Explication of a scene at a labor rally

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The following photograph accompanied this article:

"China's Student Activists Cast Rare Light on Brewing Labor Unrest", U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 14, 2018)

People hold banners at a demonstration in support of factory workers of Jasic Technology, outside Yanziling police station in Pingshan district, Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Sue-Lin Wong

Transcription and translation:

On the t-shirts:  tuánjié jiùshì lìliàng 团结就是力量 ("Unity is strength")

Front banner:  gōngrén wú zuì!   zǔjiàn gōnghuì wú zuì 工人无罪!   组建工会无罪 ("the workers have not committed a crime!   it is not a crime to organize a labor union")

Banner in back:  yánchéng dǎ rén hēijǐng 严惩打人黑警 ("severely punish the black police who beat people")

It's interesting that not everyone admits to knowing what hēijǐng 黑警 ("black police") are.  One respondent politely put it this way:  "I guess these are the policemen whose information can't be found through formal inquiry to the government."

Another correspondent, who is a Cantonese speaker, describes the "black police" thus:  "In Cantonese, 黑警 means the policemen who accept bribes and betray their responsibility. Here, I think it refers to those policemen who accept bribes from Jasic Technology and indiscriminately beat those workers."

Bear in mind that Shenzhen, where the beatings, detentions, and demonstrations took place, is right next to Hong Kong.  People in Hong Kong are very much aware of who the "black police" are.  If you mention dǎ rén hēijǐng 打人黑警 ("black police who beat people") in Hong Kong, it especially calls to mind the thugs and goons who beat anti-communist demonstrators in the latter part of 2014).  Moreover, the expression "hēijǐng 黑警" ("black police") is linked to hēishèhuì 黑社会 ("black society", i.e., "the underworld").

As for the semiotics of the people holding portraits of Chairman Mao, in my estimation it indicates that they uphold the CCP and also may indirectly indicate that they are opposed to the new Chairman for Life, Xi Jinping, whose portraits have been very much in evidence in recent months.  They believe that Mao cared for the workers and peasants, but Xi is not so much interested in them.  Anyway, it's like a kind of protection or insurance for them despite their protesting.  That is to say, by holding portraits of Mao, they are proclaiming that they are demonstrating within the framework of the CCP.


  1. John Rohsenow said,

    August 18, 2018 @ 11:40 am

    As I remember it, it was only when the students started recruiting workers from nearby factories to join them in TAM Square that the authorities decided to take their drastic action. My reaction at the time: who really gives a damn about a bunch of intellectuals and artists? But when they
    even START to think about organizing support from the WORKERS, then…

  2. Laura Morland said,

    August 19, 2018 @ 3:09 am

    Thank you so much for explaining "the semiotics of the people holding portraits of Chairman Mao." I clicked through to this post hoping you would do just that.

  3. Chris C. said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 4:46 pm

    Under Xi, is it safe to publicly use Mao's image?

  4. Chris C. said,

    August 20, 2018 @ 4:49 pm

    That wasn't a very clear question, and I wish we could edit comments here.

    What I mean to ask is whether the semiotics of Mao's image as you explain them here will suffice, or whether Xi would take this kind of thing as a personal challenge to his authority and react accordingly?

  5. Eidolon said,

    August 24, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

    No, he wouldn't dare, because Mao is still regarded as the patron saint of the Communist Party, and is consistently taught and held up as a symbol of the party's legitimacy.

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