It was hoped that Zhang’s high-profile intervention in the Xiao case could help give a slither of hope to an impoverished man who has spent more than 80,000 yuan on medical expenses and has consistently had officialdom interfere in his case in order to help the local coal baron Liu Xing’an. Sure enough, on 26 June a representative from the Sichuan Federation of Trade Unions came to Xiao’s hospital bedside to give him a check of 2,000 yuan of condolence payments (慰问金) , which, lo and behold, happened to also make a nice photo-op. The trade union also claimed that since November of 2008 they had been following the Xiao Huazhong case, and that they had passed on the relevant information to higher-level leaders.
First, the move is all too typical of the ACFTU’s ad hoc approach. As CLB wrote in Protecting Workers’ Rights or Serving the Party: The way forward for China’s trade unions, “the ACFTU is now essentially a charitable organization, providing assistance only after workers’ rights have been violated.” Granted, handing out a check of 2,000 yuan and publicly coming out on Xiao’s side is certainly better than nothing. As the case goes to court, there’s probably now a greater chance of succeeding due to the publicity. However, the money barely puts a dent in the vast sums of money Xiao has spent on medical bills. Furthermore, had Zhang not intervened in this case and brought the national media spotlight to shine on Xiao’s desperate plight, one can safely bet that the provincial union would not have arraigned the photo-op.
Second, the root cause of pneumoconiosis problem remains unaddressed by the ACFTU: coal miners and other workers who may be vulnerable to contracting a fatal lung disease have no powerful institutional advocate on their side. Clearly, workers don’t have a real trade union to fight for better health and safety conditions in the place that it would count: at the enterprise level. Additionally, in Xiao’s case, the provincial union apparently became aware of his case in 2008 after his son petitioned to Beijing. The union has since paid attention to the Xiao Huazhong case (一直都在关注肖化中的事情). If this is indeed the case, until just recently, why hasn’t the union done anything substantial to assist Xiao in his legal defense?