(New York) Human Rights Watch today released details of a case involving a labor organizer in Henan Province that demonstrate China's continued restrictions on basic worker rights in China.

Rights violations in China, including labor rights abuses, are likely to be the subject of renewed international attention at the annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, scheduled to open March 19 in Geneva. Just two weeks ago, on February 28, 2001, China ratified the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, a major human rights treaty, but Beijing has indicated that key labor rights provisions in the treaty would be excluded.

Li Jiaqing, a worker in Henan province, is currently awaiting a verdict on charges of "gathering a crowd to disrupt social order," a crime punishable with imprisonment of three to seven years under Article 290 (1) of the Chinese Criminal Code. He was tried for his role in a labor protest that led to the occupation of a state-run paper mill in June 2000.

"China says it respects economic rights, but the vulnerability of its workers is actually increasing, particularly in state-run enterprises," said Jan van der Made, Hong Kong-based China researcher at Human Rights Watch. "They're caught in a squeeze, facing massive plant closures and layoffs. Workers lack the basic means to protest, such as the right to organize and collectively express their grievances."

While Human Rights Watch recognizes that the Chinese government may legitimately enforce laws against protesters who unlawfully occupy factory premises, it believes that the Li Jiaqing case involves broader issues of freedom of association and the protection of worker rights. The Chinese government prosecuted Li Jiaqing partly on the basis that he had attempted to organize a "workers' congress," even though such congresses are expressly allowed for under Chinese law governing state-run enterprises.

The Zhengzhou Paper Mill where Li worked is a state-owned factory. It stopped production in 1995 and was idle for two years until it merged with a local enterprise, the Fenghua company. At the time of the merger, Fenghua promised to pay the mill workers' basic living expenses but instead, according to workers, started to siphon off the assets of the old paper factory.

On October 28, 1999, Li Jiaqing organized a workers' congress at the mill. Although Chinese law prohibits free trade unions, it does allow, on paper, site-specific "staff and workers' representative congresses" at state-run enterprises. Chapter 5, Article 51 of the 1988 State-Owned Enterprise Law and Article 30 of the 1992 Trade Union Law state that "The workers' representative congress is the basic form of enterprise democratic management."

In the Zhengzhou Paper Mill case, the workers' congress first democratically elected a slate of leaders. The leaders, including Li Jiaqing, then issued a proclamation seeking to nullify the merger and protect workers' basic rights. In January 2000, the workers circulated an eight-point petition to the City Government and the Bureau of Light Industry demanding safeguards for their factories' assets.

After the petition met with no response, more than a hundred workers occupied the factory starting in June 2000 to protest the merger. On August 7, police came to Li Jiaqing's house and detained him as the suspected ringleader. The next day, some 500 public security personnel and armed police forced their way into the factory and detained twenty workers. All were released after a day's questioning except for Li Guangquan, a fifty-two-year old worker. Li Guangquan was charged with "obstructing traffic" and imprisoned for four months. He was released in January. Li Jiaqing has remained behind bars since August 7.

Li Jiaqing's trial was held at the Zhengzhou Municipal Court on February 13, 2001 as some 200 workers protested outside the courthouse demanding his release. His wife was allowed to be present at the trial, and it was the first time since police detained him that she had been able to see him. The trial was adjourned and Li Jiaqing remains in the Zhengzhou No. 2 Detention Center awaiting the verdict.

Two weeks after the trial, on February 28, 2001, China ratified the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Authorities have since indicated that they will not give full effect to workers' rights protections included in the treaty, including provisions in Article 8 of the treaty guaranteeing workers' rights to form and join unions of their choosing, and will continue to apply existing Chinese labor law. Under existing law, independent labor unions are outlawed and all workers seeking to organize must affiliate with a state-controlled labor federation.

Human Rights Watch has called upon the Chinese government to ratify the core conventions of the International Labor Organization without delay. China is a member of the ILO, which has a representative in Beijing. But to date, it has not ratified the Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, and the Convention on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining. As a member of the ILO, China is obliged to respect the right of free association even if it has not ratified the relevant convention.