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BEIJING – 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 better known for his unapologetic defense of China's Marxist political system.
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.
Wage arrears are a major problem for Chinese laborers, especially migrants working on casual terms in the construction industry. Wages are supposed to be paid before workers travel home the month before the Lunar New Year holiday, but many contractors still fail to do so.
Despite Beijing's routine demands that workers be paid in full and on time, the problem persists, largely because local officials either don't care or are in cahoots with employers. Their first response after defusing the initial confrontation is almost always to suppress, rather than get to the root of the conflict, often employing vague laws against obstructing traffic or disturbing public order.
"It's not an insolvable issue, but when government officials are not elected, it's not in their interest to find a solution," said Wang Jiangsong, a Beijing-based scholar of labor issues.
In some cases, workers have turned to extreme measures to draw attention to the plight, including blocking roads and railways, staging sit-ins atop billboards and bridges and even attacking authorities or fellow citizens.
In one particularly gruesome case, construction worker Ma Yongping set fire to two plastic barrels of gasoline on a bus in northwestern China in January, killing 17 people. According to local media, a futile two-year effort to collect unpaid wages had destroyed Ma's marriage. An earlier attempt to draw attention to his situation by scaling a telecommunications tower and dousing himself with gasoline resulted in a 10-day jail sentence on a charge of acting maliciously.
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 defense 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. "Any extreme acts will be punished by law."
Initially posted to the website of the Langzhong City People's Court, the pictures were then removed after the public uproar, although news of the trial had also been broadcast on state television. Repeated calls to the court were unanswered.
China, which has recast itself as a nation ruled by laws, has in recent years strongly discouraged such public rallies as unwelcome reminders of the lawless mob violence of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the legal system was largely supplanted by fanatical loyalty to revolutionary leader Mao Zedong.
Yet the authorities seem to have no unified plan with how to deal with worker protests over unpaid wages or mass layoffs, which, along with pollution and official corruption, are the major sources of public discontent. That problem will only get more acute with growing unemployment in the traditional manufacturing sector, an economy growing at its slowest pace in 25 years and 1.8 million upcoming layoffs in the coal and steel sectors — a tip of the iceberg of the cost of reforming the bloated state sector.
Thousands of mining workers in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang took to the streets earlier this month after the governor claimed none of them were owed back pay. The governor later admitted he was wrong.
Public condemnation came fast and fierce after major Internet portals picked up news of the Langzhong verdict show, with many calling it humiliating and unlawful. However, there is no report that any local officials have been disciplined.
"The court has gone after the most vulnerable group of people and with a clear intention to deter other workers from collecting their wages," said Wang, the labor scholar.
He said that failing to pay wages is one of the worst deeds. "When the government chooses to side with the worst behavior, it is not only illegal but also immoral and, inevitably, it angers everyone."