China labor activist free after seven years in jail
Last updated 3-19-09 at 9:47 a.m.
By Alexa Olesen
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — A labor leader who led some of the largest protests in communist Chinese history was released from jail this week after serving a seven-year sentence. He said he has no regrets about the activism that led to his arrest.
Yao Fuxin, 59, was released March 16 from Lingyuan No. 2 Prison in Liaoning, a province in China’s industrial northeast, after serving for subversion of state power.
Yao and another laid-off factory worker, Xiao Yunliang, were arrested in 2002 after tens of thousands of fired workers demanded better benefits from bankrupt state-owned factories in protests in Liaoyang, an industrial base in Liaoning.
They were among the largest protests reported since China’s 1949 communist revolution.
“There’s nothing wrong in what I did,” Yao said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “I was just exercising my rights, which are given by the constitution. What did I do wrong as a citizen? It was worth it. I feel no regret at all.”
State media said after their trial that the men were convicted of subversion for trying to set up a Liaoyang branch of the would-be opposition China Democratic Party that hoped to challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.
The China Democratic Party was suppressed, and its leaders were arrested soon after they announced its formation in 1998. Relatives of Xiao and Yao have denied they had tried to set up a party branch and said they had only passing contact with the group.
Yao said March 17 he had connections with the group but declined to elaborate. He insisted he was not guilty of subversion.
“What I did was protect the interests of the country and the interests of the people, the law-given rights and interests of the workers,” Yao said. “I had a responsibility to do it. If I didn’t, who was going to?”
Xiao was freed in 2006, 24 days before serving his full four-year prison sentence.
Yao confirmed reports by human rights groups that he had suffered abuse in prison and said he planned to take legal action against prison authorities.
“In the coldest weather, they put me under the window, which they left open,” he said. “My legs were twitching. My lower body was numb because it was so cold.”
The European Union had pressed for Yao’s early release, citing concerns about his treatment.
Ten years ago, protests by laid-off workers were relatively common amid mass layoffs and closures of state industries across China. Rising unemployment is again a major concern of the government as a drop in worldwide demand for Chinese products has forced thousands of factories to close. (end)