeared particularly concerned with Zhao's ability to organize and mobilize large groups of workers at SOEs in the area, his efforts in creating organizations "that can link up a large geographical area," as well as the network of support that he enjoyed among workers, fellow advocates, and academics (see China Labor News Translations, January 10, 2011, for more details).

The statement that Zhao's attorney, Li Jinsong, released on October 27, 2010, also available in English, included the document that the Shaanxi Province Federation of Trade Unions filed with the Xi'an Municipal PSB detailing the potential danger that Zhao's work posed to "social stability." The document, titled "Shaanxi Province Federation of Trade Unions Reporting Documents," and included in its entirety in the statement by Li, under the title "Sunshine is the Best Disinfectant and Antiseptic," read:

Since April [2010], the core members of [Zhao Dongmin's group] have been using the internet from behind the scenes to incite people in society to take actions. From orchestrating behind the scenes they have emerged to center stage, and their activities have become more frequent and have increased in intensity to the extent of becoming a potentially influential force. They have incited people with different interests and grievances "to use struggle methods to form a grand alliance between the working classes from across different industries, regions, nationalities and ages, and an alliance of the peasantry." They aim to "use reforming enterprises' workers and staff congresses as an entry point to recapture from corrupt officials the right of workers and peasants to be masters of their own house." Zhao Dongmin and others have also openly stated that they would organize even larger "legal mass gatherings" during particular memorial dates and places. Their political plot is crystal clear.

[Zhao Dongmin and others] have conducted illegal activities in the name of "setting up the Preparatory Shaanxi Enterprises (and public services) Union Rights Defence Representative Congress" by collecting signatures, exchanging visits, distributing propaganda pamphlets, developing affiliated groups and branches, travelling to the capital to petition, posting distorted propaganda on the internet etc. Moreover they have schemed to organize workers who were laid off by enterprise restructuring, retirees and society's idlers to stage repeated mass visits to the provincial government and the Provincial Federation of Trade Unions. They have seriously disrupted the normal workings of party and government organs and have become a huge potential danger to social stability. They have made use of problems in society, including using old and frail enterprise retirees as cannon fodder to pressure the government. They have stirred up extreme delusions and fanned the flames in an extremely outrageous manner. If resolute measures are not adopted, they will grow into a threatening force and are very likely to wreak even greater havoc to social stability.

For more information on Zhao's case as well as those of other political prisoners in China, please visit the CECC Political Prisoner Database. Additional analysis on worker rights in China is available in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.