Public sentencing of protesting workers backfires in China

Beijing, March 26

Authorities in southwestern China had apparently thought their Cultural Revolution-style public sentencing of eight workers who took to the streets demanding back wages would stand as a warning to others at a time of a slowing economy and rising worker unrest.

Instead, the parading of the three women and five men through streets with their heads bowed and a guard on each arm has drawn fire and sympathy with the defendants, and calls for the deadbeat bosses to be publicly humiliated.

The incident in the Sichuan province city of Langzhong underscores concerns over the system’s inability to protect worker rights against politically connected employers and a government obsessed with social stability and terrified of rippling unrest — even at the expense of justice.

“Where is the dignity of the law? Where is the moral conscience on the earth?” said Sima Nan, an outspoken scholar and social critic.

The trial punished workers seeking their rights “but pardoned those who maliciously failed to pay up without even a word of moral condemnation,” Sima wrote on his public microblog.

The workers in Langzhong had congregated in front of the office of the debtor, a real estate developer, and later blocked the entrance to a local tourist attraction in August in hopes of putting enough pressure on the government to goad it into helping them.

When police came to clear the scene, the two sides clashed and arrests were made, according to official narratives.

Photos of the March 16 sentencing rally in Langzhong showed villagers were summoned to the spectacle to be warned not to repeat the same crime. They were lined in a public square behind placards identifying their individual villages, facing the defendants on the stage, each flanked by police guards, while rifle-toting sentries stood nearby. No defence lawyers were in sight.

All eight were declared guilty and sentenced to six to eight months in prison. The judge said they were “remorseful” and that the case served as a lesson that rights-defending acts should be rational.

“We hope the masses can take a lesson from this and must use rational and legal means in defending rights,” the judge was quoted as saying.

Initially posted to the website of the Langzhong City People’s Court, the pictures were then removed after public uproar, although news of the trial had also been broadcast on state television. Repeated calls to the court were unanswered.

Public condemnation came fast and fierce after major Internet portals picked up news of the Langzhong verdict show, with many calling it unlawful.