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Guangdong tells prosecutors to go easy on bosses who commit “ordinary” crimes

In a clear sign that the authorities are willing to relax their enforcement of China’s labour laws during the economic crisis, the Guangdong provincial procuratorate has instructed its officers not to arrest or detain factory bosses and other senior staff suspected of white collar crime. However, workers whose protests are deemed to jeopardize factory production will be prosecuted.

The move comes less than a month after senior labour officials in the province sought to make it a crime for bosses to close their factories and flee without paying workers’ wages. Provincial officials said in December that they planed to submit a proposal for a new criminal law to deter runaway bosses at this year’s National People’s Congress, but it now seems that even if the law is approved, prosecutors will be unwilling to enforce it.

The Guangzhou Daily reported on 7 January that the Guangdong procuratorate had issued an Opinion stressing that, during the current economic difficulties, its officers should exercise caution in prosecuting white-collar criminals, and endeavor to ensure that normal enterprise production and development is guaranteed.

To this end, the Opinion states that prosecutors may choose not to arrest factory owners, managers and key technical staff accused of crimes such as embezzlement and corruption. Moreover, they should clearly establish the facts before taking action to freeze or close bank accounts, disrupt enterprise logistics or issue statements that might blacken the name of the enterprise. Neither should prosecutors take action that might jeopardize an enterprise’s negotiations on major projects or contracts.

Even more worrying for workers’ rights, the Opinion stresses that prosecutors should crackdown on any crimes that harm the legitimate interests of enterprises or jeopardize production. They should “handle appropriately and according to law (civil turned criminal) cases in which economic disputes trigger violent incidents, such as forced debt recovery, kidnapping, looting etc, and effectively safeguard social order and safety,” the Guangzhou Daily said.

The implication for workers’ taking action to defend their legitimate rights is clear, any strike or protest demanding wages in arrears, social security and pension benefits etc, that escalates into violence will be suppressed and the perpetrators prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

However, by making it is easier for bosses to get away with so-called “ordinary” crimes, it is more and more likely that workers will be forced into extreme measures in defense of their rights. This is exactly what happened during the mass sell-off of state-owned enterprises a decade earlier when unchecked white-collar crime and corruption led to widespread protests across China. For more details see the research report published by CLB and Rights and Democracy: No Way Out: Worker Activism in China’s State-Owned Enterprise Reforms.

By once again putting economic development ahead of the rule of law, the Guangdong authorities are not only eroding workers’ rights, they risk creating even greater social unrest.